- By Darren Thompson
In the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Diné photographer Eugene Tapahe had a dream that brought healing to the people and the land. His dream was of jingle dress dancers approaching buffalo grazing in the Yellowstone National Park, and of buffalo joining the dancers in the well-known healing dance that has its origins during the Spanish flu of 1918 among the Ojibwe people.
When Tapahe woke, it inspired a feeling that he felt he needed to share with people, said his daughter Erin. “He wanted the dream to happen, but because of the pandemic he couldn’t organize 50 dancers to meet in one location,” said Erin Tapahe, daughter of Eugene Tapahe, to Native News Online. “We had a family friend that we have been quarantined with during the pandemic and initially it was our family and their family fulfilling this dream together.”
From his dream, Eugene Tapahe created the Jingle Dress Project last year with his two daughters, Erin and Dion Tapahe, and two family friends, Sunni and JoAnni Begay—all Diné. The project aims to bring healing to the land and to the people.
“We brought in Sunni and JoAnni because, in total, there would be four dancers and the number four is sacred to us as Diné people,” said Erin. “Four represents the four worlds and the four sacred colors.”
The Jingle dress dance began just over a century ago, during the flu pandemic of 1918, when the granddaughter of an Ojibwe medicine man fell very ill. As the man slept, he had a dream of four women leading him as spirit guides wearing a type of dress unseen before made of rows of metal cones. When dancing, the cones create a melody that is said to be healing to many. During his dream, he was shown how to make the healing dress, what songs to sing, and how the dance was to be performed and in doing so, it would make his granddaughter well again.
In time, his granddaughter became well again and many saw her healing and trusted the abilities of the song and dance of the healing dress known to many as the Jingle Dress. The dance came to the people during a time where Indian culture was heavily repressed by Indian agents on reservations and many were converting to Christianity.
Today, the dance is seen at all powwows throughout the United States and Canada and is performed predominantly by women and girls.
Since the Jingle Dress Project was created, the Tapahe family has traveled to more than 20 national and state parks throughout the United States including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Central Park in Manhattan, and Mouth Rushmore National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They dance to a song that was created by one of their family members.
“Our dreams are given by the ancestors to give direction to our lives and work through us for the people,” said South Dakota State Senator Red Dawn Foster to Native News Online. “We are told to live our dreams because by doing so we restore balance in the world. As these women are dancing, they are making medicine for the people.”
On November 15, 2021, the Jingle Dress Project was featured on Good Morning America and told the story of how the project came to be and its roots to Indigenous peoples history and, significantly, how the people heal from a pandemic. Native American communities and people have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic at greater rates than other groups of people including deaths from the virus as well as hospitalizations.
“By documenting their journey, spreading this medicine, they are both healing more people and inspiring our young people to live their dreams,” said Foster.
As their travels increase, interest in the dance and the project has increased. They have been invited to many other locations including Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada. As they travel, Eugene takes photographs of their appearances with the goal of bringing healing to their journey.
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