Vibrant colours and patterns of regalia glistened under sun, fireworks and lightning to the many heartbeat drums as hundreds gathered from across Turtle Island to Naotkamegwanning waterfront pow wow ground.
“It’s very special to be here for the 50th Anniversary, to be Princess and being from here too,” says 13-year-old Ashanti Wilson in her new gifted beaded headdress.
With the pow wow grounds filled with trailers, tents and vendors, Naotkamegwanning opened on a warm July evening with the youth dance pageant including the competition of Miss Naotkamegwanning.
In school and through family she learned of the colonial history of how pow wows had at one time been banned across Canada.
“I think it’s very empowering to dance and for it to slowly be coming back. It’s very connecting to Mother Earth,” says Wilson, who chose to dance fancy shawl at the pow wow.
“Just keep trying and practicing,” she encourages. “Dance for your community.”
Teagan Lowe was a contestant alongside Wilson and danced throughout the weekend in a selection of jingle dresses.
“I’ve tried dancing fancy before but I didn’t feel that it suited me, so I stuck to jingle and that’s all I’ve ever danced since I was able to walk,” says the Naotkamegwanning youth resident.
An hour’s drive away from Kenora, Ont., the Ojibwe community of around 1,200 members borders Manitoba and Minnesota under Treaty 3.
Formally known as Whitefish Bay First Nation, it’s known for and considers itself the home of the jingle dress with a story dating back from the 1920s.
Ontaria Arrow-White drove over 20 hours from her community of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Fort Hall, Idaho to finally visit and dance jingle where she grew up learning where the jingle dress rooted from.
“I always wanted to come here to Whitefish Bay,” she says. “The reason why I dance jingle dress is because I’m a three generation family [where] my grandma used to dance fancy, but now dances traditional, but back in the day, she used to dance against Maggie White, so I’m very honored to be around where she’s from.”
She grew up hearing about Maggie White, an Anishinaabe woman in northern Ontario who brought to the pow wow trail regalia with jingling cones envisioned in a dream and healed her when she was sick as a child.
During the time of Indian Agents, limitations to leaving the reserve, and resulted food shortages, Maggie Bird, (later marrying John White) was born in Kenora-Rat Portage (now Waszush Onigum) on Dec. 15, 1922 — the same year former Indian affairs chief medical officer Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce published The Story of a National Crime: an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada exposing the horrifying death toll among children in residential schools.
Named after the province of this Lake of the Woods jingle dress origin, Ontaria says she’s heard of similar other origin stories including from Red Lake, Minn. Others make reference to the development of jingle dresses during the 1918 Influenza pandemic which killed over 50 million people worldwide following the First World War.
“It really does heal and protect you because there are times where I’m sick and when I want to dance, it helps me heal and I feel a lot better,” says Ontaria, who also held the American flag at the community’s grand entry – the first time the pow wow had women flag bearers.
Linda Bird, originally from the community, travelled from Winnipeg to dance over the pow wow weekend.
“I just lifted myself up like the way Maggie White did, she was lifted up and I just went to clear my sadness and move on. If it hadn’t been for the White family, this jingle dress would have died out because from what I know that they were were ridiculed because there was no jingle dress dancers way back then,” said Bird.
“But then when they pushed her to the dance the healing dress then everybody started to understand.
“Everybody wants to heal because there’s so much hurt in this world and we have to keep moving on. We can’t stop. It’s really what it is, a healing dance.”
Naotkamegwanning community member Rhonda White says the 50th anniversary pow wow was the largest she’s seen in at least 20 years. Maggie White is her late kokum-grandmother.
Currently a teacher at Naotkamegwanning’s Baibombeh Anishinaabe School, she says jingle dress dancing alongside drummers has been part of her since birth.
“When we first travelled, nobody danced jingle,” she says. “Today it’s everywhere. That’s something that I’m proud of because this is what my Kokum saw…to become part of all these different nations and maybe that’s what another part of that healing is.”
