Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen
Place: Lanark, Ontario
Franziska von Rosen: Karen, I really enjoyed watching you dance at the Odawa Powwow this year. I understand that you won the Womenís Jingle Dress competition. Can you talk about the origin of the dress and the dance style?
Karen Pheasant: The first time I saw the dance was in the '70s. It had been around for many years prior to that. It was only done within the Lake Superior region. Just like the Prairie Chicken dance, which is a common powwow dance now, but thirty years ago, even twenty years ago it was only done in Blackfoot territory, in the same way the Jingle Dress was only in Anishinaabe territory.
The Jingle Dress has societal origins; it is done in the Lodge and is associated with special protocol and rites. The women who were jingle dress dancers were part of the ogitchedah dah kwe, which means warrior women. Now when we think of warriors itís not in the western sense of a warrior going to battle. Itís true that the women are the warriors, but they are more like the backbone of the people, keepers of the household, the families, and the communities. And so this dance was bestowed on the people through a dream. Songs, dress and stories were given through the dream to a family.
In the '70s, a collective of women plus the singers traveled across the northern plains, across the provinces and as far as the state of Washington to sing the songs, show the dress and dance and tell the story of what it is about. Not long after, within 10 years, other tribal women appropriated the dress and the dance was done, sometimes without the accompaniment of the proper songs.
In the summer of Ď89 or Ď90, there was a Kiowa girl from Oklahoma who had seen the Jingle Dress dance at various powwows. She was inquisitive and went to her family because she wanted to know more about it. She was a girl with a traditional foundation and philosophy; because she was a southern dancer, she was aware that there had to be more to it than just the physical aspect of the jingle dress. So she and her uncles, the Gray Horse Society Drum, went to the Lake of the Woods area. They went with their appropriate gifts and they went with the intention to learn where this dance came from.
The uncles approached the grandmothers at the Lake of the Woods powwow. The grandmothers got together that evening and did the dance. They had a translator and the grandmothers told about where the dress came from, how the dresses are, how the dance is. Then the songs were sung. The songs are currently called side-step songs. So the grandmothers showed the dance. Before that though they talked about giving thanks, giving appreciation for the life that we have and acknowledging our gifts. The grandmothers danced, and they did their version of the side-step. After they showed all the women - there were dozens, dozens, and dozens, many, many women from all across Canada and the United States that attended this event. The women took to the floor and danced their version of the side-step, each one of them taking their own personal spot on the floor. The song started and they danced. Midway through the song - and this happened a couple of times - the grandmothers stopped the song and let them know that that was not what they had shown; that was not how they danced.
The grandmothers went to the floor one more time to show the dance. And with careful observation one could see that their full attention was connected to one another. The women were in close proximity to each other, side by side. They didnít have autonomous spots in the powwow area or dance floor. They were connected with one joining circle. That was the importance of what they showed. And the feet were bound to the earth, close to the earth, in the side-step dance. The young women took to the floor and did it again until they had done it as the grandmothers had shared. At the end of that transfer where the Kiowa girl was shown this dance, the grandmother selected ten women who they felt were representative of what they had just taught. I am honoured that I was one of the ten women selected.
FvR: Thatís a wonderful story Karen. What a wonderful gift you were given.
KP: I forgot about that story, until someone reminded me a few years ago, when I spoke to another one of the 10 women. We spoke to each other and said, ďIn what way have we been honoring that selection, that commitment when we were selected by the grandmothers.Ē So I actually published a story on this, and then I did a choreographic dance piece with the De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre here on Manitoulin in the summer of 2004 documenting and telling how all these dances were.
FvR: Whatís the name of that piece?
KP: "The Promise"; my promise by being selected that I would maintain the integrity and authenticity of this dance. Because there has been such a change of our dances, not only Jingle Dress, but the other powwow dances too. There has been such an impact of contemporary ways that a lot of the essence and integrity of the dance, I feel, is challenged.
I feel that if individuals want to pursue a particular dance, they have to go to the land itself because the truth of our people is in the land. So people actually should go to the land and to the place and speak to the people there so that they have the full essence of the dance and the dress.
FvR: Can we talk a little about the sound of the jingles themselves. What does it mean to you to hear the sound of those jingles?
