The beautiful and brilliant dance outfits that are featured at powwows throughout North America have a very personal story to tell. Each piece of the regalia signifies something unique and special to the dancer and may be a treasured heirloom passed down through the generations.
Often contemporary influences on the dancer's life are combined with traditional attire.
"Dance regalia is individually-made and specific to that individual," said Richard Missens of First Nations University of Canada. "These are often colors or themes with ties to their family or clan systems, expressing their own Indigenous identity and names, but it may also feature a Disney character or other modern acquisition and that's quite acceptable."
As well, the outfit may change and evolve after each powwow season and as the dancer goes through life.
Feathers, leather, ribbons, silverwork, brass, and bone are just some of the materials used in making regalia.
"For example, a roach is worn on the head and made from feathers and the hair of the whitetail deer and porcupine. Its use goes back to time immemorial," said Missens. Beaded headbands are also popular headgear as are medallions. Men often wear a breastplate over their shirts.
The Women's Jingle Dance came to us from the Ojibway people, said Missens.
"It's a healing dance which appeared to a man long ago in a dream," he added. The dress is made of a variety of materials and the jingles are pieces of tin twisted into cone shapes and attached with ribbon in a pattern designed by the dancer. Between 400 and 700 jingles are required for an adult dress. The controlled steps of the sacred dance occur in zig-zag patterns, much like life occurs, and allow the jingles to sound together, suggesting happiness.
The Women's Fancy Shawl Dance is newer, coming from the southern United States and representing the butterfly.
"The colorful shawls come with fancy work and sequins, suggestive of the wonderful and individual designs found on butterflies and provided by Mother Nature." The dance moves are graceful, the arms fluttering gently like wings, and the feet are moving energetically to the beat of the drum. The shawl is made from the same material as the dress. There is little beading on the shawl as it would add unwanted weight.
'"Many hours of work goes into the making of this most meaningful outfit," he said.
Moccasins are the traditional footwear of Aboriginal people and are often only worn at powwow today.
"When the dancers come out they decorate their bodies with the best that they have, so beads are added to make them special, although adornments aren't traditional," he explained. "The decorations are often made by the dancer or by a beloved mother or grandmother."
Men use anklets, headbands, armbands, dance sticks, and hackles.
"The Men's Fancy Dance is the only one which has two bustles," he said. "The colors and adornments again are important to the dancer himself. He must be in great shape as they often perform several dances in a row and they are leaping and jumping, and are very athletic, making it a crowd pleaser as dancers try to keep the regalia moving throughout the entire dance."
The men often carry coup sticks which traditionally were used for the brave act of touching an enemy.
Missens said the Men's Grass Dance was begun on the prairies and is steeped in tradition as well.
"Originally, the scouts went out ahead of the band to find buffalo or select a camping spot. The dance moves are slow and graceful and the fringe work mimics the wind and the tall waving grass," he said. The regalia is made of yarn, ribbons and fabrics and the only adornment which includes a feather may be the roach, he said.
Of major importance to any powwow is the singers and drummers.
"The powwow is a healing circle so when it all comes together it's a celebration. People use the powwow to help themselves. The drum is representative of the heart beat of the people, and the songs are sacred and traditional," he said. Even though the dancers often perform unique steps, they all keep with the beat of the drum.
After the dance is over and the performers return home, the correct way to care for and store their regalia is followed so it will be ready for the next dance.
"There's a lot of care and spirituality associated with regalia, especially the sacred eagle feathers. It's a valuable outfit, often costing $5,000 or more and it means a lot to the dancers, so they're going to take care of it," he said.
Missens said that the powwow is more than song, dance and outfits.
"It's a whole history that's meant to be shared, and I'm pleased to see that the young people are getting involved."
When he was growing up, he and his parents travelled the powwow circuit and learned the importance of the culture and language of his Cree ancestors.
"I urge families to bring the children, to participate in a part of their history, and to pass the pride and ceremony of the dance and its meaningful regalia along to the next generation.