The Jingle Dress Project brings healing through Indigenous dance

For the young Navajo women of Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project, the musical regalia they wear while traveling around the country represents more than simply gorgeous textile artistry. (Although it is that, too, for sure.)

Their jingle dresses, each outfitted with 365 cones, also represent healing, which they hope to bring to a nation battling everything from an ongoing pandemic to questions over Indigenous land rights.

“It’s said that when the jingles hit each other — when you can hear the noise of the dance, of the dress — that those are the prayers of the jingle dress dancer going up to the Creator,” Jingle Dress Project dancer Dion Tapahe told In The Know.

Dion is one of four dancers who make up Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project. Along with her sister Erin Tapahe and friends Sunni and JoAnni Begay, their mission is to bring healing to Native American communities across the U.S. that are feeling the pain of the past year and a half — and beyond.

The project itself started as a dream of Dion and Erin’s father, landscape photographer Eugene Tapahe.

“Back in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, my dad Eugene Tapahe had a dream about this jingle dress. And in his dream, he saw a field of grass. And there were bison there, as well as jingle dress dancers. And there were hundreds of jingle dress dancers. And he felt peace in his heart,” Dion shared.

Eugene’s dream is similar to the vision of the man who first conceived of the jingle dress. During the pandemic of 1918, an Ojibwe medicine man had a dream of the jingle dress and a dance that could help his sick daughter. He dreamt of a dress featuring cones made of tobacco lids, each of which represented all the days in a year. After a night of dancing, the little girl was healed.

It was this healing that Eugene wanted to bring to all the people. Soon, The Jingle Dress project was born.

“During this time with the pandemic, Native communities have been hit really hard with the coronavirus, and we were trying to figure out how we could best help those people who are in need,” Dion said.

“The jingle dress is a very spiritual dress — it’s very sacred — and its powers are used to bring healing to those who are sick, whether that’s mentally, physically, spiritually,” Sunni added.

“Four is a very sacred number.”

While the Tapahe sisters were dancers, they didn’t have experience modeling. But that wasn’t a problem for Eugene, who wanted to include his two daughters as dancers and models for the project.

With the pandemic presenting so many restrictions, gathering hundreds of dancers wasn’t possible. That’s when Eugene decided he would focus on the four.

“In our Navajo culture, four is a very sacred number,” Dion shared. “And so he said, ‘If we could get four jingle dress dancers, then I think that would be great.'”

That’s when the Tapahe family reached out to sisters Sunni and JoAnni, whom they had met at college. Once they accepted, the team set up their first photo shoot at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

“On our first photo shoot, Dion, Erin, JoAnni, Sunni and I learned how to work together,” Eugene shared on the Jingle Dress Project website. “They weren’t models. I wasn’t a portrait photographer. It was awkward, frustrating and new. But, from the moment they started to jingle dance on the land, it all changed. I cried. I could feel myself healing from the uncertainties of the world — time slowed down.”

Since that first photoshoot, Eugene and the quartet have made their way across the country, visiting places including the Washington Mall, Santa Monica Pier, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and even the Boston Marathon.

Raising awareness

In addition to bringing much-needed healing, The Jingle Dress Project has also helped raise awareness about issues specifically affecting Native American communities, including missing and murdered Indigenous women, land and water rights, and the sports mascots that create a caricature of Native American people and culture.

Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project has made a visible impact across the country. In fact, the group just won the 2021 Red Nation International Film Festival Courage Award. That’s after Eugene’s photographs were added to the Birmingham Museum of Art’s permanent collection, after dancing at the finish line of the 125th annual Boston Marathon and after being recognized by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).

What started as a dream has become an empowering and, most of all, healing reality.

“I think the reason why it’s been able to be so successful is that we’re using the healing powers of the jingle dress,” Sunni told In The Know. “And it brings a lot of hope and unity to those who have heard our story, who are seeking something larger than themselves.”

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