The legend of the healing dance - sharing part of my culture with you
By: Cassandra Daniels, RedWAY BC News Arts & Culture Section Editor.
An important distinction about diversity in Aboriginal cultures
As told to me by an Elder from my Cree Nation community on Canada's Plains, the history of the jingle dress goes as far back as the first Chiefs of the First Nation’s Peoples.
Please note that throughout this story I continually will say things like, "in my community, as told to me by my Elder, many First Nations..." This is an important way to demonstrate that although we are all part of the "Native" race, the Indigenous Peoples of North America, there is often VERY different traditions, ways of dressing, speaking, following protocol, living...
Our Editor, Kristin, explains the need to identify and distinguish the different Aboriginal cultures this way, "Most Canadians, unfortunately, do not know about the many unique language families and distinct Nations that thrived across the lands we now call North America - all Natives are unceremoniously (and incorrectly, in my view), grouped into the label 'Aboriginal'. The Salish along the West Coast led very different lives than the Mohawks in what is now called Central Canada. People mistakenly group all Aboriginals into one big 'race'."
"To put it in perspective," she continues, "other 'cultures' might consider how a Chinese person reacts if you mistakenly call them Korean, or how an Irish person feels if you call them Scottish or French! I know my Nana's from England and gets flustered when someone asks her if she's from Australia! (no harm intended for our Aussie friends) That provides an insight into the way those of us who are non-Aboriginal people must consider how little we actually know about the diversity of Canada's First Peoples. "
So following along those lines, I come from the Cree People. We were connected to and dependent on our relationship with land, water, animals and air... less than four or five generations ago, we were hunters and gatherers who had portable dwellings so we could move with the seasons and animals across the Great Plains. The best way to do this was with a teepee and horses - but here on the West Coast, many Nations live(d) in cedar houses called longhouses. They had permanent, waterproof structures that could withstand the rainy seasons - this would have been impractical to us! This also explains a bit about how local knowledge and stories are recognized by each community - that's why I need to distinguish things I heard from my Elders because their stories and knowledge may have common elements but may differ from other stories of Elders from other First Nations.
A modern connection to traditional culture, spirit and fashion
The jingle dress is seen in often seen and worn during one of the most recognized First Nations Ceremonies, known as the Pow-wow. The Pow-wow is a gathering of all Nations to celebrate their dynasty as First Nations People. You can see gatherings held all over North America. The largest Pow-wow is the Gathering of Nations held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.
The legend and story of the Jingle Dress told to me by a respected Elder in my Cree community is that the Jingle dress was a gift from the Ancestors (relatives & loved ones that have passed on to the other world) given to our people to celebrate, cherish, and honour. As said by the Elder, a Vision of the Jingle dress was brought to a Native American Chief of the Cherokee Nation in the early 17th Century. Visions are dreams very common to the First Nations Peoples - many Nations consider Visions a prediction of the future, or a message that will help the individual or community with the path of life).
The Story of the Jingle Dress was shared with me like this……..
The Great Chief from the Cherokee nation who was a strong leader and influential to his community. The Chief was a great leader with a wonderful wife and three beautiful daughters’. He led his people to many great victories and men followed the Chief to the greatest hunts.
The Chief awoke one morning with the most unusual illness. This sickness created suffering to his mind, body, and spirit. The chief could no longer lead the men to hunt for food, speak in ceremonies; his body was beginning to fail completely. This illness was brought by the New-comers (we would call them the European colonists), and the community was beginning to fall apart.
Since the Chief is/was the voice of the people, and there was much needed work to be done to help all of our Native Peoples survive the new coming age, the Chief smoked the sacred traditional peace pipe and prayed to the grandfathers (the grandfathers are our forefathers) asking that he may be saved for the sake of the people. The grandfathers responded to the Chief by giving him a vision.
The grandfathers showed the Chief a young woman in a tanned hide dress covered with sea shells that made the sound of water ( the water is the healing tool, it has been told to me by my grandfather, that water came first - and this means that water is the first existence of life) as she moved, she held in her hand an eagle fan feather> She brushed this lightly upon his head, and then the woman said to the Chief come with me, "I have much to show you - and healing with be brought to OUR people."
The woman took him to a sacred place in beautiful meadow where she danced in a very graceful manner. The sacred woman began her dance by stepping side to side and moving one foot lightly upon the other in the shape of an “S” . She moved both forwards and backwards repeating the steps in an "S" pattern.
The Great Chief of the Cherokee Nation was astonished by her beauty and how she moved, because he had never seen this in any ceremony before. The beautiful woman told the Chief to dance with her and he would be healed, so he did.
The sacred woman then sat down with the Great Chief of the Cherokee Nation and showed him how he would make the Jingle dress and how many shells were to be put on the dress. The Great Chief of the Cherokee Nation was then told by the woman to go on back to the community to teach his daughters the meaning and steps of the dance, so that the healing could begin in the community - and then the healing could be passed back up to him from his daughters.
The reason that this was done in such protocol was for the future generations to be born with strength to lead, to carry OUR People to the world today. As First Nations Peoples, we breathe for a stronger community.
