Traditional Dance Offers Hope to Indigenous Communities

Women use cultural traditions to combat the Coronavirus

Cecilia Nowell
ZORA
Published in
4 min readApr 10, 2020

--

A photo of an elderly Ojibwe showing an embroidery to a young child.
Photo: Peter Garrard Beck/Getty Images

OnOn March 25, Nicole Sch stepped out into the cool forest air of Anahim Lake, a predominantly Ulkatcho First Nation community in British Columbia, and began to dance. As she zigzagged across a meadow near her home, small “jingles” on her handmade brown and gold dress rustled in tune to her movements. Across North America, dozens of Native women followed suit, posting videos of themselves and their children performing the jingle dress dance, a traditional Ojibwe healing dance, from Arizona suburbs to the snowy woods of Michigan.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the United States and Canada, indigenous women have turned to traditional healing practices to strengthen and support their cultural communities while practicing social distancing. Brenda Child, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Ojibwe tribe, has traced the history of the jingle dress dance to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It was said that a little girl was near death, and her father had a dream about a dance and dress that would heal her. He made her the dress and taught her the dance, and as she performed it she became better.

The jingle dress dance began in Ojibwe communities around the Great Lakes and gradually spread to Dakota peoples in the region. But, in the 1980s, indigenous communities across the country began to adopt the jingle dress dance. Today, it’s considered a pan-Indian tradition, though most instructors remind dancers of its Ojibwe origins.

During the same time period when the jingle dress dance emerged, the U.S. federal government banned ritualistic dancing on Native American reservations. But, “women disregarded what was coming out of Washington, and they developed this new tradition that empowered them and their communities in the aftermath of this terrible, devastating epidemic,” Child said. In recent years, jingle dress dancers have performed at Standing Rock and in honor of missing and murdered indigenous women.

“American Indians always take a lot of comfort in songs and our performative traditions, and, maybe more so than the rest of the United States or people in North America, believe very…

--

--

Cecilia Nowell
ZORA
Writer for

reporting on gender, latin america & the southwest | she/her | words at Al Jazeera English, PRI’s The World, NPR’s LatinoUSA | cecilianowell.com