Jingle Dress Symposium — Inspired by History


The Jingle Dress Symposium that took place on Monday, September 2, began two years ago as an idea discussed by historian Brenda Child and Commissioner of Administration Baabiitaw Boyd. While the jingle dress is a familiar sight across Indian Country, its origins are a subject of debate and research. The people of Misi-zaaga'iganiing have their own story of how the jingle dress tradition was born out of events in their community. Remarkably, several communities share a very similar story.

In Mille Lacs, the late Larry "Amik" Smallwood often told the story of a young woman who fell ill in the early 20th century. Her father dreamt of dancers in dresses that made the sound of falling rain as their wearers performed a new kind of dance. Upon waking, the father had the dress made with the colors and jingle adornments he had seen in his dream. He taught his daughter the steps of the dance he’d been shown, and as she danced she began to recover from her illness and grew stronger. She eventually recovered completely, and the dance was adopted by the rest of the community due to its healing power.

From Mille Lacs to Whitefish Bay, Ontario, this story and its variations are told in a handful of communities as the actual origin of the jingle dress. Curiously, these communities all fall on a single line and trace the origin of their stories to approximately the same time.

Brenda Child will point out that around that time, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history was sweeping the globe. The so-called Spanish Flu grew to epidemic proportions at the end of 1918 and continued through the end of 1920. In the United States, the first recorded case of the flu was at Fort Riley in Kansas on March 4 of 1918. A week later, the virus had reached New York. It killed at least 50 million people around the world and infected half a billion.

In her book My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks, Child tells the story of Lutiant LaVoye, an Anishinaabe descendant whose early life and education saw her at work in Washington, D.C. during the flu outbreak. Child revisited Lutiant’s story while speaking at the Jingle Dress Symposium. She shared details from Lutiant's life and showed the connections between Lutiant's experiences as nurse in a military field hospital, which Lutiant wrote about in a letter to her friend Louise at Haskell Indian University, and the varying types of responses people had to the prevalence of the illness.

Through this story, Child links the creation of the jingle dress to a timely response to the global epidemic. She says these circumstances created "new yet deep-rooted traditions of healing among Ojibwe women."

In honor of this type of ingenuity and creative energy, sev- eral break-out workshop sessions were held following the invocation by Chief Melanie Benjamin and the talk by Child. One group was facilitated by National Book Award winning author Louise Erdrich from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Louise read poetry to the group and then asked everyone to take a few minutes to write a prose poem or a poem which doesn’t concern itself too much with line breaks. Participants were asked to reflect on a dancer or anything that inspired them about what had been talked about during the symposium. Many participants read aloud what they wrote during the session, and all participants were appreciative and supportive of each other’s work.

Baabiitaw co-led a breakout session on women and leadership with Red Lake Elder Lorena Cook, the Chairperson on the Board of Regents for the Red Lake Nation College. Kate Beane, an activist who was a leader in the movement advocating for the recent reclamation of the title Bde Maka Ska for one of the City of Minneapolis' most popular lakes, and Roz LaPier, an experienced naturalist, spoke about plant medicine and community action.

The Symposium culminated in a hearty lunch of sandwiches and manoomin soup as well as a group crafting session.

Adrienne Benjamin taught participants how to tie jingles and worked to sew them onto a final dress. Adrienne created many of the dresses on display especially for the exhibit, including four dresses in four primary colors—red, blue, yellow, and green—as the dresses were traditionally made. Adrienne finished the community-made dress before the event ended, and it joined the others on display. Many people left with a greater appreciation and understanding for the sacred jingle dress as well as a new set of skills to experiment with at home.