Rhonda says the idea of the dress to be worn with jingles as a form of healing came from Maggie’s grandfather in a dream in the 1920s. In the oral history, she says Maggie was sick as a child, while she does not know more than that.
“Her grandfather Binesii (previously spelled Pinesse), he would have these visions, but he didn’t know what they meant until he was an older man,” she says, noting Maggie’s father was Sabatise Bird.
“The one that she received when she was about six or seven, she went through what is called an Ogimagamig, a kind of healing lodge. She was told to wear this dress. The more she danced in that dress, she started getting better. After the healing ceremony, she just always danced in that dress, no matter where she was dancing at.”
Rhonda says generations of her community members supported Maggie’s dedication to share the dress and dance with others.
“One of those many pow wows is where we started hearing the term the First Lady of Jingle.”
For many decades, powwows were banned under the Indian Act from 1876. Over time, after protests including from Indigenous veterans, the federal government made amendments to the Indian Act. But it wasn’t until 1951 that the ban on cultural ceremonies was removed.
Many generations of families had attended Kenora’s two residential schools, Cecilia Jeffery’s and St. Mary’s, and the community’s Whitefish Bay Day School. She notes though, that there were many instances of family’s hiding children and preventing them from attending school, hiding sacred bundles, and holding onto the traditional-spiritual knowledge.
“A lot of our language is so immersed in the ceremonies and the songs,” says Rhonda. “And that was carried through those kinds of hardships that were happening.”
She says she relates the sound of the jingle to sounds and beats of the drum.
She says over the years, it’s been a community effort of travelling around the pow wow trails with their local drumming groups – The Whitefish Bay Singers and Hanisha Singers – that developed unique drum and dance for the jingle dress.
“One of the things that I remember hearing from my parents, even the Whitefish Bay singers, there’s such a connection between the drums, the singing styles and the jingle dress,” she says. “It’s very distinctive, a different beat you don’t find outside of the area.”
“No matter how different we are, that thread or commonality is that we all share something. That was one of the things that we did was share, the jingle dress.”
Rhonda danced Saturday evening during the Naotkamegwanning jingle special for her niece Sierra White, a recent nursing graduate who had undergone major surgery after medical issues. She reflects what dancing means to her.
“I always try to honour my grandmothers by dancing the old ways of how they used to dance so that way our younger generation can see that there’s different styles and remembering our original style is one way to to honour that.”
“We’re told to be around people because that’s the best medicine,” she says, emotional around the anniversary of the loss of her brother Ryan White, a former Whitefish Bay singer. “We’re dancing for those that can’t, for those that are gone, those that are not they can’t be here with us.”
Inspired by her family connection to the jingle dress Rhonda painted a four-by-six foot mural of jingle dress dancers in the 1990s. She modelled it off of a photograph that includes her great grandmother and style of Anishinaabe artist Arther Shilling. The painting includes fish, forests, singers, and within one of the woman’s stomach, another scene including Maggie White holding a staff she used to hold.
“I love oils, like the way it slides on to the canvas,” she says. “His style inspired me to create this oil painting using also the photograph which taught me a lot about what my history is to Whitefish Bay and share my culture.”
The painting was featured in the 2019 Kenora Lake of the Woods Museum Shiibaashka’igan: Honouring the sacred jingle dress, later winning the Ontario Historical Society’s Indigenous History Award in 2020. It featured over 30 jingle dresses on display and community photography by the now Toronto photo Laureate Nadya Kwandibens who is originally from Animakee Wa Zhing #37, right beside Naotkamegwanning.
Rhonda’s artwork along with interviews from her and other dancers are available in a collection booklet still available at the Lake of the Woods Museum.
Also featured in the exhibit and supporting in workshops on making cones by hand, Isobel White (Keshii Binesiik) has seen the rise of the jingle dress first-hand.
She says her first love of the jingle dress came from watching her grandmother’s love of making the jingle cones by hand out of tobacco tins.
