Silver braids and silver jingles are a rare and beautiful sight. Even in a culture that holds Elders in great esteem, 76-year-old jingle dress dancer Evelyn Thom is outstanding, a powerful role model and inspiration.
"My mother is very respected," said Shelda Thom. "Her age and experience are unique and remarkable. Seeing her dancing out there makes us feel proud and brings a lot of notice. A lot of people see her and say, 'Oh, she puts us to shame!' She is usually the only golden age dancer catching her breath at the end of the song. My mother really moves, really gives it out there. She is amazing, the only one dancing hard. But she makes it looks easy."
Evelyn, who is often called upon to share her knowledge and blessings, is currently pursuing a vision to teach the original jingle dress dance style.
She recently came halfway across Canada to preside over the original jingle dress special at the 2003 Poundmaker Cree Nation powwow and get a message across: respect for the healing power of women and their close connection to Mother Earth.
"We wanted to show people in western Canada what the original style was like.
Original style jingle dress was a modest dance that celebrated the healing power and dignity of the Ojibwa woman, in which you did not show your legs," said Alanna Tootoosis, host of the special and 2001-2002 world champion jingle dress dancer.
"It is a gift to be able to dance. The jingle dress was a gift from the Creator. It is important to carry that healing vision to the people," she said.
Born in Morrison, Ont. in 1927, Evelyn enjoyed a traditional Ojibwa childhood.
"We lived in a log cabin in the winter and in a tent all summer on the lake. We didn't stay on the reserve. We went picking berries while the men hunted and fished. That is what my Dad used to do. We didn't use any motors, just paddling all day in a canoe. We helped my Mom tan leather to make the moccasins which we wore all winter," said Evelyn.
She did not know any jingle dress dancers when she was little.
"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.
"The old dresses had no beadwork, just plain fabric or prints. They were the same length back then as they are now. They never wore beaded leggings the way they do now. They just had moccasins made of smoked leather with no fancy decorations. When I was young we were taught by tribal Elders that we should not wear plumes, carry fans or have any feathers. The Ojibwa women just wore plain headbands."
Evelyn was given the right to dance jingle dress in 1947 at the age of 20.
"You had to have a dream or a vision about your ribbons and the colors you could wear. You went to see the medicine man or woman who would give you their blessing and tell you to get your print, your ribbons and cones. Then you would make your own jingle dress.
"In our tribe, Dorothy Paypompee was the medicine woman who gave us spiritual knowledge and healing. She chose to give me the one feather that could be given to a woman, as part of the blessing and initiation into the dance circle," said Evelyn.
Evelyn was allowed to dance holding one feather decorated with three ribbons-yellow, green and red-the colors given to her by the medicine woman.
"We were only given one feather and the significance of the one special feather is now lost," said Evelyn.
"We also have a sacred dress. My daughter Shelda has got one too, with ribbons on it, something the medicine woman gave to her. Mine just has cones, no ribbons. The medicine woman told me I was not supposed to wear that sacred dress in competition, only in traditional powwow."
Evelyn stopped dancing for a time when she lost a beloved sister.
When she started up again she had been battling cancer for several years.
"I was sick for a long time. I went to se the medicine woman again and was given a second feather which helped to heal my sickness. It has my colors on the ribbons and that was part of my healing. That is why I go to powwows all the time. When I feel sick, I put on my jingle dress and go into the middle of the arbor, dance in the traditional way and then I feel better," said Evelyn.
The original jingle dress dance is said, by the Ojibwa, to have originated in Ontario.
A medicine man's daughter was very sick and through prayer and meditation, he was given a powerful vision about a sacred healing dress from the Creator.
"The origins of the medicine dress have not been lost," said Evelyn.
"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 and 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 women, in 1992," said Evelyn.
Evelyn, who has six daughters who dance jingle dress and a husband and two sons who are grass dancers, brought her youngest daughter Shelda into the circle at the age of two.
"My mother has taught me that the healing dress is sacred and that we must be respectful in the keeping and proper care of the dress. In Ojibwa tradition, nobody was allowed to touch or wear another person's dress. We would never lend our sacred dress out to another woman or allow the dress to get wet in the rain," said Shelda.
Jingle dress is a relatively new dance category from the mid-1990s, according to the Thoms.
If you watch traditional powwow in Ontario or Minnesota, you can still see groups of hundreds of original jingle stylists dancing in unison with low dignified steps. The rhythmic sound of the jingles is said to be very beautiful, like 10,000 raindrops on a tin roof
"You would like to see that at regular competitive powwows, but you just don't. What you see is contemporary style and as the years progress they are just getting more and more fancy. Jingle dress dance has become very competitive, one dancer against another, each trying to be better than the next, fancier steps, outfits and beadwork, bigger feathers and plumes, trying to catch the judge's eyes," said Shelda.
"In this way, the spiritual meaning of the dress is lost. Young girls do not understand or respect the dress. Once you put it on, it is supposed to be sacred and you have to be special when you are out there dancing," said Evelyn.
"We dance in several dresses and never lend them out. The dress that you choose to wear, brought to you in a vision or a dream, is your jingle dress and only you are supposed to wear it," said Evelyn.
"My mother wants to see the tradition of the dance passed down with the correct teachings; a real respect for the healing tradition, the old style and yourself as a traditional woman when you are wearing that jingle dress. It is very humbling to have this responsibility. I don't think that there is anybody who is really worthy," said Shelda.