KP: Without a doubt the sound is of vital importance. Say 10 years ago I would be at a celebration where there would be dozens and dozens of us and there would be nothing as astounding as the sound of all the Jingle Dress dancers.
In contemporary times there have been myths created to talk about those sounds. And by myths I mean in the Western sense, not the indigenous sense. I did a workshop recently and one of the participants asked about the cones. She was taught that there are supposed to be 365 cones on a dress and she had the understanding that she was supposed to only put on one cone per day for 365 days. I have often heard this myth expressed by inquisitive non-dancers or very new dancers. Rarely have I heard this from cultural historians.
So in 2005 the Native American Museum in Washington D.C. hosted a one-day conference prior to their anniversary powwow and the focus of the panel discussion was origins and history of our dances. During the weekend of the powwow they also included jingle dress historians. I was head lady dancer at this gathering.
So at this conference the key speaker addressed this myth. He recalled how the grandmothers made this dress and attached all the cones, and it generally was done in one sewing. The cones were made from snuff can lids. We use a lot of tobacco as First Nations people. So the cones were made from the snuff can lids. We are true environmentalists and ecologists; we use, we donít waste.
FvR: What about the actual sound?
KP: Itís true the sound of the cones is therapeutic, much like Native American flute music is therapeutic.
FvR: So, are there some Jingle Dress dancers who would not dance at powwows?
KP: We have different types of dancers. We have people who own a dress and participate in ceremonies and dance at ceremonies or attend random powwows. And then there are people who I call current and active dancers who follow the powwow culture. For some itís a lifestyle. Itís what they do; they raise their children that way. In the winter they spend time preparing and making new regalia.
FvR: Where do you fit in?
KP: I categorize myself as a full-time professional; I raise my children this way. We are full-time powwow participants. Because I do a lot of work in the fields of art, I also consider myself a professional performing artist. I choreograph and I direct. Both of my sons are Grass dancers. My daughter is a Jingle Dress dancer. We travel across Canada and the United States competing. During the off-season, we attend the local traditional powwows. We do both.
Iím a dancer. I live this life. When I enter the dance floor the sound for me is of the song and the drum. I dance almost every weekend so maybe now the cones are just a part of me. My sound when Iím out on the floor is the drums.
FvR: In your article ďItís All in the SongĒ you wrote that ďA good dancer can dance to any song, they find it within themselves.Ē Can you elaborate on that?
KP: That song, there is a spirit to it. So when I dance Iím dancing to the spirit of that song. And it is all about my body receiving the spirit of that song. Those songs are embodied from the Creator to that singerís soul.
FvR: Would you also talk about what makes a good dancer and what a powwow judge would look for.
KP: One of the key points is that a dancer is attentive and in tune with the song that is coming out. Sometimes people donít realize a dancer doesnít know what song they are going to get until the sound of the first beat. As dancers we never know what song is coming and there could be hundreds of songs that could come on. So that song comes out and it is about how the body responds to that song. The judges look for execution, fluidity of movement, gracefulness. Staying in time with the beat of the drum is key. Then they also look at completion of outfit - meaning that whatever dance they do, they have the basic elements. For instance in a Jingle Dress you have your leggings, moccasins, dress, hair pieces and accessories. And generally they would all match.
Because powwow culture is strongly a family activity, sometimes when Iím talking about what judges look for I compare it with figure skating. Just like in figure skating, you could be the worldís best skater and you wouldnít be going to the Olympics, because you have to go through a certain process - do all your local communities and then you become community champion. Then you go to regional and then from regional you go nationals and so on. So the dancer must invest in the local community and then you earn your way and then you get better. You probably change coaches along the way. You really should have a dance mentor. Figure skaters never make it to the gold medal alone, they do with support of community and their coaches. It is the same for dancers; itís commitment to your community and all those different levels of community.
FvR: There is a lot more to it then I thought. I would like to hear a little more about you and what dance means to you.
KP: I like to take it further, beyond powwow culture and to what it means to me, particularly at this stage of my life. Iím a grandmother now and I have two grandchildren. When I look at my past and how I raised my two teenagers who are now the parents of my two grandchildren, I feel very fortunate and blessed. When they were teenagers we spent our summers dancing and I would always know where each of them was. They were dancing beside me, one on either side. Now I have a third teenager and I look at how contemporary life impacts on teenagers regardless of ethnicity, geographical location, even your economic stability. Regardless of any of that, the issues of parenting a teenager are the same Ė drugs, HIV, AIDS. I feel grateful that my son lives in the powwow culture.
