Soaring Eagle Sentinel
Women Jingle Dress Pow wow Regalia

By Roy Cook

In this new millennium the Pow wow Women contemporary dance style categories are: Traditional (cloth, buckskin, Crow), Jingle Dress, and Fancy Shawl. The women's Traditional category includes beaded buckskin dresses and cloth dresses, and the different styles are tribe-specific. Depending on whom you ask, Butterfly or Fancy Shawl dancing originated in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge or Rosebud reservation as a competition dance in the early 1950s and '60s. This was a revolutionary breakthrough for the younger women. They wanted a more dynamic and stylistic approach to traditional ‘Ipsicha Win’ dance.

The jingle-dress dance style began among the Ojibwa in the Wisconsin area around 1920, and sometime during the next decade, it spread to the Sioux of North Dakota. By around 1950, it had spread westward into Montana. But by 1960, this dance style was rarely seen. Women started wearing jingle dresses again in the late 1970s and currently the dance is very popular.

There are a few different versions of the origin story of the jingle dress, but all of them seem to agree that the jingle dress originated in a dream. An Ojibwa man had a dream in which he was given instructions for the dress and dance. He and his wife made the dresses and selected four women to wear them at the next dance. In another version of the story, the man's granddaughter was very ill. She wore the dress and then regained her health.

In most Nations and Native American ceremonies, it is a protocol of tradition that the woman whom wishes to dance as a Jingle Dress dancer is asked to give a personal offering of self and undergo purification. This purification is known as the fasting ceremony. The fasting ceremony is where you give up water and food for four days and four nights; this is a commitment and self-sacrifice for greater healing and is only a step in the test of faith that the woman will go through. The reason a woman has to fast to dance the jingle dress was because of its healing powers brought to the First Nations Peoples through the song, steps and ceremony.

In today’s modern day Pow wow world, the jingle dress is very popular among the First Nations communities in Canada and the Northern US States. As times change, so has the history and design of the dress. As tin, sheet metal and Copenhagen(TM) tobacco lids became available, the lids were formed into cones and pierced. Cowries and other shells have been used as regalia decoration since pre-history. Metal cones are much more solid but still represent the sound of the water. The cones are sewn onto the fabric in various patterns or placements, asymmetrically or symmetrically across the dress. I have heard that traditionally their needs to be between 300-600 cones on the dress, but as in so many of the stories of the styles of dance and the origin of this or that protocol, it depends on who you ask

There are variations on today's jingle dress: it is a dress, skirt or apron worn over an underskirt. When the dancer wants to sit down, she raises the outer skirt above her hips so that the jingle cones aren't crushed. Early cones were made of tin. Contemporary cones are made from snuff-can lids, each shaped into a cone and attached to the dress by a short piece of ribbon.

The contemporary Jingle dancer carries a feather fan, often wearing eagle plumes or feathers in her hair. Compared to the original dance, the contemporary dance can be fancier, with intricate footwork and the dress design is often cut to accommodate the beautiful footwork these skilled ladies have learned through many years of dedicated practice.

Most jingle dancers conform to a dance pose with one hand that usually stays on the dancer’s hip, holding onto her purse the whole time while the other hand holds the eagle tail feather fan as she slowly lifts and spins her fan throughout her dance routine. With her head held high, proud, and dignified, the Jingle Dancer will occasionally zigzag back and forth around the arena while dancing to a "straight beat" song. The other style danced by the Jingle Dress Dancers will be to a side step or a "slide" song. During this dance style, the dancer will start out by moving to her left from toe to heel in a clockwise circle around the arena or she will simply side-step to her left similar to a typical round dance but with a faster pace.

Contemporary Jingle dancers do often cross their feet, turn full circles and dance backwards. Such moves exemplify the differences between contemporary and traditional jingle dress dancing.

Most Jingle dance songs are Northern compositions. These songs consist of a main verse that is repeated for 4 choruses. Northern songs will have "hard" honor beats within the song. Either way, your feet should hit the floor on the hard beats. Ladies dancing in northern buckskin and jingle dress styles may "bless the crowd" by waving their eagle feather fans on the honor beats during northern songs. Experience will tell you how to know when a song is ending, or listen for the 4 "starts".

Northern or southern a head singer will start the song, and he is "seconded" by another singer. The whole drum group finishes the verse, and then this sequence is repeated 3 more times. Next time you are at a Pow wow listen for the 4 "starts" in most traditional inter-tribal songs. Other special songs: Flag, memorial, Veterans and others will have variations on this basic American Indian song structure.

Contemporary Man Pow wow dance style categories are as detailed and varied: Traditional (Northern, Southern, Crow), Southern Straight (may be included with the men's Traditional category), Grass, and Fancy. The men's traditional dances in the contemporary powwow are directly descended from the war dance of the Omaha tribe. Southern songs usually have 3 HONOR BEATS in the middle of each verse.

The contemporary Grass dance developed in North Dakota around 1905-1910 and the Fancy dance outfit of brightly colored feathers is credited to Augustus Hurley “Gus” McDonald (1898-1974). He won both the straight and fancy dance titles in a 1926 contest held at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas.