Jingle dancers unite in pan-North American act of healing

Some people may not think of dancing as a way of praying, but for Indigenous people, it’s a traditional way to ask the Creator to heal people who are sick.

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, people are again turning to dancing to heal.

On March 17 a Facebook user by the name of Liz Salway posted a callout for all jingle dancers to dance the next day at 9 a.m. to “pray and dance for healing.” The post, which originated in Wyoming, United States, reached people all over the U.S and Canada. Videos of jingle dancers went viral, some getting views in the tens of thousands. 

Although the call reached people all over the continent, one person noticed that nobody in Prince Albert had answered.

“No one did it in Prince Albert,” said Barb Anne Garvin, a jingle dance instructor and knowledge keeper. “So, that’s what we did up in Kinsmen Park, to initiate that healing. I asked elder Rose Bird to come out and say the prayer for us and we put tobacco in the four directions and Summer (Standingready) danced in the middle and kind of waved her fan as the smudge was blowing, so she was smudging the city.”

Jingle dancing is a somewhat new tradition. It originated in the early 1900s through a dream. As the story goes, a medicine man’s daughter, Maggie White, was very sick and one night he had a dream about a dress. If he made the dress and his daughter danced in it, she would be healed. So, the medicine man made the first jingle dress and his daughter put it on.

She tried to dance but was so weak she needed to be held up by others. As she danced, she grew stronger and finished the danced on her own, healed. It’s believed that she was sick with the Spanish Flu.

Tobacco isn’t exactly necessary while jingle dancing unless the person is dancing for prayer. In that case, tobacco is generally used as an offering.

“Mainly jingle dancers go to compete,” said Garvin. “They do at the big competition pow wows. So, a lot of the time, many people who want that healing will go up to a jingle dress dancer and give them a little bit of tobacco and as they [the dancer] go on, they’ll dance and they’ll let that tobacco sprinkle on the ground.”

At traditional pow wows, tobacco is given to all of the dancers.

“It’s more of a healing ceremony up there than it is a competition,” Garvin says. “So, there is a big difference between the two.”

Any other sacred herb can be used in place of tobacco, like sage, cedar, or sweetgrass. 

The southern side of the province also answered the call for jingle dancers as Stacey Sayer-Brabant, an Indigenous Education Counsellor, danced in her home in Regina for the first time in many years. Sayer-Brabant has suffered from health problems and hasn’t danced in a long time. 

“When I saw that (Facebook call) it touched my heart, I wanted to be part of that immediately,” Sayer-Brabant says of her jingle dance on Facebook. “I haven’t danced in ages and I was amazed that I danced so well in that video. But when you dance you feel your heart lifting because you’re dancing not only for yourself… my mother always told me to dance for those who cannot, but who wish they could… for those who need healing, for those who are lost.”

Sayer-Brabant began jingle dancing just over 30 years ago.

“An elder gifted me a jingle dress and brought me into, it’s kind of like a society,” Sayer-Brabant says. “Either you have to dream about dancing a jingle dress or you have to be given a jingle dress, or someone has to bring you in… those are the usual ways of becoming a jingle dress dancer.”

Sayer-Brabant had lost her father in her youth and she was a fan of jingle dress dancing, which is when the jingle dress was gifted to her to come out of mourning.

The jingle dress is a significant part of the dancing ceremony as it symbolizes prayer.

“Everything is living, and everything has a spirit, everything has an energy, everything has a light,” said Sayer-Brabant. “So, that we can pray to that life, we can pray to that spirit. Those jingles, when they’re shaking left and right together, the cones are jingling. The prayers are said to be carried upwards. The energy is carrying the prayers upwards and the dance itself is a prayer, it’s a healing dance.”

Because the dance was gifted to the medicine man in a dream, the jingle dance is generally used as a prayer. The jingle dress is sacred — a person must never lend their dress or wear someone else’s. The colours and ribbons used on the dress also come in a dream and is intended to be worn only by the recipient. Feathers are only worn if the dancer has earned them. Early jingle dress dancers wore quite plain dresses with cones only at the bottom of the dress and a plain headband. Fans are now used as a way to spread the smoke of tobacco around to smudge while dancing, as its original intention was for healing.

“If you’re given tobacco to go and dance, I would definitely answer that call,” Sayer-Brabant says of the dance’s significance. “I find that a great honour.”

Sayer-Brabant’s video on Facebook has been viewed by over 4 thousand people, with a comment from someone saying they are from Oregon. The comments were all positive with some people thanking her for the prayer.

“I kind of have anxiety because it’s being shared so many times,” Sayer-Brabant laughed about dancing for the first time in years. “On one side, I’m so honoured and so blessed. Sometimes it brings a tear to my eye, some of the comments people send me, like thank you… but on the other side, it’s like, I’m not even wearing any makeup and it’s been shared so many times, but that’s the internet for you, right?”

Sayer-Brabant suffers from arthritis among other health conditions, but the call to pray during a crisis was strong enough to get her to put on her dress and dance to help heal the world. 

And not only did she dance despite having a condition that causes chronic joint inflammation, she was Princess of Kawacatoose as a teenager.

“My adopted family in Indigenous ways adopted me as their relation and that was when I was given a dress and brought into the pow wow circle.” Said Sayer-Brabant. “They then encouraged me to run for their home reserve’s pow wow princess. Their community had not had a pow wow for a very long time, I was one of the first ones to represent them at their first pow wow.”

Jingle dress dancing originated with the Anishinaabe in Ontario, but there are now dancers all over Canada and the United States, as you can see from the dancers who answered the call for prayer and healing. 

In addition to the jingle dancers who took to social media to dance and pray, there’s a Facebook page called Social Distance Powwow where Indigenous people from all over North America put on their full regalia and dance in their homes, in the middle of the street, and in open fields. A lot of people begin by saying a prayer for the whole world to be healed of the great sickness that is currently spreading. The group has over 77,000 and is an open group, meaning anyone can watch the videos, whether they’re a member of the group or not. Since there is a ban on all social gatherings, pow wows have been cancelled all over the country, but dancers are committed to keeping the tradition going online.

At this moment, people are encouraged to practice social distancing, but many people have started to call it ‘physical distancing’ as social media and video messaging, text messaging, and phone calls make it quite easy to talk to people, no matter how far away.

And although a person must either dream about becoming a jingle dancer or have a jingle dress gifted to them to be able to have the honour of jingle dancing, anyone can watch the videos online and take part in a healing journey.