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Created during Spanish flu, jingle dress dance now helping First Nations people cope with COVID-19

Apr 19, 2020 05:52AM ● By Editor

Dancers at a pow wow in Grand Portage in 2015.  Photo: Cook County News Herald

By Stephanie Cram of CBC Indigenous - April 17, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls across North America have been posting videos of themselves doing jingle dress dancing, a style of dance you'd typically see at powwows. 

It's a healing dance, and it has historic ties to another pandemic from 100 years ago.

"I was really surprised when I started doing the research. I couldn't find a single photograph of what you would call a jingle dress before circa 1920 in the United States or Canada," said Brenda Child, a professor at the University of Minnesota. 

"As a historian, it occurred to me that something very big had happened that created this new healing tradition." 

For Child, the creation of the jingle dress dance shows how First Nations people have learned to cope with new illnesses introduced to their communities. (Submitted by Brenda Child)

That big event was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919, and First Nations and Native American communities across North America all tell a similar story of the origin of the jingle dress. 

Child outlines this story in her books, My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation, and Holding our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community

"The story is about a young girl, who seems to be very sick ... her father is worried that she's going to die," said Child. 

"He has a vision of a new dress, a very special dress.... The way they tell the story in central Minnesota is that the little girl was at a drum ceremony with her family, and after she started dancing with the other women doing these ... special dance steps, she started to feel better."

For Child, the creation of the jingle dress dance shows how First Nations people have learned to cope with new illnesses introduced to their communities.  

Earlier generation of epidemics

"Most of us know that Indian tribes in North America, ever since the coming of the Europeans, experienced many different kinds of epidemics, pandemics and smallpox," said Child. 

"What the jingle dress dance shows me is maybe this was a way that Native people had for coping with these earlier generations of epidemics." 

Ojibway people think of spiritual power as being passed through the air, and so sound is very important.- Brenda Child, historian

The healing aspect of the dance is carried through the sounds that the metal jingles make as the dancer moves. 

"Ojibway people think of spiritual power as being passed through the air, and so sound is very important in that world view," said Child.

"If you've ever been to a powwow and you've had the wonderful experience of listening to many jingle dress dancers dancing together, you know it has a fantastic sound, and that sound is very valued." 

How dresses evolved over the years

In honour of the jingle dress dance, Child helped curate the exhibit Ziibaaska' iganagooday: The Ojibwe Jingle Dress at 100, held at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia, Minn. 

The exhibit includes a collection of dresses from the last century, and shows how the dresses evolved over the years. 

"My favourite dresses are the first ones from the collection at the Minnesota Historical Society.... They're often black, kind of slim dresses that resemble the flapper dresses of the 1920s," said Child.

Lee Staples, spiritual leader for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, donated his mother’s jingle dress to the exhibit, pictured on the left, which includes jingles made from baking soda cans. On the right is a dress donated to the exhibit from Vanessa Northrup from Minnesota's Fond du Lac Ojibway community, who turned her police uniform into a jingle dress. Photo: Submitted by Brenda Child

"That's one of the things we wanted to show with the exhibit — that, in many ways, the jingle dress evolved through the decades. There isn't one consistent style, but the jingles are what they all have in common." 

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, First Nations women are turning back to the dance as a way of coping with all that's happening in the world. 

"It makes me very happy to think that another generation is being inspired by this tradition," said Child. 

"Who would have thought a century after the jingle dress we'd have another global pandemic? And just at the time we were remembering that history so strongly that we would have a similar kind of episode in ... our country and in our communities."

To listen to an audio version of this story and see related stories, follow this link to the CBC website.

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