She says she was one of the original four women to travel pow wow in the 1970s with Maggie White and the Whitefish Bay Singers who brought the dress and dance with them along the pow wow trails.
“Maggie was the mother of the Whitefish Bay singers,” she says. “I was one of the Whitefish Bay Singers and Evelyn [Tom], so we’re the ones travelling so we’re the ones I guess promoting the jingle dress or making it known.”
She remembers how other pow wows didn’t know what category to put them in.
“I remember one place in Wikwemikong, we’re the only ones in jingle dresses… and then these younger people, they came in looking at our jingles and even touched them saying ‘what’s that?’ That was 42 years ago.”
“There were no categories then, but because Maggie, Caroline, myself, and our husbands were the singers, that’s all we had was jingle dresses. That was the only way we danced. The next thing you know, there’s like, lots.”
Now in her mid-70s, she remembers the fear and determination her community feels in reclaiming the right to culture.
“I remember being afraid of them taking away the pow wow,” she says. “Because there were also Midaaowin ceremonies and I know that for sure was lost for years and it’s just finally coming back.”
Maggie passed away Oct. 21, 1992 at the age of 69, the jingle dress lives on.
As for Rhonda and Isobel, jingle dresses as a reminder of family and community resistance and persistence to preserve the right to spiritual-cultural healing.
“It’s not just pretty, it’s a healing dress,” says Isobel. “It’s healing people. The feeling when you’re watching them dance, you feel so proud when you’re dancing…it’s not just about money either, you feel a lot. You feel happy.”
She describes the Ojibwe-Anishinaabemowin term of vocalizing some women do while dancing jingle.
“‘Sasakwe’ to me is… I’m saying thank you I’m having such a good time to the spirits. They’re giving me life. So I go Sasakwe,” she says. “It’s a beautiful dance, jingle.”
Naotkamegwanning First Nation youth Willow Crow says her 50th anniversary pow wow was the first time she danced jingle after envisioning a jingle dress for herself to be made. The dress she wore was white birch bark material adorned with gold cone jingles.
“This past year, I really felt pulled to join the circle because I was able to attend ceremony and really immerse myself in culture and learn about the land.”
Having seen the 2019 jingle dress exhibit, she went to the museum’s jingle dress collection following her community pow wow.
“You can’t tell the story of the Lake of the Woods without telling the story of the jingle dress,” says Kenora’s Lake of the Woods Museum director Braden Murray talking to Crow.
“It was really a great opportunity for people who maybe didn’t have any exposure to the jingle dress, or to the dancing or the pow wows, to learn about jingle dresses, to learn about the stories and to learn about how it’s inextricably linked to the Lake of the Woods.”
He says especially since the exhibit and more media attention, the museum has had a spike in international inquiries to learn more on the jingle dress origins, and the impact it has on people.
“It’s so beautiful to see how far and wide the jingle dress has gone all over Turtle Island and the respect of our people from Naotkamegwanning, it’s incredible,” says Crow.
She says she’s motivated to continue dancing knowing of her family’s stories of people hiding children and their family’s sacred bundles from authorities.
Murray says there are three they are currently unsure who they used to belong to including one or more that were donated to the museum in 1964 from a collection from former regional Indian Agent and veteran Frank Edwards.
“I think this would be a beautiful opportunity to have multiple generations to learn about this person in the context of how they’ve been impacted in communities and families, multiple generations,” she says. “It could be done in a good way through ceremony through healing of the jingle dress.”
To her, the jingling cones reminds her of a few things including leaves, rain, and rattles.
“When I dance, I always think about my ancestors, like how they kept these protected for our generations now and when I dance, I dance really hard because of all the Kukums, all the children, and the people weren’t able bodied enough to dance themselves.”
The summer powwow trail was strong this season, back from pandemic restrictions. With one of its largest in decades, hundreds across Turtle Island drove to a small First Nation in the Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario this July. Not just for dance competitions celebrating its 50th anniversary, but to get closer to the origin story of the healing jingle dress.