One of the misconceptions about Native cultures is that we are all about sweet grass and sweat lodges. But just like with European cultures Ė Greeks, Italians, French, Germans - all having their own languages and culture, in the same way we have almost 500 First Nations, and each is different. So through dance and powwow culture it enriches our lives to see how these others speak, dance, prepare their food, and everything that goes with that lifestyle. So dancing and powwow culture give me, my children and grandchildren an opportunity to participate in that.
FvR: The way you speak about your familyís participation in powwow gives me a new understanding of the richness of that lifestyle. What about you personally, what got you started in dance?
KP: I was a little girl in the big city of Toronto who had a dream. I wanted to dance, dance to those amazing drums. In those days, the only way to hear the Badlands Singers, Rocky Boy Drum or get close to Crow Fair was a purchase of those records from Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. Every summer when I went home to Manitoulin Island, I couldnít sleep because of all the excitement for the powwow the next day. As we approached the powwow area, I could hear the drum, way before I saw any of the beautiful dancers. My heart would skip a beat, as it still does to this day.
Shortly after I reached toddler age, my mom and my auntie prepared a dress for me and I started dancing at the powwow. So it has always been there.
FvR: Would you talk a bit about how you learned to dance as a child.
KP: I always say to my dance students you can come to workshops, go to lots of classes or read my writings but more important you have to have a commitment to the land, to the song, and the people of the dance. One of my good friends, Lisa Ewalk, who is a current reigning Shawl Dance champion, shared a story with me. She said, ďWhen we learned to dance we would be in the living room and my grandpa would get his hand drum and would sing these songs and my grandma would be sitting there and we would just dance. Heíd keep singing that song and we would dance again. That is very different than now when people watch videos and copy other dancers.Ē When Lisa was learning to dance and when I was learning to dance it wasnít about copying other dancers. It was about hearing, feeling, sensing the essence and spirit of that song and our bodies translating that into dance movement.
FvR: Did your parents dance?
KP: Not at powwows. They did square dancing. In fact my dad was a square dance caller. But dad tells a story about that - they werenít called powwows back then, they were gatherings and the drum would be there and my grandmother, his mother, would be dancing with no regalia, just in her normal clothes. She would have a shawl over her shoulders and she would be doing what we now call the Womenís Traditional stationary dance. Back then it was just part of life Ė the gathering and people just dancing.
FvR: Can we talk a bit about your work as a dance choreographer. Is there a particular style that inspires you?
KP: I started being a traditional dance instructor at Banff in 1996. At the time it was our only National Aboriginal Dance program. It is no longer around. It focused on the different dance styles of First Peoples across the country Ė the Innu with their dance steps, the West Coast peoples with their movements. And what has evolved, and I feel honoured to be part of that, is a showcase of theatrical dance that combines the essence of cultural dances with contemporary dance, such as what Red Sky does.
It is exciting and interesting to see what some of these Native contemporary dance troupes do. But I still want to see where we, professional powwow dancers, could be part of a theatre dance piece using all cultural dancers - Jingle, Grass, where we do not have to borrow from ballet and modern contemporary dance. That is the part I look forward to. Right now we are in a transition. Most powwow dancers still only see themselves dancing in the powwow arena.
FvR: You talked about the importance of having mentors. Who were some of your own mentors?
KP: Of course my dad, and then as a very young woman, the late Alex Skead of the Lake of the Woods area, the late Bella Lovejoy, my adopted mother - she was Lakota - and more recently Murial Miguel of Spider Woman Theatre.
FvR: What do you see as the role of a mentor?
KP: Mentors provide guidance in several ways. And I would have to say that initially there is a divine connection because as you evolve in your artistry questions come to mind and you are not sure of this new territory. Like with the work I have been doing in contemporary dance, things happen that you donít even imagine. When you have mentors, because there is a divine connection, the experiences that come bring clarity to the path and direction you are going. The mentors provide encouragement and support. And you always need that.
FvR: Thank you for sharing this with us, Karen.
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