The story that started with a sound: The jingle dress dance tradition

How one Navajo photographer passed down a history of healing and brought his family closer together

The Jingle Dress Project began as a dream cradled in the darkness of 2020.

It was early spring and the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to ravage the world. With international travel banned, shelter-in-place orders set, businesses closed and people losing their jobs, the world was in turmoil.

For Eugene Tapahe, a Navajo photographer, art shows were getting called off — one after another. “The shows are how I make my money, so the cancellations started really affecting me. It was getting dismal,” he says. By May, the Navajo Nation had the highest infection rate in the country. Eugene doesn’t currently live on the reservation, but much of his family still does. Late in the spring, his aunt passed away after contracting COVID-19. “I was really angry, because for safety reasons, we couldn’t bury her on our family land, and we couldn’t come together to celebrate her life,” he says.

Sunni Begay, Erin Tapahe, Joanni Begay and Dion Tapahe, the dancers of “Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project,” at Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona, native land of the Navajo People | Photograph by Eugene Tapahe

Then came the dream. Asleep at home in Provo, Eugene was transported to a grassy meadow in Yellowstone National Park, a place he’s been many times shooting photos, connecting with the land and his family. The sun was setting over the verdant, rolling horizon. “I was watching a herd of bison, then I heard the sound of jingles,” he recalls. “I saw women in traditional jingle dresses start to emerge. First five, then 10, 20, 30 of them were dancing in the meadow. I felt a calmness and healing. I felt like there was hope.” When Eugene awoke the next morning, his dream remained with him, crystallizing in his mind, reminding him of the stories he’d heard about the healing power of the jingle dress. He knew he needed to make his dream a reality. 

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The history of the Navajo jingle dress tradition

The jingle dress dance originated during the influenza pandemic of 1918. As the story goes, a young girl of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe people was very sick with the virus. One night, her father dreamed of women dancing in colorful dresses with small metal cones attached, the air jingling with the sounds of their dance. The spirits in his dream told him that making the dresses and performing the dance would help his daughter heal. He told his wife about the dream, and she set to work making four dresses, their colors corresponding to the Ojibwe sacred colors. She finished each dress with rows of metal cones to create the jingles. Once completed, the dresses were given to four women, and he showed them the dance he saw in his dream. The women began dancing. By the end of the night, the little girl who had been sick with the flu was cured and dancing with them.

Sunni Begay, Dion Tapahe and Erin Tapahe at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — native land of the Anacostine, Piscataway and Pamunkey people | Photograph by Eugene Tapahe

The power and symbolism of the jingle dress dance spread from the Ojibwe people in Minnesota to the Lakota and then westward into Montana and south into the Four Corners region. By the 1980s it was being performed by most of the nation’s Native communities. Because of its origins, the jingle dress dance is called “the healing dance,” and it involves light footwork in rhythm with drumming and singing. The dance is now popular in powwows through the Midwest and western United States. These social gatherings are not ceremonial but focus instead on celebration and competition dancing, and anyone is welcome to attend. The fancy dance, jingle dress dance and others are known as intertribal dances, meaning that members of any tribe can dance them. However, the dresses, music and dance steps at powwows are different from the traditional ceremonial dances since they are being performed in public rather than for ceremony.

Tapahe’s intersection with the jingle dress dance

For Eugene, these aspects of Native culture are an important part of who he is. “I grew up with the tradition of ceremony,” he says of life on the reservation near Window Rock, Arizona, where he was raised by his grandmother. “She had a little home without running water or electricity. We lived by the sun and herded sheep. Grandma was very traditional. We both loved life on the reservation.” Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation and lies on the Arizona-New Mexico border, just south of the Four Corners region in the southwestern U.S.

Eugene Tapahe’s grandmother Susie raised Eugene in a traditional home on the Diné (Navajo) Reservation near Window Rock, Arizona. | Photograph by Eugene Tapahe

After growing up in the rural southwest, Eugene’s path to photography wasn’t a direct one. He left the reservation in 1985 to attend BYU and, after graduating with a bachelor’s in fine arts and graphic design, he went back to the reservation in 1992 to work at the Navajo Times newspaper. “I found creating layouts pretty boring,” he laughs. “I told the editor such, and that I was more interested in reporting. One day, he handed me a camera to shoot a rodeo. That was my first photography experience.” Eugene learned by trial and error on the job. “It was really just a happenstance. It wasn’t like I totally loved photography, but I started getting into it and it totally changed my perspective.”

The birth of the jingle dress project

After Eugene’s dream about the jingle dress dancers, he knew he had to share his vision through his camera lens. “I told my wife and two daughters about it. We agreed it would be amazing if we could make this dream a reality.” They started planning a photography project to re-create the dream with his daughters as dancers. But two dancers weren’t enough, so they told their family friends, the Begay sisters — Sunni and JoAnni — about the photography project and asked if they were interested in joining. With the two sisters as additional dancers, “Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project” was coming to fruition.

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Eugene and the dancers’ first stop to shoot photos was the Bonneville Salt Flats. During the shoot, the group started talking about where to go next and discussed the idea of taking photographs of the jingle dress dancers at state and national parks as sort of a land reclamation for Native people. Soon, Eugene, his wife, Sharon, and the dancers — Dion Tapahe, Erin Tapahe, Sunni Begay and JoAnni Begay — were heading north to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone to create an image of what he saw in his dream. His goal was to use the curative powers of the jingle dress to aid with the COVID-19 pandemic. In Eugene’s words, the project is about capturing “a series of images to document the spiritual places our ancestors once walked, and to unite and give hope to the world through art, dance and culture to help us heal.”

