'It's not a costume': Mi'kmaq 'jingle sisters' reflect on regalia and why they dance

Amid powwow season, Mi'kmaq 'jingle sisters' Cheyenne Isaac and Theya Milliea reflect on making connections, misconceptions, and self-expression.

'When you're all geared up, you're just filled with so much pride,' says jingle dancer Cheyenne Isaac

Cheyenne Isaac designed and stitched this red regalia herself, to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

When she was seven years old, Mi'kmaw Cheyenne Isaac walked along a beach near her home in Listuguj First Nation, Que., wondering about a colour for her next jingle dress.

"I wanted something really vibrant at that time in my life," said Isaac, now 28 and living in Millbrook First Nation, N.S.

"I wanted something fun and fancy." 

And then a piece of beach glass revealed itself, she said. 

"I picked it up, and [thought] this is gorgeous. Suddenly I wanted turquoise. I knew I wanted flowers, too," Isaac said.

Her parents called her "wasoweg" — the Mi'kmaw word for flower. 

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It was the first time Isaac was able to express herself through regalia (the clothing and accessories worn by First Nations dancers). With the colours and the sound of the jingles, a little girl's inspired idea was realized. Something blossomed in her, she said.

The Jingle dress and moccasins of Mi'kmaw Cheyenne Isaac. (Kaitlyn Swan/CBC)

Anishanaabe vision

Jingle dress dancing, a healing prayer dance practised at powwow and ceremony by many First Nations across North America, is said to have originated in Anishinaabe (Ojibway) territory, Isaac said, at Whitefish Bay, Ont. 

She recalls the story about a vision experienced by an Anishinaabe man looking for a way to help his sick granddaughter. 

The vision showed the man how to make a jingle dress, the moves to perform, and the sound that the dress would make, Isaac said. Rows of metal cones, originally made from tobacco tin lids, dangle from the dress and "sing" to the spirits. 

"It's almost like the sound of rain," she said. 

After performing the jingle dance four times, it's said that the granddaughter was healed. 

Many dancers take offence to the term 'costume' and its relation to Halloween - when one dresses like someone else. Milliea says regalia can be extensions of the dancer's personal identity. (Kaitlyn Swan/CBC)

'I'm in my element'

During powwows, jingle dancers will often take requests to dance and pray for people with illness and the loved ones of people who've passed on to the spirit world. 

Isaac said that as a child, she didn't realize the level of responsibility involved with jingle dancing. But, after 20 years of dancing at powwows across Mi'kmaq territory and North America, she said its practice and significance has become a vital part of who she is. 

"When I dance, I think I'm definitely expressing the best part of myself. I feel like I'm in my element," Isaac said.

"When you're all geared up [in dancing regalia], you're just filled with so much pride." 

As she grew up, Isaac said she developed a "passion for fashion" which eventually led her to the Aboriginal Arts and Design program at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. 

As a second job, she now operates a regalia design and beading business called Wasoweg Creations, and has sent her work as far as Hong Kong and Rome.

Jingle sisters Theya Milliea, left, and Cheyenne Isaac dance at a powwow at Millbrook First Nation on National Indigenous Peoples Day 2018. (Kaitlyn Swan/CBC)

Jingle sisters

Much of her handiwork, each of which is a unique representation of culture and personal identity, is worn by women of her own territory — "jingle sisters," as they're called among dancers. 

Theya Milliea, 12, of Millbrook First Nation, is a particularly close jingle sister of Isaac's. Milliea has also been dancing since she could walk, and despite their age difference, family members say they get along like old friends. They mirror each other's commitment to the dancing lifestyle. 

The two travelled to a massive North American powwow in Albuquerque, N.M., this year. Milliea calls it the best trip of her life. 

"It's just a part of me now," said Milliea.

"If I go to a powwow far away … where there's not many people I know, maybe I get nervous. But then I start dancing, and it's like, I'm alright." 

Milliea dances in the fancy shawl style, featuring fast-paced, high-stepping footwork, centred around elaborate shawls draped over the dancer's wingspan. 

"The closest thing I can compare it to is maybe the movement of a butterfly's wings, like they're flying around," said Milliea, the coming-of-age metaphor not lost on the young dancer. 

"To me it represents women empowerment and stuff like that," she said.

"The way it was created was [when] a group of girls were fed up because the men … get to dance fancy and there [was] no women's fancy. They just wanted to compete with men." 

Jingle dresses are lined with metal cones that 'sing to the spirits' when the dance is performed. Originally, cones were made from the tops of tobaccco tins - a sacred medicine in First Nations cultures. (Kaitlyn Swan/CBC)

Milliea has four sets of regalia, all of which are made with bright colours and sparkling material. She said all of them are sacred to her, and said she hopes curious spectators realize that. She said she often corrects people who call her outfit "a costume." 

"It's called a regalia," she said, with emphasis.

"It's not a costume. People come up and say 'I love your costume,' and they'll hold my [dress] fringes. You have to ask before you touch … it could put bad energy into the regalia."

Help with the cost

Recently, Millbrook First Nation announced an addition to its annual budget for organized sports, which comes from tobacco sale revenues. An additional $300 is now available for band members under 18 who wish to purchase or enhance their regalia.

Millbrook Chief Bob Gloade said the funding is a result of a marked increase in young people participating in cultural events and traditional activities. 

"It gives them better self-esteem, more pride in their culture," said Gloade. 

"[Powwow dancing] goes beyond just a high performance sport. There's a lot of work that goes into [regalia] for them to be proud of what they do and what they wear. They represent our community [as] ambassadors for our First Nations culture and history." 

Millbrook First Nation in Mi'kma'ki/Nova Scotia has made available $300 for members under 18 to buy or enhance their regalia. In recent years, the community has seen an uptick in cultural exploration by its youth. (Kaitlyn Swan/CBC)

Cheyenne Isaac said she's proud to represent Mi'kmaq values and tradition at powwows, but said she's careful to point out to non-Indigenous peoples that powwow dancing isn't the pinnacle of their culture. 

"I think that a lot of people directly link [First Nations] culture to powwows when they are really just a gathering of celebration, of showcasing who you are," Isaac said. 

"You don't need to practise powwow, but it's definitely a great thing if that's the life you choose."