This is how the Jingle Dress was born…..told to me by my traditional mentor and beloved grandfather. I honour having such a beautiful soul in my life to share with me the knowledge and wisdom that my Cree Nation carries, as do all my relative Nations. I have been told to me that I can share this information with all of you.
The legend of Jingle dresses is woven among many Native American traditions - it is a beautiful form of sharing the unique story-telling in OUR diverse cultures - the differences and similarities of all Nations.
Ceremonies and protocols related to my Jingle Dress Dancing
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 known as the fasting ceremony. The fasting ceremony is where you give up water and food for four days and four nights; this is self-sacrifice for greater healing and is only a minor 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.
Adapting to Modern Materials
In today’s modern day world, the jingle dress is still very popular among the First Nations communities. As times changed, so did the history of the dress. As tin, sheet metal and Copenhagen(TM) tobacco lids became available, pieced were formed into cones sometimes to replace the sea shells. 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 there needs to be between 300-600 cones on the dress, but I'm not sure where I heard this.
The women of today use very distinct designs that represent their spirit and the process of designing a woman’s regalia is very thought out. The designs and very intricate and usually follow the same pattern throughout the dress. You will often see on the regalia representations of the animals (horses, bears, deer, and wolves) as well as the winged ones (birds that fly such as; eagles, owls, hawks, and crows) .
For those of you who may not know the term regalia, I have learned it is the respectful way to speak of traditional garments, footwear, and accessories that are used for ceremony. I know of many people who get offended if our regalia is called a costume - just like kimonos, saris and kilts are not costumes because each holds important value.
Vibrant colors are used today to distinguish each and every unique personality of each individual woman, their story, and their Nation. The tanned hide has been altered to cotton, taffeta, and polyester. Often tanned deer hide is used for more traditional designs.
The accessories that are also a part of the complete regalia in my community are Eagle feathers and bead work. The eagle feathers are often presented through ceremony to the ladies and each individual is given a feather made through an offering by an Elder to the Spirit World. Many Native Americans refer to heaven as the Spirit World, the most common ceremony for this is the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is a place of prayer and healing for many Indigenous Peoples - a place where offers are made and special prayers are said to help the individual in life.
The ceremony keepers are Elders. Often Elders are presented with tobacco and any form of daily tools that can be used to continue their work in keeping the ceremonies going. They take care of the feathers until the woman is ready to receive them. This means even if she has given offerings the Medicine man (the traditional healer and ceremony holder), he knows exactly the right time that the feathers should be given to the woman.
A time to bead
Beadwork on regalia and regular jewelry or clothing is very attractive and very intricate. You can often see incredible beadwork on moccasins, leggings, belts, chokers, necklaces, barrettes, hair ties, and decorative representations of cut-off gloves.
Again, in my community, women are the keepers of this art - very rarely a man does the work for this art. There are many men that do this art form as well and create beautiful designs, but the first work of beading was done by women.
When a woman was on her menstrual cycle, she sat away from the rest of the community because in many Native American traditional beliefs, the woman is the most sacred. Because she gives life to all man kind, her menstrual time is the most powerful time for her. It is a time of cleansing the sacred life cycle that a woman holds. She stays away from the community to protect the health of men (and not overpower them), so this is often a time to make clothing and beadwork for the community. This story was told to me as a young girl by my grandmother.
The individual that is wanting to have beadwork for their regalia will choose her designs either based on what she feels is right to fit all of her other pieces of the regalia or what she has been told to put on (either in a Vision or by a mentor/Elder). The individual who wants to have beadwork done will again presents whoever is doing her beadwork with some sort of gift and also purchases the materials needed. This is another protocol common to many Native American peoples - if you are having traditional work done, out of respect you offer the materials, supplies, tools or other gifts to so the artist can simply focus on creating your piece.
As you have been reading this, I hope you realize that the process of making and sharing a jingle dress is a very thought out process - it takes a lot of time. Designing a jingle dress does not happen within a couple of days, and very rarely is one finished in a couple of months. Many dancers have waited for up to 7 years to complete their full regalia.
There is protocol and patience in this process. The dances, as in many dances, are held very sacred to the First Nations Communities because of the value it holds in our Culture. I am pleased to have shared this story with you and to help you understand more clearly how beautiful we are as Indigenous Peoples.
I am more than honored to have the birth of the Jingle dress told to me by my grandfather and have many of the traditional values taught to me by my Elders, it has been a great blessing to have permission to share these sacred Cree traditional stories with you.
Here are some links that relate to stories and sounds of Jingle Dresses:
And consider sharing your story or videos with us!
Meet the Arts & Culture Section Editor
is 20 years old. She's a Plains Cree native that acknowledges her roots in the Saddle Lake First Nation Community.
INTERACT WITH REDWAY...
Are you a Jingle Dress dancer? What is your inspirational story of the Jingle dress? Do you have any traditional stories shared with you by an Elder or grandparent or knowledge keeper? Would you like to have your story posted?
Contact me if you want to get an artist profile done, have a success story to share, or want to send info for an arts and culture events list. E-mail me at arts(at)spiritlinking(dot)com