Photo courtesy of Eugene Tapahe

The six of them traveled through the Intermountain West, the Pacific Northwest and across the Great Plains to the Midwest — all the way to Washington, D.C. — capturing images along the way. Sometimes, they were out in the wilderness alone. Other times, they were in the middle of deserted cities, visiting landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, or in crowded streets, paying their respects to George Floyd’s flower-covered memorial in Minneapolis.

Each woman came to the project with her own conception of the jingle dress and of how to use the dance for good during the pandemic. Erin, Eugene’s eldest daughter, recalls her first experience seeing a jingle dress in third grade. “I was in an ESL class, but I didn’t need to be there — I spoke English very well,” she says. “One of the tutors was Native American and she realized I wasn’t learning anything. She came over and talked to me about her tribe and being a jingle dress dancer in powwows. After school, she invited me and my mom to go to her home to see the dress and learn about the dance. It was an impactful moment; having this powerful role model made me feel confident in expressing myself and helped me find myself as a young Native woman.”

Since the jingle dress dance didn’t originate with Navajo people, Erin’s family traditions didn’t include this specific dance. But as it gained in popularity through intertribal powwows, she began dancing in jingle dress competitions. However, it wasn’t until 2016 during the Standing Rock Movement and witnessing a ceremonial jingle dress dance that Erin and her father felt the real healing power of the dance. For Dion, her younger sister, it came a few years later when BYU put on the annual university powwow. “My parents took us to watch the jingle dress dancers and I clearly remember the way they composed themselves,” she recalls. “They were strong women, representing their culture. It’s been really amazing, years later, to be able to dance as one.”

The jingle dress dance tradition during the COVID 19 pandemic

At its core, the traditional Ojibwe jingle dress dance is for healing. Dancers move as one with the drum. “When you’re dancing, it’s very powerful,” Erin says. “I don’t think people really know the full power. You as a dancer have to be healthy in mind, heart and spirit because you are the pathway of healing for other people. It’s incredible to have this positive impact on other people.” Sunni chimes in, “It brings good energy to the audience, but it has helped heal me as well, to remember all the good in the world.” With all the gloom of the past year, the dance has been a way to bring comfort to their community, to strangers along their journey and also to themselves. 

Sunni Begay, Erin Tapahe, Joanni Begay and Dion Tapahe, the dancers of “Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project,” at Bear Medicine Lodge National Monument (Devils Tower), Wyoming, native Land of the Lakota, Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne and Shoshone People. | Photograph by Eugene Tapahe

The timing of Eugene’s “Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project” — coinciding with the pandemic and the ensuing difficult times — was important for both Eugene and the dancers. Eugene’s art market sales dried up overnight, while the pandemic derailed the women’s plans of graduating from BYU, applying to law school and starting careers. As Dion recalls, “It was hard to find hope at the beginning of the year, but through this project we’ve been able to provide hope for ourselves and others.” 

The cultural impact of the jingle dress project

Before the project began, the women felt strongly about using their education to support fellow Native and Indigenous people, and this project gave them even more incentive to push for equality and basic human rights by showing the power of their Native traditions in bringing people together. The women experienced the gift of dance and ceremony in times of hardship, and after dancing with members of the Ojibwe tribe where the jingle dress dance was created, they felt respect and understanding for the traditional dress itself. They witnessed the unrest in the streets of Minneapolis following Floyd’s murder and saw firsthand the brutal outcome of inequities that plague our nation. Erin, who graduated in 2019 with a degree in journalism, says, “When I first got interested in journalism, I typed ‘Native American’ into the search engine of a major news outlet. Everything that came up was negative, really violent stuff.” Reporting on Natives, she found, wasn’t being done by their own people. “Until now, we Native Americans haven’t been able to share our own stories; an outsider had to do it for us. With the advent of social media, it’s much more accessible for anyone to put their voice out there. Natives can share our unique experiences and stories. We suddenly have people shedding light on all these different topics.”

Erin has witnessed this cultural shift just over the past five years. She continues, “Instead of remaining a topic of history, people are realizing we’re still here.” She is currently applying to law school and hopes to pursue human rights, acting as a voice for the voiceless and an advocate for underserved or underrepresented groups.

Sunni has a similar long-term outlook. Her current studies in political science and American Indian studies at BYU are in preparation for a law degree, her main interest being tribal policymaking. She is seeing change on the horizon. “As a child, I grew up around strong Native women, but when it came to power, they were never in charge,” she says. “They were never involved politically. But now, I see many women getting involved in politics. It feels like the norm. I’ve been surrounded by so many Native women in the past few years and they are fierce. They have a mission. To have the power of education behind us, it feels exciting.”

After traveling all year to complete the project for fall gallery shows, the group had experienced so much, but they’d been too busy to return to the Navajo Nation. Then, they visited Monument Valley. “It felt like we were coming full circle,” says Sunni. They hadn’t seen family and friends on the reservation in months. “My dad always taught us that you go out in the world, learn as much as you can and, whatever’s good, you bring it back.”

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.