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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

The jingle dress celebrates a century of empowerment

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 5, 2019

In 1918-1919, when a global influenza pandemic was killing millions worldwide, a recurring dream about a special dress and dance came to a man seeking to heal his very sick daughter

As powwow season heats up across Turtle Island, one healing dance always mesmerizes thanks to its dancers’ graceful movements and their beautiful jingling dresses. A century since first appearing to an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) man in a vision, the jingle dress dance has become more popular and culturally significant than ever.

In 1918-1919, when a global influenza pandemic was killing millions worldwide, a recurring dream about a special dress and dance came to a man seeking to heal his very sick daughter. After the dress was made and put on the girl, she was to dance through four songs. At first, she had to be carried around the circle but by the fourth attempt she was dancing on her own.

While some oral histories suggest the first jingle dress appeared in Minnesota, Ojibwe Elder Evelyn Thom says the young girl in the story was Maggie White from the Whitefish Ojibwe Nation in northern Ontario. White would teach other girls how to make the dresses using tobacco tin lids and formed the first Jingle Dress Dance Society.

As this healing tradition emerged at the very time that Indigenous music and dance was expressly forbidden, it became an act of anti-colonial resistance and female empowerment. The dance was gradually adopted by other Indigenous communities because of its connection to prayer and healing, particularly as the powwow circuit expanded following changes to the Indian Act in 1951.

“Women applied the ceremony like a salve to fresh wounds,” explained Ojibwe scholar Brenda J. Child in her book My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks. “They danced at tribal gatherings large and intimate, spreading a new tradition while participating in innovative rituals of healing. Special healing songs are associated with the jingle dress, and both songs and dresses possess a strong therapeutic value.”

Last month, a vibrant illustration of a jingle dress was featured on Google’s homepage, courtesy of Canadian Ojibwe artist Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley. He was happy to showcase “strong and resilient” Anishinaabe women in the Google Doodle, which earned him an “unbelievable” response.

“It’s important for our youth to develop an appreciation for our culture,” Pawis-Steckley said. “That’s what I want to do with my artwork – help youth develop an interest for our stories and teachings. Once we can heal ourselves from the inside we can do a lot of great things.”

Earlier this year, Wolastoqew artist Emma Hassencahl-Perley unveiled a jingle dress at a Fredericton gallery adorned with shreds of the Indian Act to honour the women from her community who fought to preserve their culture.

In 2017, Tia Wood of Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Alberta called for dancers at the Gathering of Nations Powwow to wear red jingle dresses in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

With similar intentions, Mi’kmaq dancer and fashion designer Cheyenne Isaac began creating a glittery red dress with hundreds of golden jingle cones.

“I decided to pull up the MMIWG Inquiry and select names from it,” Isaac told the Nation. “As I did that, I attached each cone for that person or their family. It was really powerful for me to do that, also very emotional. I wore that dress for one year before I shared my story with anyone.”

Growing up at Listuguj First Nation, Isaac has danced jingle since she could walk, learning the steps from her father, himself a champion dancer. In the original dance, nimble footwork is kept close to the ground with no twirling, foot crossing or backing up. At traditional powwows, there are sometimes hundreds of women jingle dancing in unison with low and dignified steps, creating a beautiful sound that has been compared to thousands of raindrops on a tin roof.

Isaac currently makes custom jingle dresses and other Indigenous regalia as a side job, keeping track of powwow fashion trends that continually evolve as different Nations integrate their own traditional designs.

“I put a lot of good thoughts and prayers into those dresses as I make them,” she said. “What really keeps me dancing jingle is that aspect of prayer and responsibility. People at powwows approach me and offer tobacco to dance for their sick or loved ones.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.