The History of the Jingle Dress Dance

Published on Aug 12, 2020

Jennifer Young Bear In A Jingle Dress

By: Harper Estey

Throughout Indian Country, women and girls don their Jingle Dresses and mesmerize powwows as they move lightly, kicking out their heels and bouncing to the drumbeat. The dresses – also known as Prayer Dresses – are lined with rows and rows of metal cones, or ziibaaska’iganan, traditionally made from rolled up snuff can lids and hung from the dress. The cones create another melody as the dancers move, mimicking the sound of falling rain and bringing a sense of peace to the whole endeavor.

The dance itself began just over a century ago when the granddaughter of an Ojibwe medicine man fell sick. As the man slept he dreamt, over and over, of four women as his spirit guides wearing Jingle Dresses and dancing. The women taught the man how to make the dress, what songs to play, and how to perform the dance. The spirits told him that making the dress and performing the dance would make his granddaughter well.

When the man awoke he set out and made the dress, and once completed the tribe gathered to watch the ill girl dance. At first, she was too weak and had to be supported and carried by the tribe. Slowly she gained her strength and performed the dance on her own, cured of her sickness.

The young girl was likely infected with the flu pandemic of 1918 which hit Native communities around the Great Lakes hard. This was closely followed by a ban on ritual dancing on reservations, yet despite this the Jingle Dress dance spread from the Ojibwe people, first to the Lakota and then on to the rest of Indian Country.

Today the Jingle Dress Dance is performed at powwows across the country, with the women and girls often dancing with feather fans, eagle feather plumes, or eagle feathers in their hair. As the dress and dance have spread to tribes from coast to coast it’s grown to represent both healing and pride, a spiritual form of wellness and celebration that links us to our past and helps us move forward with strength and hope.

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