Our Dance Myths and Stories

Ojibwe peoples have stories about dance, drum, song and how these gifts came to the people who learned them.  According to Indigenous scholar Basil Johnston (1976), around 1877, a Dakota person, Turkey Tailfeather Woman, gave the Ojibwe people the Drum Dance.  The dance uses a large double-membrane drum that our people have associated with the sacred Drum Religion (Johnston 1976).

Click here to see a photo of a gathering taking place at Rainy River, Ontario, 23 June 1899, with men seated around the large drum (mun.Ontarchive4.jpg).

In the 20th century, many  Elders learned of dance, song, ceremonies and teachings while in their childhood.

Elder Evelyn Thom, a 76-year-old  Jingle Dress dancer from Morrison, Ontario explained how she learned traditional dance as a child growing up in the 1930s:  “We went to the round dance hall and the ladies danced in a circle or a line in the old traditional style, straightforward dancing; no kicks, and no high steps.  We were not supposed to pass each other.  That’s the old way, how I was taught” (Sexsmith 2003: 1-2).

Similarly, traditional dancer, Viola Recollet of Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island, Ontario remembered: “We were taught not to pass the one who’s leading the dance.  We kept behind and kept dancing . . . no high stepping . . . kept dancing.  The women used to dance around the men” (Recollet 2006: personal communication).

Recollet said the traditional dance the elderly women performed when she was a child was not the same style as the fancy outfits and dance steps popular among today’s women dancers.

“The traditional teachings . . . it was there all the time.  In the traditional dances I saw when I was eight or nine years old, they danced in buckskin dresses and moccasins; no fancy stuff.  Even kids danced.  Women stood in one spot with a shawl over their arm.  The women stood in one spot and the men danced around” (ibid).

Aaron Benson, the Rain Dancer and powwow dancer from Rama Reserve, recalled the stories that taught where different dances originated:

Rain Dance is ceremonial; powwow is social. There is a vast difference between the two purposes. There is a different focus for each, the social and the ceremonial.

One is a release and the other is for being; however you want to look at it. So when we dance we know that our ancestors are dancing with us. We know that those yet to come are dancing with us. We know that the dance fathers, the spirits, are dancing with us. We know about Mother Earth’s feelings because of the dancing. And we know that the Creator is looking down upon us.

I have had instances where preachers – reverends – came up to me and said, “what you are doing is blasphemous. It is against the Word of God.”

How negative these reverends’ views were of dancing or of ceremonies that we do when all we want is to be closer to God! We want to be closer to our ancestors; and we want to pray for those yet to come.

So when a reverend comes up to me and says: “This is blasphemous and against the Word of God.” Well I have to ask how can the reverend speak for God?  Because God has its own words, its own song, and who is to say that humans can read the mind or the heart of God?

I do not have anything against Christianity. I have learned a lot about Christianity. That was my sole purpose to research Christianity to find out why Christians were so negative towards our culture.

The conclusion that I have come to on a daily basis is that we know God has a sense of humour. We know that God has a purpose for each and every one of us as individuals, not as a group. And when we dance and sing, we have gathered to open up our hearts, our minds to wonder, whether there is stress, or sickness we will be free from that for a brief moment in our life and that brief moment will give us a few more years.

This is kind of shocking when someone comes up to you and says this is blasphemous to the Word of God. How do you know that Jesus did not dance? How do you know that Jesus did not smile and be happy? This is the purpose of life, to laugh and to have a good time, and not to be focused on our mistakes but to learn to avoid them.

If one stops growing then we will never get close to God. So freedom and spirituality is required. And the best expression of spirituality is love. And if someone asked me what is the definition of spirituality, I would say in one word the love of God, the respect of Mother Earth and all her people, and the love that the Creator has for us. So dancing is another form, another way of showing our love.

I participate in competition powwows as well as traditional powwows; it does not matter as they both have the same goal. It still has . . . that underlying purpose. I have never found anybody who is jealous of another dancer. Certainly there are differences of personality but the essential purpose behind our dancing is for love of the Creator.

There are many teachings concerned about where the powwow comes from. And there are teachings about where the Sun Dance, or as known among my people, the Rain Dance, comes from. And I am familiar with most of them.

The Women’s Fancy, for instance, has one story that says it is representative of the butterfly. This old woman who must have been around 85 years old told me a few years ago that in the old days there was just the old men dancing in the middle and the women were dancing outside the circle. And when the warriors came back from war they would go dancing inside. And that is where the Fancy Dance came from for the men. They would show what it takes to be part of a battle. In displaying how they rapidly would take different positions, the dance would have to be very fast.

The Women’s Traditional is just dancing in one spot with the feet never leaving the Earth. The Men’s Traditional shows positions concerned with hunting and war exploits.

