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Indigenous Regalia as a Form of Self Expression

Photographed by __ of __

By Ryan Backus

Indigenous regalia is the style of dress or adornments Indigenous people wear during ceremonial Pow Wows. People often make most of their regalia themselves, or if they don’t personally do all of the sewing’s, they typically will have a lot of input in the design and construction process. Regalia often includes pieces that have been gifted to the dancer or handed down through their family. Newly created pieces can incorporate patterns or designs shared by others in their family or clan.

Not to be mistaken as a costume, regalia has much deeper roots. A set of clothes worn to mimic someone or something else, especially for a party or as part of entertainment, is referred to as a costume. While regalia represents not only the dancer's personality but also their history, family, clan, tribe, and culture in the connection between each of these aspects of their lives.

Regalia is a powerful form of expression that combines elements of both historical and modern times. The materials and ornaments that are used in regalia vary depending upon the region and tribe. Often tribal clothing reflects the environmental features surrounding them. For example, in colder mountainous areas, the dress incorporates more layers and hides, while in the Sonoran Desert and Colorado River areas, more people dress for the warmer climate with more exposed skin. While the community dictates the basic features of the regalia, personalization is very popular in order to properly reflect the dancer’s life.

Fascinatingly enough, there is not one regalia perfectly like another, each garment has its own unique design personal to the dancer. Nodin Jackson, a Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Member and Pre-Law major at Central Michigan says “My regalia is personal to me because there’s only one like it, everyone who dances has regalia and they’re all different from each other. Mine is personal to me because it was made specifically for me”

By tradition, dancers are expected to look their best at these ceremonies and celebrations, thus regalia is seen within the culture as formalwear. There is also a tradition that says warriors would put on their best regalia before they went into battle because if they were killed, they would be in the best attire for the journey to heaven. Due to some Pow Wow dances recreating the actions seen in battle, dancers continue the tradition of wearing regalia that demonstrates their best creative efforts.

The Beauty of Beadwork

Beadwork began as a way to express themselves artistically which was compatible with the nomadic lifestyle of the tribes in North America. Beadwork is one of the most admired and traditional Native American art forms and is sought-after for its often-vibrant colors, detailed designs, and beautiful patterns. It can be found in everything from jewelry and clothing to handbags and shoes.
The rich history of this form of Indigenous art dates back to early tribes, who were weaving beaded designs well before Europeans even arrived. Early beadwork was accomplished by carving natural materials into beads, however, when European settlers arrived, trade beads revolutionized Native American beadwork.
Due to the lack of currency exchange at the time, Europeans traded beads and other goods to people of various tribes in return for animal skins, furs, and meat. With the new introduction of beads from around the world, regalia began to become more similar to the kind we see today. Since its early form, beadwork has evolved significantly while still maintaining notoriety and popularity throughout North America and beyond. The influence of Native American beadwork can be seen throughout time and to this day.
Dancing with a purpose

Regalia is typically made for dancing at Pow Wows, a major form of expression in Native American culture that helps connect to ancestors, the elements, and in return, themselves. The male dance styles are Fancy, Grass, Prairie Chicken, and Traditional. The female dance styles are Fancy, Jingle, and Traditional. These vary occasionally depending on location.

The appearance of regalia can differ drastically depending on the type of dance that it’s being used for. A grass dancer will wear leggings and headbands, while a Fancy Shawl Dancer will wear an elaborate shawl and beaded cape over her shoulder. Prairie Chicken Dancers often wear vibrant colors, flowery designs, and round feather bustles

Due to regalia being made for dance, movement is often a factor of consideration when constructing the garments. A woman that’s dancing the Jingle Dress Dance, for example, will wear ziibaaska’iganan, or metal cones, on her dress. The cones jingle as she dances around the arena, providing a complementary sound to the beat of the drum and the shaking of the rattles. Due to the plethora of styles, many dancers need multiple pieces for the competition.

Nodin Jackson competes in Men’s Fancy and wears two big bustles, one on the shoulders and one on the lower back with a feather roach in this hair as well. Men's fancy dance is flashy, colorful, and incredibly energetic. Stamina and strength are needed; thus, it is usually performed by younger men and boys.

Today, there are Pow Wows nationally that dancers travel to compete in. Nodin Jackson travels to these competitions with his family members to compete. He says, “Dancing at Pow Wows has allowed me to travel to new places, meet new people, and make memories that will last a lifetime.”

It is clear though times have changed, the significance has Pow Wows has continued to remain extremely prevalent in Native American culture and as a result so has Regalia. Regalia has a legacy dating back centuries and should be recognized on a larger scale for its beauty, and intricacy. However, the most important factor of regalia is that it tells a story about the person wearing it.

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