Dancing for the people (virtually)

Bad River jingle dress healing. photo by Lynn Maday Bigboy

Mary Annette Pember

Zibaaska’iganagooday is the exploding sound in the Ojibwe language and it has a long history of healing

Community song and dance have always been a part of healing and prayer for Native people. In this time of social distancing, however, people are putting a digital spin on these healing traditions. People all over Indian Country are organizing virtual powwows and other social dances via social media as a means to offer hope and spiritual support during the Covid19 pandemic.

There is a social distance powwow this weekend on Facebook in which dancers, singers and venders can gather safely from their homes. Jingle dress dancers on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin organized a social distance dance in the tribe’s parking lot Saturday afternoon. Dancers observed social distancing as community members watched the event from their cars.

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Bad River casino parking lot healing jingle dress dance. Photo by Lynn Maday Bigboy

“Jingle dresses are medicine dresses,” said Jody Bigboy, Bad River tribal judge.

“I put a post on our community Facebook page asking if folks wanted to come out and dance for the people.”

“Over 30 dancers signed up,” she said.

Although women from other tribes have also embraced the jingle dress and its healing dance, its origins are based in Ojibwe country.

The jingle dress or zibaaska’iganagooday, dress of exploding sound in the Ojibwe language has a long history of healing.

Although, some traditional stories and teachings about the origin and practices of jingle dress dancing may vary among communities, the story focuses on a time of sickness about a century ago.

According to teachings, passed down through oral history, a dream came to an Ojibwe father whose daughter was very ill. In his dream, the father saw a woman dancing in spring-like steps but always keeping one of her feet on the ground. The dancer wore a dress covered in bits of metal that created explosive sounds.

He built the dress as instructed in the dream. His daughter put on the dress and began to dance like the woman in her father’s dream. As she danced, she began to feel better, eventually making a recovery.

Soon, the dress and dance gained a reputation for healing and spread to communities throughout Ojibwe country, a region including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, Canada.

Many people speculate that the dance began during the 1918-20 Spanish Flu or H1N1 virus pandemic. According to the Center for Disease Control, at least 50 million people died worldwide from the disease.

“Indigenous people all over the world were especially vulnerable; some were not just decimated but sometimes annihilated,” according to a recent article in Indian Country Today by Joaqlin Estus.

(See related: Indian Country's COVOID-19 Syllabus ) 

Building a jingle dress is hard work; each part of the process requires special attention to tradition and spirituality. Maintaining and dancing the dress is a serious responsibility; the spirit of the jingle dress reflects women’s healing power over life. Therefore dancers are instructed to conduct themselves with dignity and humility, always aware of this power.

Despite the cold and wind, several people participated in the dance. Lynn Maday Bigboy contributed video of the dance to Indian Country Today. Joe Bates shared an aerial view from his drone.

“The tribe loaned us some orange safety cones to mark out our dance circle,” Bigboy said.

“Organizing the dance was super organic; it offered a good way to offer healing to our community and the world,” Maday Bigboy, Bad River Youth Service Coordinator said.

The sound of the dresses is very calming according to Bigboy.

“When the jingles start singing, we believe they help take our prayers and songs up to the Creator,” she said.

“Our traditions are some of the most powerful medicines we have. The dance can offer hope and healing for those who need it.” 

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Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, will soon join Indian Country Today as a national correspondent.

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