Saturday, June 07, 2008

2006 Interview w/Jingle Dress Dancer Karen Pheasant

Read the full interview post at Native Dance

Franziska von Rosen: Karen, I really enjoyed watching you dance at the Odawa Powwow this year. I understand that you won the Women’s Jingle Dress competition. Can you talk about the origin of the dress and the dance style?


Karen Pheasant: The first time I saw the dance was in the '70s. It had been around for many years prior to that. It was only done within the Lake Superior region. Just like the Prairie Chicken dance, which is a common powwow dance now, but thirty years ago, even twenty years ago it was only done in Blackfoot territory, in the same way the Jingle Dress was only in Anishinaabe territory.

The Jingle Dress has societal origins; it is done in the Lodge and is associated with special protocol and rites. The women who were jingle dress dancers were part of the ogitchedah dah kwe, which means warrior women. Now when we think of warriors it’s not in the western sense of a warrior going to battle. It’s true that the women are the warriors, but they are more like the backbone of the people, keepers of the household, the families, and the communities. And so this dance was bestowed on the people through a dream. Songs, dress and stories were given through the dream to a family.

In the '70s, a collective of women plus the singers traveled across the northern plains, across the provinces and as far as the state of Washington to sing the songs, show the dress and dance and tell the story of what it is about. Not long after, within 10 years, other tribal women appropriated the dress and the dance was done, sometimes without the accompaniment of the proper songs.

In the summer of ‘89 or ‘90, there was a Kiowa girl from Oklahoma who had seen the Jingle Dress dance at various powwows. She was inquisitive and went to her family because she wanted to know more about it. She was a girl with a traditional foundation and philosophy; because she was a southern dancer, she was aware that there had to be more to it than just the physical aspect of the jingle dress. So she and her uncles, the Gray Horse Society Drum, went to the Lake of the Woods area. They went with their appropriate gifts and they went with the intention to learn where this dance came from.

The uncles approached the grandmothers at the Lake of the Woods powwow. The grandmothers got together that evening and did the dance. They had a translator and the grandmothers told about where the dress came from, how the dresses are, how the dance is. Then the songs were sung. The songs are currently called side-step songs. So the grandmothers showed the dance. Before that though they talked about giving thanks, giving appreciation for the life that we have and acknowledging our gifts. The grandmothers danced, and they did their version of the side-step. After they showed all the women - there were dozens, dozens, and dozens, many, many women from all across Canada and the United States that attended this event. The women took to the floor and danced their version of the side-step, each one of them taking their own personal spot on the floor. The song started and they danced. Midway through the song - and this happened a couple of times - the grandmothers stopped the song and let them know that that was not what they had shown; that was not how they danced.

The grandmothers went to the floor one more time to show the dance. And with careful observation one could see that their full attention was connected to one another. The women were in close proximity to each other, side by side. They didn’t have autonomous spots in the powwow area or dance floor. They were connected with one joining circle. That was the importance of what they showed. And the feet were bound to the earth, close to the earth, in the side-step dance. The young women took to the floor and did it again until they had done it as the grandmothers had shared. At the end of that transfer where the Kiowa girl was shown this dance, the grandmother selected ten women who they felt were representative of what they had just taught. I am honoured that I was one of the ten women selected.


FvR: Can we talk a little about the sound of the jingles themselves. What does it mean to you to hear the sound of those jingles?

KP: Without a doubt the sound is of vital importance. Say 10 years ago I would be at a celebration where there would be dozens and dozens of us and there would be nothing as astounding as the sound of all the Jingle Dress dancers.

In contemporary times there have been myths created to talk about those sounds. And by myths I mean in the Western sense, not the indigenous sense. I did a workshop recently and one of the participants asked about the cones. She was taught that there are supposed to be 365 cones on a dress and she had the understanding that she was supposed to only put on one cone per day for 365 days. I have often heard this myth expressed by inquisitive non-dancers or very new dancers. Rarely have I heard this from cultural historians.

So in 2005 the Native American Museum in Washington D.C. hosted a one-day conference prior to their anniversary powwow and the focus of the panel discussion was origins and history of our dances. During the weekend of the powwow they also included jingle dress historians. I was head lady dancer at this gathering.

So at this conference the key speaker addressed this myth. He recalled how the grandmothers made this dress and attached all the cones, and it generally was done in one sewing. The cones were made from snuff can lids. We use a lot of tobacco as First Nations people. So the cones were made from the snuff can lids. We are true environmentalists and ecologists; we use, we don’t waste.


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