The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Twin Cities PBS have produced a remarkable 30-minute video about the creation of the Jingle Dress pow wow dance, entitled “The Jingle Dress Tradition,” which is available online.
The video opens with a reenactment, filmed in sepia-tones and narrated in Ojibwe by “Amik” Larry Smallwood, an elder and cultural consultant, with English subtitles, of the the Mille Lacs version of the origin of the jingle dance.
“I dance jingle because I like the way I move. I like the way it sounds. It makes me feel good and empowers me,” says another opening narrator, “You’re supposed to make the sound of rain when you dance. It’s also a healing dress.”
The first time the jingle dress was danced, during a ceremony, tradition says, the sound of the jingles cured a small girl who was able to rise from her sickbed and eventually join in with the dancers. Ever since, the dress has been known as having healing qualities.
A man dreamed of the dancers, the colors of their dresses and the dance. He demonstrated the steps for his wife, who learned them and then got together with other women to sew the dresses as he had described them.
Brenda Child, professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, explains in the film that historical photos show the dance appearing around the Mille Lacs region in Central Minnesota around 1920, the same time period as the end of World War I and the middle of the influenza pandemic that infected 500 million people worldwide and killed almost a fifth of that number.
Other Ojibwe people have similar stories, says Child in the film. A new women’s tradition of dance developed at the same time in many places when the federal government was trying to suppress Indian dance and religion across the U.S. In fact, the “Dance Order” from the Indian Office in 1921 expressly forbade religious music and dance. New dances, prior to this time localized, may have spread as a way to cope with the order.
According to the film’s narrators, who are themselves dancers and dressmakers, the Jingle Dress dance has very specific characteristics. In the traditional version, dancers move forward and clockwise. They do not go backward or spin.
“The ladies always behaved themselves in a really proper manner,” says Smallwood, referring to statements his late grandmother, Lucy Clark Mudway, made. “They danced; they had pride. They were never dancing backwards or spinning around; it was just straight.” A modern style of Jingle Dress dance involves more varied movement and a more elaborate, multi-colored dress.
For traditional dancers, the dress is one of four colors—red, blue, yellow or green. Historically the cones were made from chewing tobacco lids or sometimes of copper, says Patty Sam, an elder and jingle dressmaker. Adrienne Benjamin, a dressmaker and dancer, says sometimes beer cans were used and the dressmakers would turn them so that the printing showed on the outside of the cone for its decorative effect. Cones are also now available commercially.
Depending what material the cones are made of, each dress sounds different, says Sam. The number of cones on the dress is also up to the dancer, and in the film girls’ dresses have fewer cones.
Child says, “For Ojibwe people, spiritual power moves through air and you can imagine how important the jingles are on a jingle dress. When you have dozens and sometimes even hundreds of Ojibwe women dancing together the sound is really very beautiful and it’s very powerful and I think anyone who witnesses a Grand Entry can feel that energy.”
Adult dancers are sometimes accompanied by little girls. Ah-Nung Matrious, a dancer, says, “I like watching the little girls. It shows we’re doing our job as adults. Our number one job is to pass on our teachings to our children and when those little girls are dancing that just goes to show that we are doing our job. We are taking care of our children, we’re taking care of our future.”
ValaReya Diane Leecy offers this summation of what the Jingle Dress dance is: “I love dancing jingle dress. I love the sound. I’m Native American. I’m proud. That’s what we do. We dance.”
The Jingle Dress dancers featured in the film are Adrienne Benjamin, Darcie Big Bear, Chastity Gahbow, ValaReya Diane Leecy, Ah-Nung Matrious, Karla Downwind Smallwood and Amanda Spears. Girl dancers are Kaylise Anderson-Jackson, DeMaya Janine Beaulieu and Nyomi Rose Downwind. The drum group is Little Otter Drum Group with Pete Gahbow, Eric Gahbow, Gabe Gahbow and Loren LeDoux.