The Contemporary Powwow Tradition
Most music and dance in contemporary American Indian powwows throughout the US and Canada are rooted in the traditional cultures of the Plains. At the time of European contact in the 17th century the war dance, scalp dance, and calumet dance formed a dance "complex" that was widespread among many tribes.
In the contemporary powwow, men's dance style categories are Traditional (Northern, Southern, Crow), Southern Straight (may be included with the men's Traditional category), Grass, and Fancy. The men's traditional dances in the contemporary powwow are directly descended from the war dance of the Omaha tribe. The contemporary Grass dance developed in North Dakota around 1905-1910 and the Fancy dance outfit of brightly colored feathers is credited to a Ponca man who was a champion fancy war dancer in the mid-1920s.
Women's contemporary dance style categories are Traditional (cloth, buckskin, Crow), Jingle Dress, and Fancy Shawl. The women's Traditional category includes beaded buckskin dresses and cloth dresses, and the different styles are fairly tribe-specific. Fancy Shawl dancing originated in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge or Rosebud reservation as a competition dance in the early 1950s and '60s. This was a revolutionary breakthrough for the younger women who wanted a more stylistic approach to traditional dance.
Origin of the Jingle Dress Dance
There are a few different versions of the origin story of the jingle dress, but all of them agree that the jingle dress originated in a dream. An Ojibwa man had a dream in which he was given instructions for the dress and dance. He and his wife made the dresses and selected four women to wear them at the next dance. In another version of the story, the man's granddaughter was very ill. She wore the dress and then regained her health.
The jingle-dress dance style began among the Ojibwa in the Wisconsin area around 1920, and sometime during the next decade it spread to the Sioux of North Dakota. By around 1950, it had spread westward into Montana. But by 1960, this dance style was rarely seen. Women started wearing jingle dresses again in the late 1970s and currently the dance is very popular.
Today's jingle dress is a dress, skirt or apron worn over an underskirt. When the dancer wants to sit down, she raises the outer skirt above her hips so that the jingle cones aren't crushed. Early cones were made of tin. Contemporary cones are made from snuff-can lids, each shaped into a cone and attached to the dress by a short piece of ribbon.
To Learn More
For a nice photographic treatment of contemporary powwows, see Powwow Country (1992) and Powwow Country: People of the Circle (1998), both by Chris Roberts, and Powwow: Images Along the Red Road (1996) by Ben Marra.
For a scholarly treatment of Plains music and dance, see the book, War Dance: Plains Indian Musical Performance, by William K. Powers, University of Arizona Press, 1990.
William K. Powers also wrote an excellent article called "Plains Indian Music and Dance" that discusses the distinctions between the Northern Plains style of music and dance and that of the Southern Plains. This article appears as a chapter in the book Anthropology on the Great Plains, edited by W. Raymond Wood and Margot Liberty, University of Nebraska Press, 1980.