It’s known to some as the River of Tears.
The McIntyre River in Thunder Bay has claimed the lives of too many First Nations people in the city.
But a community of women are now leading the way to healing and transforming it to the River of Hope.
“The jingle dress is the healing dress,” said Cheryl Suggashie, a student at Lakehead University from Pikangikum First Nation.
Suggashie started dancing jingle dress in 2012 when she was beginning her educational journey.
“If I didn’t start dancing I really wouldn’t know where I’d be today,” she told APTN.
The traditional Anishinabe dance style helped keep Suggashie grounded during her studies.
She would find local powwows to participate in – and it helped her during times of grief and loss.
In 2015 Suggashie moved to Thunder Bay. It’s the same year her older brother, Clayton Mawakeesic, was found dead in the McIntyre River.
“Instead of being angry about it I had to find a positive way to deal with that,” she said.
Suggashie said it feels like there’s been a black cloud over the city in recent years.
“There’s been a lot of negative atmosphere around the rivers and the seven students inquest,” she said.
“I was beginning to see it was all negative stuff so I wanted to bring some positivity and some culture and just some pride and identity.”
Completing her Master’s degree in social justice, Suggashie started her placement at Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) High School last September.
She would teach the clothing class how to sew their own jingle dresses.
There were about 10 young women in the class.
“They were quiet and shy but then after a few months you get to know them and build relationships and trust,” Suggashie said.
By January, the dresses were completed.
“They were really good at designing their stuff, their own designs. Some of them were really creative and some of them were really intricate, the way they put on the jingle dress cones,” said Suggashie.
Aleena Crow is one of the students who made her own dress.
“Well, it was pretty hard at first,” said the 18-year old from Sandy Lake.
But Suggashie said the hard work will pay off.
“It’s just like a skill and culture and something their own they can take home with them. Like something tangible, like it’s theirs,” Suggashie said.
In a special ceremony at DFC, eight students in total were welcomed into the dance circle by a drum group from Whitefish Bay First Nation, Elders and “Aunties” who danced with the young women in support.
The colors and sounds that filled the circle were beautiful and mesmerizing, the rhythmic swooshing of the cones that make the jingle dress distinctive offers comfort and peace to not just those inside the circle but those sitting around it.
With a teepee set up on the school grounds, Suggashie said the new dancers learned about the teachings that come with the jingle dress.
“Just basic protocol like your moon time and wearing a skirt, and the way you put on your dress and doing your hair. Just taking care of your dress at the same time like cleaning it and smudging it and feasting it,” Suggashie said.
Destiny Fiddler, also from Sandy Lake, wore the jingle dress made by one of her friends.
“She didn’t want to dance today so I had the honor to dance with this dress on and was asked,” said the 20-year old.
For Crow, it was the first time dancing in the circle.
“I was nervous the whole time but I got through it,” Crow said.
Nicole Richmond is one of the Aunties who showed up to support the young women. She said part of being a jingle dress dancer is to move people towards healing.
“And sometimes we get really shy when we’re in the circle and we feel nervous and we feel that people are watching us.” Richmond said.
“But people love dancers, they love watching dancers and so our job is really important to bring people together.”
She said by coming together to form a community it can help others feel strong and proud.
Crow said having the support from the Aunties made her more comfortable.
“I feel proud that I did it,” said Crow.
Richmond said she hopes the jingle dress helps give the students a sense of pride and community.
“When you carry yourself in a jingle dress you’re walking in a path of your ancestors who have preserved these traditions, who have gone before you in a good way,” Richmond said.
“So when they talk about healing, you’re healing for your ancestors but you’re also healing for future generations.”
Suggashie said she was happy how the community stepped up to show their support for the new dancers, including from Indian Friendship Centre youth group, ONWA, and the Bear Clan Patrol.
The vice-principal at DFC said he hopes to make this an annual event.
Fiddler said she’s thankful for the chance to participate in the traditions.
“I just love my culture. I wish there were more opportunities out there for me to do stuff like this.”