Native American jingle dresses connect dance, art, history
TOWER, Minn. — The dress talked as Abbi Zapata bumped her feet across the floor.
It was a gentle sound, as rhythmic as ice shards moving against a thawing shoreline. It's a century-old sound that originated in the American Indian tribes of northern Minnesota. Abbi's ancestors heard the sounds of jingle dresses, and Abbi's mother, Adrienne Whiteman, has heard them, too.
Rows of shiny metal cones bounce gently off each other in time with Abbi's footsteps. To Whiteman, it sounds like "rolling water," or sometimes like wind chimes. The jingle dress tradition turns 100 years old this year. In 1918, when the Spanish Influenza epidemic was killing tens of millions of people across the globe, the first jingle dress sprang from a dream.
There are several different origin stories — some say the first jingle dress was made on the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Reservation, or perhaps it was in Red Lake, or Whitefish Bay. Most of the stories hold that a man was worried about his young daughter, who had been ill and wasn't recovering, perhaps with the flu, perhaps not.
That's the story Whiteman knows; it's the one her grandfather told her. The man dreamed of a dress that made a lot of noise, and that dress would help to heal his daughter.
"The man's wife made the dress, and his little girl wore it," Whiteman said. "She had to dance through four songs. At first, two women had to help her stand. But with each song, she got better, until the fourth song, and the women let her go. That was the power of prayer. That's how I know about it."
Whiteman, 49, who lives on the Nett Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, spends weeks each year sewing colorful jingle dresses and other powwow regalia, some for her daughters to wear, some simply for the feelings they inspire.
"My grandpa would tell me stories upon stories," Whiteman said. "About our spiritual beliefs, about the way things used to be done."
On a typical childhood day, she would rise at 5 a.m. with her grandpa and start walking down their gravel road, seeing where the day would take them, she said.
"He would say, 'If you're ever in doubt, if you have a question about what you should do, put your moccasins on, put out some tobacco, and walk the gravel road,'" Whiteman said. "Something along that road will stand out, and you'll get your answer. I still do that."
Whiteman started dancing herself as a girl, though she began as a "fancy dancer." Fancy Dancing was born a bit later than the jingle dress tradition, and both men and women can perform the Fancy Dance. Women's regalia includes colorful, elaborate shawls that become part of the dance.
She once danced in her full U.S. Navy uniform, medals and all. Returning home after serving and playing basketball for the Navy was "one of the proudest moments of my life," Whiteman said. She went through a ceremony to welcome her back into the dance circle after her time serving her country.
When she was a child, dancers had to prove themselves to wear a jingle dress, Whiteman said.
"You can't just put a jingle dress on," she said. "It's a big responsibility."
With guidance from elders in the community, dancers can take on that century-old responsibility. Abbi went through a coming-of-age ceremony before she could start wearing her jingle dress.
"It sounds good to me," Abbi said. "When I'm dancing, I'm trying to get on the beat; I'm jumping and moving on the beat."
Whiteman usually draws her jingle dress inspiration from dreams. If she can work uninterrupted, Whiteman can finish a dress in about a week.
Whiteman's dresses are more elaborate than others, said Martha Anderson, visitors services manager for the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum.
Anderson said she has not danced the jingle dance herself — she has never dreamed of a jingle dress, she said. But when she hears the dresses and the dancers approach, it draws a definite response.
"To me, it sounds like rainwater," Anderson said. "It's a healing feeling. When you hear it, it's calming."
Today, Whiteman buys her jingles from specialty shops. But when she was growing up, she would cut Copenhagen tobacco tins with metal snips and roll them into cones. She used to roll jingles during long car rides from Nett Lake to Virginia or Duluth.
The jingle dance, as well as the healing ceremony it was part of, was practiced for a few decades before waning in the 1940s and '50s, according to Mark Thiel, archivist for Native American collections at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The tradition was revived in the 1970s and '80s, in part due to the rising popularity of powwows and a desire to connect with American Indian traditional culture.
A traditional jingle dress on display at the Bois Forte Heritage Center in Tower includes handmade jingles, as well as old pop-tops sewn into the design. Heritage Center executive director Bev Miller estimates the dress was sewn sometime in the 1970s.
In the spring, one of the band's spiritual advisers will bless all the dresses Whiteman plans to use during the summer pow-wows.
"These dresses are spirits," Whiteman said. She has a foot in two worlds — the traditional Ojibwe world taught to her by her grandfather, the world where jingle dresses can heal and tobacco is an offering. And she lives in the modern world, where premade jingles can be bought by the bagful, and she also attends services at the Nett Lake Baptist Church.
None of Whiteman's daughters sew their own dresses, she said. They are a little impatient; they want it done now.
"I've tried beadwork," Amber Zapata said. "I try and try my hardest, but it doesn't work for me. I want to do it, I do. I just need to keep at it."
Abbi watches her mother making dresses and thinks about how long it takes to make each one. She has sewn dresses of purple, of yellow, of red; each cone on each row individually attached to the dress, rather than strung together. It takes much longer, but Whiteman likes it that way.
"You get much more joy out of completing your own outfit," Whiteman said. "It teaches you patience."
"The sound of the dress makes me feel alive," Amber said. "It makes me feel great. It's just right."