Dancers at sunset

Pow Wow Regalia Changes Over Time

Carol Berry

Regalia changes as dances evolve. It can be a lot of miles on the pow wow circuit for those who compete or spectate enthusiastically. For others, it may be a long trip down memory lane. Some older pow wow–goers recall a time during or just after World War II when women dancers began to break out of the measured steps of traditional dance into a style that shared some of the footwork, color and flash of men’s fancy-dance. According to some accounts, the women initially wore men’s regalia “and some people didn’t approve,” one woman recalled.

Some 30 years later, the fancy-dance adaptation had become the Fancy Shawl Dance, which incorporated features of a women’s butterfly dance. It gradually saw the more sedate cotton and wool dresses and shawls augmented with the shine and shimmer of taffeta and polyester in colors that grew brighter and more daring as the years passed, transforming into today’s neon hues, sequin-spangled net, metallic microfiber and rainbow-beribboned shawls.

After Fancy Shawl’s debut, the Women’s Jingle Dress Dance expanded from its origins in Ojibwe country as a healing dance when it was shared with the wider pow wow community and it, too, began adopting a broader range of fabric and color as it added more complex footwork to the traditional dance style.

There are a number of accounts about the beginning of the Jingle Dress Dance, but most agree it originated in an Ojibwe man’s (sometimes a medicine man’s) dream in which he was given instructions for the dress and dance that would heal a young girl, in some versions his own granddaughter, and as a result the dance is held in high regard.

The jingle-dress dance style began in the Wisconsin area about 1920, spreading to the Sioux in North Dakota in the next decade, and westward to Montana by about 1950. After a two-decade decline, it became popular throughout Indian country, according to the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

Grace Gillette (Arikara), executive director of Denver March Pow Wow, who has seen the styles come and go, recalls a time when the old-style jingle dresses were often in red, black or dark green, compared to today’s shiny pastels and patterns and bright colors. “Dancing used to just be done for individual enjoyment or for purposes within the tribe, but with competition dancing they want to be more flashy and call attention to themselves,” she said. “It has to do with competition dancing—you see all the shiny material beneath the lights and it catches the judges’ eyes.”

Over the last half-century, individuality has become important among increasingly fashion-conscious youth, and that trend may also have played a part in the rise of vibrant colors, shinier fabrics, and fancier footwork. Susan Yazzie, of Denver, who makes regalia professionally and whose daughter is a jingle dancer, said the changes, “just go with the times and the dancers go with what is eye-catching. I try to focus on what my daughter wants on the outfits, not what I want. She wants to make it different from everybody else’s and wants something especially significant to her,” Yazzie said.

Some of the innovations may belong in a category Gillette terms “contemporary traditional.” Mirrors sewn into the ornamentation on pow wow regalia are said to return envy or other bad thoughts to the sender, and shiny material “just took it a step further,” she said.

The jingles sewn onto dresses of the Jingle Dress Dance, customarily curled snuff-tin lids, in some cases have reportedly been replaced with other kinds of lids or even shell casings. Another innovation employed sheet aluminum cut into pieces, a practice that was stopped when it was found that those jingles tended to blacken the fabric. The custom among some Jingle Dress Dance participants of sewing one jingle on regalia for each of the year’s 365 days has to be a contemporary, rather than historical tradition, “because, of course, we didn’t have calendars like that,” Gillette said.

Behind all the changes in fabric, color and ornamentation styles over the years may be a simpler explanation, she noted: “It may be a lot of things, but I think a primary reason may just be the availability of the different fabrics.”

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