There is much bragging as the dancers boast of what they have done in battle or on the hunt.  The Grass Dance – there are those that say they are the ones who prepared the grounds for a gathering by stamping down the grass with their dance steps, but then there are others who say it is a horse. Others say that it represents waves of the grass blowing in the wind. And others say that the Grass Dance comes from way back as part of a ceremony in the Warrior’s Society.

The Chicken Dance is derived from the chickens’ courting ritual of the females where the males act very proud. . . . For the women’s dances the old woman told me that when all of this was happening around the drum the young women wanted to be part of that. They would be dancing in their own little circles while the songs of the Women’s Traditional and the Men’s Traditional were being used.

When the songs got faster they decided to experiment with their footsteps. The women dancing the Women’s Traditional invited the younger women in, but the old men said we cannot as we are too shy. So the women developed this [Fancy] Dance on their own.

The Jingle Dance comes from my people, the Ojibwe, and it is a medicine dance. When it is done in the proper way much healing can be done because of those women dancing. An old man was concerned with his daughter who was sick and that is where that comes from (Benson 2006).

Ojibwe women have always had healing power.  The Jingle Dress Dance has acknowledged this.  For example, the Jingle Dress Dancers, to honour the women, have never shown their legs: “The jingle dress is a healing dress.  It’s the only way I knew.  They didn’t have bells like today; they used deer hooves, buffalo hooves or cow hooves back then. . . . it was the old traditional dress” (Recollet 2006: personal communication).

Elders have taught that the Jingle Dress Dance came to the people as a gift directly from the creator (Sexsmith 2003: 1-2).    Elders Evelyn Thom and Viola McGregor said the Jingle Dress Dance started as a dream:

I don’t know that much.  All I know is the Jingle Dress teachings . . . how this man had a dream.  His child was sick and he had a dream, a special dress that needs to be worn and that is how that dance started (McGregor 2006: interview).

We had a dancer that I knew, on our home reserve at Whitefish Bay, named Maggie White.  She was the original girl who was supposed to have been sick.  It was her father who had a dream about a dress with all these jingling cones hanging off the material.  He spent days making the dress, put it on her, lifted her up to try to make her dance and when she finally was able to dance she got better.  Maggie passed away, an old woman, in 1992 (Thom in Sexsmith 2003:1-2).

You can listen to the interview with Karen Pheasant, a champion Jingle Dress dancer (pine.jingle.karen.interview.doc).

Benson further discussed how Indigenous people have connected all dancing to Mother Earth:

So whether it is war, whether it is healing, the dance is to be a part of life or to honour Mother Earth.  All of these styles that come in are now quite standard for the powwows today. They have evolved into what they are today.  Some say that the Men’s Traditional should not be as flashy as they are today. I say let them express themselves and how they feel.

When dancers have developed their outfit, that is part of their style; it is not because they are copying someone else. What we want to wear is not what we have been given, but what we have created. To me that word, creativity, is significant. That is what it is all about. That is what our lives are about. Those designs that we carry with our outfits could be inherited or dreamed. They are all part of that creativity (Benson 2006).

Recollet remembered dancing, feasting and singing associated with traditional teachings and ceremonies such as the “Moon time” Ceremony that took place at nighttime (Recollet 2006: personal communication).  As a 12-year-old girl, Recollet recalled that Elders took her to the bush with other young girls who were experiencing their first menstruation cycle.  There, they took part in a Moon time Ceremony:

My grandma tried to pass on the medicines to me.  It was a Moon Time Ceremony and we were taken to the bush with a pot, plate; . . . and we were told, from now on you will have to learn how to cook and wash.  We were to “fast” there and my grandmother said a dream would come to me.

I don’t remember how many days we fasted, maybe two days.  The grandmas of all the girls were nearby in the bush to watch over us.

When we came out, there was a dance ceremony and singing for all the young women.  We were in a circle, all the grandmas were talking to their granddaughters about how to respect their body; fix their hair; how it should be worn; how we should respect all people, to offer tea, food to people who may be traveling nearby our villages.

We were taught that in dancing with the traditional steps, there was no bouncing.  We were not allowed to lift our feet high to jump on the earth. . . .We were told not to jump on Mother Earth (ibid).

Elder Viola McGregor of Whitefish River First Nation, Ontario said that people have always regarded women highly because they created life. We have continued to consider the womb’s water to be an essential part of sustaining the developing child:

The women are . . . the keepers of the water I guess, the water being part of the Earth.  It was their way to always walk on Mother Earth softly.  And when those dances were introduced, their [steps] was to always have one foot on Mother Earth. That is respect for Mother Earth as their Mother.  That is how they dance (McGregor 2006: interview).

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Indigenous Dance