Jingle Dress Dance | Native American Meaning and History

Jingle Dress Dance | Native American Meaning and History

In the heart of First Nations and Native American communities, a captivating and rhythmic tradition known as the Jingle Dress Dance has endured through generations. 

Steeped in rich history and cultural significance, the Jingle Dress Dance has evolved from a healing ritual into a source of immense pride. Its origins trace back to the early 1900s with the Mille Lacs Band of the Ojibwe Tribe, blossoming in the 1920s across regions like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, Canada. The story behind its inception is a testament to its healing power—an indigenous medicine man's granddaughter fell ill, prompting him to craft a Jingle Dress at the behest of spirit guides. They prophesied that the dress would heal the child when she danced in it. The tribe came together to witness this magical transformation, a symbol of resilience in the face of adversity, particularly during the 1918 flu pandemic and the subsequent federal ban on ritual dancing at Indian reservations in the 1920s.

Join us on a journey through the past and present, where the Jingle Dress Dance continues to mesmerize and heal, embodying the resilience and cultural pride of indigenous communities.

The Jingle Dress Dance is commonly seen in competitive pow wows, performed by women and girls in First Nations and Native American communities.

The dance gets its name from the rows of metal cones—called “ziibaaska’iganan”—attached to their dresses, which make a distinctive sound as they dance. The ritual has a rich history, and there are few sights as mesmerizing as watching and hearing the women perform the light, elegant dance style in their Jingle Dresses.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about the Jingle Dress Dance.

History of the Jingle Dress Dance

The Jingle Dress Dance began with the Mille Lacs Band of the Ojibwe Tribe in the early 1900s and became prevalent in the 1920s in Wisconsin and Minnesota (Great Lakes region) in the US and in Ontario, Canada.

The story is that the dress was first seen in a dream. A medicine man’s granddaughter grew sick, and as the man slept his Indian spirit guides came to him and told him to make a Jingle Dress for the little girl. They said if the child danced in it, the dress would heal her.

The Jingle Dress was made, and the tribe came together to watch the child dance. At first, the child was too sick to dance alone so her tribe carried her, but after some time, the little girl was able to dance alone, cured of her sickness.

It’s likely that the sickness the little girl was experiencing was a part of the 1918 flu pandemic, which hit the Native American communities hard close to the Great Lakes. This was closely followed by a federal ban on ritual dancing at Indian reservations in the 1920s. The dance has since been not only a ritual of healing but also one of pride.

Back in 2018, the Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post and Museum even launched an exhibit with photos commemorating the epidemic and the 100th anniversary of the dress and dance. The exhibit, which sheds light on the history of the Jingle Dress and Dance, was developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota Department of American Studies and the Mille Lacs Ojibwe community.

Though the dance started with a grandfather and a little girl more than a century ago, the style is now performed competitively and in ceremonies by women and girls of all ages.

What Do Jingle Dresses Look Like?

Jingle Dresses, also known as Prayer Dresses, are believed to bring healing to those who are sick. As mentioned above, the dance gets its name from the rows of ziibaaska’iganan (metal cones) sewed to the dress. These cones are traditionally made from rolled snuff can lids and hung from the dress with ribbon close to one another, so they make a melodic sound as the girls and women dance. Traditionally, the dress is adorned with 365 visible jingles, or cones. Nowadays, these cones are often machine-made.

Jingle Dress Dance

The dresses come in every color imaginable, from yellow to bright blue, to deep red, and accented with sparkles and even neon-colored fabrics. They are often made with shiny and sparkly materials and decorated with fringes, embroidery, beading, and more.

They usually have three-quarter length to full-length sleeves and come down to mid-calf or the ankle. They are secured at the waist with a thick belt, often made of brown leather. On their feet, the dancer wears decorative moccasins embellished with the same kind of detail found on their dresses.

Traditionally, the dresses were often made from old formalwear and other repurposed dresses and didn’t include the decorative beadwork, or the beaded leggings we see today on and beneath the dresses.

What are the steps for the Jingle Dance?

As the ziibaaska’iganan hit one another it sounds like rain falling, so it’s important for the dancer to be light on their feet, to move in time with the drum and stop when the beat stops. They keep their foot movements low to the ground while dancing, kicking their heels and bouncing on their toes to the music. Typically, this dance is done in a zigzag pattern, said to represent one’s journey through life—or so the story goes.

Often, they keep their hands on their hips, and if they are dancing with a feathered fan (full of neutral colors, like eagle feathers) as the more modern Jingle Dress Dancers do, they will raise it into the air as they dance to receive healing.

Jingle Dress Dance

The traditional Indian dance involves low, soft-footed steps, as could be performed by those who were sick, while the modern competitive dancers push the boundaries some as they try to out-dance their competitors. The manner in which the dance has evolved has built firmly on its origin story

What are the songs and music for Jingle Dance?

The music for this style of dancing has a foundation of a solid drumbeat, and of course, the metal cones make a loud jingling (hence the name) as the women move, which contributes to the music you’ll hear at a Jingle Dress Dance. 

Jingle Dancers will usually dance to Northern drum groups. Special songs for Jingle Dance include a Side Step or Crow Hop.

Updated September 9, 2019

Jingle Dance Photos

Last Updated on February 27, 2024 by Paul G

About Paul G

Paul G is the founder PowWows.com, who wears many hats as a business coach, photographer, and collector of quirky shirts. Paul started PowWows.com in 1996 while pursuing his graduate degree. With a passion for travel, he and his family hav  traveled the world, capturing unforgettable memories and photos. When he's not coaching or clicking, he's indulging in the magic of Disney.


