Native American tribes have always had a tradition of dance as part of their culture. One interesting story comes from the Chippewa and Anishnabe tribes in the areas of northern Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. The jingle dance is one of the traditional dances still practiced today. Jingle dresses are so called because of the hundreds of “bells” lovingly and laboriously attached to the dress, and which make the distinctive jingling sound as the dancer performs.
There are differences between the original dance and contemporary interpretations, but the meanings and symbolism remain the same.
Variously known as a prayer, singing, medicine or healing dress, the jingle dress is a formidable work of art. Jingle dresses are intended for both physical and spiritual healing purposes. The jingle dress and dance is also to pray for and commemorate loved ones who have already passed from this world.
Tradition holds that the inspiration for such a dress must come from a dream, wherein the dreamer is instructed to make the dress so that someone who is ill may be cured. Only through a dream is the wearer entitled to make, or have made, such a dress and perform the traditional healing or prayer dance. Jingle dresses, by virtue of these conditions, hold spiritual and medicinal powers.
The legends and traditions of jingle dresses have been passed down from generation to generation. There are many stories, uncannily similar in nature, whereby the dreamer has a vision resulting in one or more dresses to be made and the jingle dance performed with the subsequent healing of the afflicted person.
The traditional materials used for jingle dresses include cotton prints and broadcloth, in times past very valuable trade items. The fabric used takes second place in importance to the actual jingles. The jingles consist of the lids from snuff cans, which are collected or received as gifts, and number in the hundreds for each dress. The lids of the snuff cans are rolled tightly into a cone shape and suspended with a ribbon. The finished cone is then sewn to the dress by the ribbon, carefully arranged in a artful scalloped or geometric shape. The jingles must be sewn closely together, so that they strike each other during the movements of the dance. Jewelry, leggings and ankle moccasins are worn to complete the outfit.
The original jingle dance is accompanied by drums, but did not include fans, feathers or plumes as are sometimes used today. The jingle dance is a stunning performance and the jingles are the starring element. The sound produced by the hundreds of jingles chiming can be described as the sound of rain hitting tin, a sweet musical sound like no other.