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June 15, 2019

Award-winning Ojibwe Scholar Brenda J. Child Details the History and Significance of the Jingle Dress Dance–Featured as Today’s Google Doodle!

Filed under: Authors, Native American — Alison Aten @ 9:49 am

Powwow season is in full swing. Did you know that one of the most popular traditional dances was inspired by a dream given to the Ojibwe people during a global health crisis?

One hundred years ago in 1918-1919 when the global influenza pandemic killed millions worldwide, including thousands of Native Americans, a revolutionary new tradition of healing emerged in Ojibwe communities in North America: the jingle dress dance. Oral histories vary on where exactly the jingle dress first appeared, but the Mille Lacs community in Minnesota was a center of activity.

Ojibwe scholar Professor Brenda J. Child of the University of Minnesota recounts the origin story of the jingle dress dance and the significance of the dance as a powerful healing tradition and act of anti-colonialist resistance and female empowerment in her award-winning book, My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation (MNHS Press).

In the book she recounts:

“An Ojibwe girl became very sick. She appeared to be near death. Her father, fearing the worst, sought a vision to save her life, and this was how he learned of a unique dress and dance. The father made this dress for his daughter and asked her to dance a few springlike steps, in which one foot was never to leave the ground. Before long, she felt stronger and kept up the dance. After her recovery, she continued to dance in the special dress, and eventually she formed the first Jingle Dress Dance Society.”

Child notes that the story suggests an influenza-like illness, making is possible that the first jingle dress dancer suffered from the widespread epidemic of Spanish flu during the World War I era. She writes:

“Although a man conceived the Jingle Dress Dance after receiving a vision, women were responsible for its proliferation … Once the influenza epidemic struck, women applied the ceremony like a salve to fresh wounds. They designed jingle dresses, organized sodalities, and 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. Women who participate in the Jingle Dress Dance and wear these special dresses do so to ensure the health and well-being of an individual, a family, or even the broader tribal community.”

Her book also highlights the design and construction of the jingle dress and how the dance has spread throughout and beyond Ojibwe Country. Today jingle dress is a popular dance form on the competitive powwow circuit and is performed by Native women with a variety of tribal affiliations.

Child also recently curated an exhibit on the history of the jingle dress to marks its 100th anniversary at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia. Featuring jingle dresses from a variety of eras, the exhibit “Ziibaaska’ iganagooday: The Jingle Dress at 100” will be on display through Oct. 31, 2020.

Brenda J. Child (Red Lake Ojibwe) is Northrop professor of American studies and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.  She is the author of the critically acclaimed children’s picture book, Bowwow Powwow illustrated by Ojibwe artist, Jonathan Thunder which features a jingle dress dancer. She has been featured in Indian Country Today, Native America Calling, Minnesota Public Radio, and has lectured at the National Museum of the American Indian. We asked her a few more questions about the history and significance of the jingle dress dance.

Brenda J. Child-photo-by-lisa-miller1

Q & A with Brenda J. Child

How do modern jingle dresses differ from dresses a hundred years ago? How were and are they made?

We organized an exhibit at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Minnesota to show the evolution of the jingle dress over the past century. Dresses from the 1920s and 1930s resembled flapper dress styles of the day, and the jingles are made from a variety of materials– chewing tobacco lids, baking powder cans, and Prince Albert tobacco cans. Today’s dresses tend to be more elaborate than those of the early 20th century, but they are all very beautiful.

Can you talk a bit about the extensive photographic record of jingle dresses in the Great Lakes?

I first realized that the Jingle Dress Dance Tradition emerged during the flu epidemic when I was unable to find a photograph in the US or Canada of the Jingle Dress prior to circa 1920. For a historian, that told me something very big had recently happened. I eventually put the jingle dress stories we tell in our communities together with my understanding of the terrible impact of the flu epidemic on Native communities of the US and Canada.

How did Ojibwe women use the therapeutic power of the jingle dress?

They used it to heal their communities. This particular epidemic killed people in the prime of their lives, young adults. It killed more people than World War I.

The jingle dress tradition emerged around the same time as the Dance Order from Washington arrived in 1921. What was that order and did it affect the dance?

The Jingle Dress at 100 exhibit tries to answer two questions. First, why is it the the hundredth anniversary of the tradition? This is where I try to explain the history of the global epidemic. Second, I also consider how the jingle dress has been in the past, and remains today, a radical tradition. It emerged in the context of a global epidemic of influenza one hundred years ago, but the tradition is still with us today because it has been embraced not just by Ojibwe people, but Dakotas, and women from many tribes. It emerged in an era when ritualistic dance was banned in the US. Many of the protesters at Standing Rock were jingle dress dancers, and so women have been politically empowered by the tradition as well. It remains a vibrant and modern tradition, even though it is a century old.

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