18 Comments on “Jingle Dress Dance | Native American Meaning and History”

  • Avatar for Angel

    Angel

    says:

    What is the dress code and dress requirements for making a women’s jingle dress? I would like to design my own dress for a competitive jingle dance at a powwow in Southern California. What kind of fabric, design, jingle, and other items are needed to create this dress? Is there a website, designer, or other guidance for this? How much would it cost to create such a dress?

  • Avatar for David Kelly

    David Kelly

    says:

    The young sick girl was Maggie White from Whitefish Bay Ontario. Not mille Lacs.

    • Avatar for Paul G

      Paul G

      says:

      Mille Lacs is the name of the tribe.

  • Avatar for Abby

    Abby

    says:

    Do cherokee also jingle dress dance?

  • Avatar for El006

    El006

    says:

    what does the dance look like?

  • Avatar for Leslie Davis

    Leslie Davis

    says:

    Thank you for info.beautiful. skilled an nimble how are competition s judged been it many long house dances never felt comfortable to ask my ma now she s resting

  • Avatar for Marina Joy

    Marina Joy

    says:

    I have a question for anyone/everyone. This is apparently going to be a bit long.
    I am an American mutt caucasian. At some point in our lineage there may have been Cherokee heritage but I believe the percentage is less that 10%, I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that my mother and her brothers cling to this concept in a way many other white americans do. I personally would cherish having some connection with indigenous peoples but also want to respect the fact that I can not claim some one else’s heritage.
    My mother is also a dancer. She has professionally belly danced and preformed Flamenco Spanish dance in her past ( having me ended her career). She currently studies Hula dancing.
    When she found the Jingle Dance she became so excited. She now wanted to make a dress and go dance with others , I assume at a Pow wow but that has not been planned out yet. She wants me to join her as well.
    My question is, would this be a totally offensive act? I don’t know much about the dance but all the videos I’ve watched show it to be a type of prayer dance ( which is beautiful), and I don’t want to take part and offend people. I’m personally not into preforming dances and a would only do this for her, I would learn as much as I could about the tradition to make sure I’m approaching it with as much respect as I can. But above all that I want to make sure that neither of us would be doing something offensive to a culture we are not apart of. I don’t know where to find the answer to this question so asking here was my best idea. Thank you for anyone who replies. Peace and love to you all.

    • Avatar for Cornelia van Aken

      Cornelia van Aken

      says:

      I think, but am not an expert, that you would want to talk to the powwow organizers before attempting to join in. I danced with a professional folk dance company, and when we decided to perform a Qwakiutyl suite, we had to be adopted as a “family” into the tribe, and they wrote specific songs and dances for us. If we hadn’t done that, we would have been sued. One thing I particularly appreciate about Native Americans is that they are so protective of their culture. This ensures that their dances evolve as they should and are not bastardized by well-meaning outsiders (as Middle Eastern dances have been by Eastern Europeans.) The jingle dance has religious connotations that are taken seriously by many tribe members. As I said, I’m not an expert, and I’m not Native American, but asking first will ensure that you don’t accidentally tread on toes.

    • Avatar for Mary

      Mary

      says:

      I know several white folks who pow wow dance. It is very offensive to come to certain pow wows and play dress up. I personally consider our faces a closed practice. However, if your mother is adamant about going on a family rumor, I highly suggest finding your band and reconnecting, then go through the steps of wearing our regalia. And there are lots of “Native American Festivals” that are put on by white folks. It’s basically a big gathering where they play dress up and mock our ways. If you can’t find any Native ancestry and have no interest in reconnecting the proper way, these are the only places that cultural appropriation is welcomed or overlooked. You’re absolutely right to ask. Your gut is right, it is very offensive to many of us.

  • Avatar for Terry

    Terry

    says:

    I was watching the news and I noticed just a few seconds of a jingle dance that was being performed at the George Floyd death site. The news never said a word about it( so sad). Please thank the ladies for the healing they brought and I’m sure there were others that saw

  • Avatar for Amerald Tsosie

    Amerald Tsosie

    says:

    I would really love to learn Jungle Dress dancing. I never grew up in that lifestyle and would love to learn so I can pass it onto my daughter. I would love for her to dance also. Is there any induction and process I have to go through? Please any info would help.

  • Avatar for Crystal Green

    Crystal Green

    says:

    Also if a native American female chooses to become or is chosen to jingle dance, that is the only dance she is allowed to do when it comes to pow wows

  • Avatar for Ivanoe Cubillos

    Ivanoe Cubillos

    says:

    The more everybody knows about first nations the more we can defeat racism, descrimination and intolerance. I am not a native person. I am Latin American. My parents taught me tolerance, understanding and give us tools to learn about everything. My father loved to read and myself have never stop reading and curiosity push me toward.

    • Avatar for Terry

      Terry

      says:

      I was watching the news and I noticed just a few seconds of a jingle dance that was being performed at the George Floyd death site. The news never said a word about it( so sad). Please thank the ladies for the healing they brought and I’m sure there were others that saw

  • Avatar for Vera Martin. Makoos

    Vera Martin. Makoos

    says:

    I really like this and great information. My granddaughter wants me to make her a Jingle Dress. Thanks for the information that I am looking for. Thank you Makoos

  • Avatar for Lisa

    Lisa

    says:

    This was great for my research project

  • Avatar for Najat Mounir

    Najat Mounir

    says:

    Thank you for the informnation on this website. It helps us non Native Americans get aquainted with the culture, traditions, and rituals of the native Americans. Knowledge is the key to understanding, and understanding leads to respect, appreciation, and ultimately, harmony.

    M. Najat.

    • Avatar for Najat Mounir

      Najat Mounir

      says:

      Sorry! I apologize for the misspelling mistakes in the comment.

      M. Najat.

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