What Exactly is Jingle Dress?

Let the weekend begin everyone!

It is encampment time down at Otoe and it has had a pretty rainy start.  Most people outside of the Indian tribes do not really understand the concept of encampment.  Encampment is sometimes called pow-wow.  A lot ofDSCF0880
people have some pretty skewed ideas about what it is.  So, before I do anything else, let me clear up a few things.  No, we do not dance around a fire.  That is ridiculous and a huge fire hazard.  We have a drum in the middle of the dance area normally.  That picture on the right is what the Otoe-Missouria dance area looks like.  Do you see a fire in the middle?  I do not.  We certainly do not dance around naked.  Granted, Oklahoma summers may make us wish we could, we do not.  That is sort of illegal.  Alcohol is NOT allowed on encampment grounds.  I am not joking.  Encampment grounds are sacred.  We have them blessed before we even set up.  Do you drink in church?  No and we do not drink on encampment grounds.  During encampment we hold church there.  No drinking!  That shrill sound that most people call a “war cry” has nothing to do with war and is not done by men.  I actually laugh when I hear them do it in movies.  That sound is called keening.  We do that to express appreciation for our ancestors and elders.  We also do not have “kill a white man day”  I am not sure where that got started, but some people seriously believe it.  No, in fact most Indians have some white in them.  Where do you think my Dutch ancestry came from?  The Dutch fur traders did love them some Oto ladies.  We also do not live in tee-pees.  Those are a pain to set up and did I mention it is hot in Oklahoma during the summer?  It is.  Maybe we could if we were back in Canada, but in Oklahoma, tee-pees are a no go.  We would roast ourselves because it gets so hot inside those things.  Clear some thing up?  Good, let us move on to what this article is really about.

While there are many different dances done at encampment, one of the best known of the ladies’ dances is Jingle Dress.  The women in my family have done this dance for, well, since long before my father was even born.  The dance originated with the tribes in the area around the Great Lakes.  Most will say the Ojibwa tribe is the one that started the tradition, but there is some debate about that.  Either way, I am part Ojibwa so it does not really makes no never-mind to my family.  The most striking thing about the dress that is used for Jingle Dress is all those cones.  Holy calamari there are so many of them!  A traditional dress will have 365 cones on it.  That is one for each day of the year in case you did not catch that.  That leads to a very heavy dress once you add in all the beadwork, the concho belt, the jewellery, the shawls, the medicine pouch, the fan, and the boots.  I weighed my dress one year, just the dress mind you, nothing else, DSCF0191and the weight came to fifteen pounds!  My fan weighs about two.  Shawls weigh between three and four.  Boots weigh about five if they are fully beaded.  The rest varies, but generally the total extra weight you carry around when you are doing Jingle dress is anywhere between thirty and forty pounds for an adult!  Quite the workout!  Here is my dress from last year.  I have a new one this year and I will post a picture of that after encampment is over.

There are two different versions of the dance.  The difference between the two lies in how the dress is made and the steps.  Traditional or “cobbler-style” dresses are made with an apron and a caplet to which the jingles are sewn.  Way back when the cones would have actually been bones.  Just think about that for a moment since we did not have chicken bones back then.  Yeah, Oto were pretty calm, but we are a Sioux tribe.  Contemporary dresses have them sewn right onto the dress.  These jingles are rolled tobacco can lids.  I have both.  My new dress is a traditional style in that it is made with the apron and caplet.  However, mine has copper cones on it.   While most people today use silver or gold coloured cones, some still prefer to use the copper cones because those are more traditional and you will find out why momentarily.  Traditional dance steps are simply front steps.  Contemporary gets more fancy and incorporates steps from Fancy Shawl that are performed lower to the ground so that the cones make more sound. 

Jingle Dress is a healing dance.  The reason that copper cones were used and why they are preferred for traditional is that copper has always been considered a healing metal.  The fan used for this dance is a stiff fan and is used to wave the prayers of the people to Heaven.  The medicine bag  that is carried is tied back to the class of women that traditionally perform this dance.  Jingle Dress was in the past done ONLY by the medicine men’s family or the medicine women themselves.  That is why the women in my family perform this dance.  In recent years I have seen people that are not part of that class do these dances and it makes me a bit sad.  Why? Well, that is a part of my family’s history and the title is passed down to the child that the medicine man or woman chooses.  That would be me.  I am my father’s heir in that sense and I go out into the dance area with these kids that are dancing it just to be looked at.  Jingle Dress is not just something pretty to watch.  It has a long and important history that makes it very meaningful to those who have been dancing it since they were children.  I like to dance with the elders in my tribe because they still remember what it means and they respect the history that it has.  Yes, the dance is beautiful.  I will not deny that.  I just do not like seeing the history of it not understood and disrespected by those who really know nothing about it.  So, fellow Indians, please learn the history of the dance you do.  Show it the respect it deserves!  You all have long and proud histories and it would be a shame if those disapeared!

Well, have a happy weekend everyone!  Stay safe and cool!