Jingle Dance Draws From the Past to Heal in the Present

Sarah Ortegon performed a jingle dance in Times Square on March 7.
Sarah Ortegon performed a jingle dance in Times Square on March 7. Maria Baranova
“It’s a dance where your feet are touching the earth, but the noise that the dress makes goes up to the Creator,” says Sarah Ortegon, an acclaimed jingle dancer and multimedia artist who is both Northern Arapaho and an enrolled Eastern Shoshone tribal member. “The dress almost sounds like rain, and rain is healing for the earth. The dress is not just dancing with you, it’s helping you move forward, too.”

The jingle dance is a revered Native American healing tradition — and this year, especially, it's been used to send out prayers for the sick and the mourning, both in private ceremonies and with a wider, often virtual audience.

The dance originated with the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people a century ago, and according to oral histories, its creation coincided with the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920, including 675,000 Americans. While there are various explanations of how the dance evolved, nearly all center on a man who dreamed of the dress and the dance to heal a daughter who was ill.

Gerald Montour, a Denver-based educator, dancer and powwow emcee who is Diné (Navajo) and Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) was taught this version of the story: After the man woke from his dream, he didn’t understand the vision, but he and his wife made a dress and decorated it with elk teeth, as he had seen in the dream. The husband and wife lay the dress “by the daughter’s feet, and the next morning, at first daybreak, they heard the sound, this beautiful music.” Their daughter, who had been bedridden with sickness, was wearing the dress, and the sound came from the jingling elk teeth.

“From that day forward, [the jingle dance] has always been used in various capacities for those who are very ill,” Montour explains.

In March, for example, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to affect the country, there was widespread sharing of the dance on social media. And after the death of George Floyd in May, jingle dancers offered prayers in ceremonies for the family, the community and the nation. The jingle dance is also often used in prayer for missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) and their families.

The traditional jingle dance is simple, a one-step pattern that follows the beat of the drum. The dancer always dances forward on the balls of her feet, with her hands on her waist. For a more contemporary form of jingle dance, she might carry a hand fan or a small purse, and her movement might take her left and right, following the curvature of a powwow arena.

“Today’s dresses have become very elaborate in their styles and their tribal affiliations,” Montour notes.

The jingle dance became more widespread among other tribes during the 1950s. The Anishinaabe elders gave permission for the dance to be done socially, and the elk teeth were replaced with flattened and rolled tobacco-can lids. To Ortegon, using the tobacco can is significant, “because we pray with tobacco, and it’s a very sacred plant, and it's a way that we respect it,” she says.

click to enlarge For the Times Square performance, Sarah Ortegon's dress and makeup were a collaborative effort. Her makeup, by Niez Marie Aguirre, was designed to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). - MARIA BARANOVA
For the Times Square performance, Sarah Ortegon's dress and makeup were a collaborative effort. Her makeup, by Niez Marie Aguirre, was designed to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
Maria Baranova
Ortegon grew up in Denver as one of twelve siblings. During the pandemic, she has been painting, creating beadwork and spending time with her family here. In August, she completed an art residency at the Plains Indian Museum in Cody, Wyoming, where she drew an Omaha woman by the name of Bright Eyes (Susette La Flesche Tibbles), an early activist whose testimony helped win the 1879 trial of United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook, which established Native Americans as "persons within the meaning of the law." Ortegon will perform as Bright Eyes in an upcoming Pathway Films production about her life.

Although most jingle dancers start as children, Ortegon began dancing a decade ago, when she was in her twenties. To be a jingle dancer, a performer must be given a dress; Ortegon credits Sallie Arnel, a Cherokee tribal member, for helping her to create her first couple of dresses and introducing her to the dance circle. Candace Toledo (Diné) helped create her Shoshone rose beadwork. 

Since she started dancing, Ortegon has traveled the world with Native Pride Dancers, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based dance company that shares the cultural history and traditions of Indigenous peoples. On March 7, she performed a jingle dance solo in New York's Times Square as part of She Never Dances Alone, a Midnight Moment video installation by artist Jeffrey Gibson, who's of Choctaw and Cherokee descent. Ortegon's live performance, dedicated to MMIW, accompanied the projected video, which was directed by Gibson and filmed and edited by Sancia Nash.

The performance was particularly meaningful for Ortegon because she was able to take her mother, sister and niece with her to New York City. "[Dance] was always a part of who I am,” she says. “I love the way it makes me feel, because I know that energy from my footsteps is from other people’s footsteps.”

Dancing is a shared experience in Native culture, a way to be part of the community and give back to that community. It’s a way of “sharing who we are without having to speak,” Ortegon explains.

Even the beadwork is a form of communication, Montour says, because “families have family designs that are incorporated into their outfits so that when elders see them, they know who they are. They know who their families are, what tribal affiliation they are, and without even talking to that dancer, they’re able to identify where that dancer comes from.

“You’re always taught that you should know who you are and what your purpose is,” Montour continues, noting that “today there’s a big push for our youth to reclaim their identity.” Part of that push is through dance, and passing down traditional songs and dances to youth. But it's also through education — teaching languages and American history that aren't filtered through a Western perspective.

“There’s one question that I get asked, especially in the educational world, being in the public eye: 'Do we still exist?' And I always get the question 'Do you live in a tepee?'” Montour says. “That happens because society has been taught that we as Native peoples are of the past, but we’re not.”

It’s important “to let people know not only are we still here and how we survived, but [we] are part of society, we’re here in a positive way for everyone,” he explains. The jingle dances are part of that, offered as both a prayer and a gift.

Although powwows and other events are on hold during the pandemic, the jingle dance is still being shared. Videos of performances filmed during the annual March powwow in Denver are available on YouTube, as are prayers from this spring and dances done in honor of MMIW.

Even in videos and virtual form, jingle dancing can be healing.
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Claire Duncombe is a Denver-based freelance writer who covers the environment, agriculture, food, music, the arts and other subjects.
Contact: Claire Duncombe