Fashion designer Nan Blassingame, of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, sits in her swivel chair, working on a traditional dance shawl. Her hands move up and down as she knots blue strings of fringe into black fabric, making loops in the tiny holes lining the hem. The shawl is set to be auctioned off this weekend at the thirtieth annual Austin Powwow. For Blassingame, 42, making Native American fashion by hand comes easily. She first learned how to sew in a home economics class back in her hometown of Hammon, Oklahoma. But it wasn’t until her early twenties that she first learned how to make one of her most beloved pieces—a Native American jingle dress.
Blassingame’s aunt gave her only one chance to get it down. “She told me, ‘I’m going to show you one time and that’s all,’ ” Blassingame recalls. Luckily for her, she was able to learn in just that one session. Now, even though the jingle dress is challenging to make and typically takes four days to complete, it’s her favorite creation. “It sounds so beautiful. When you have thirty dancers out in the arena at one time, it just sounds like rain,” she says.
The dress, used for the jingle dress dance, is sprinkled with about four hundred small metal cones, called ziibaaska’iganan in Ojibwe, the language of the tribe from which the dress originated. Each cone is strategically sewn to the fabric based on mathematical calculations, as they must be spaced correctly for them to hit one another and make sound.
Through her work as programs director for the heritage organization Great Promise for American Indians, Blassingame is passing on the tradition of making Native American regalia by hand. In the run-up to the Austin Powwow, she’s taught two student interns, Brianelly Flores and Raven Price-Smith, how to make jingle dresses, ribbon skirts, and beadwork earrings. The three women are from different Indigenous tribes across the North American continent, so the regalia styles vary—typical ribbon thickness, for example, changes from tribe to tribe—but they have banded together to continue their traditions. Flores sees the powwow as an opportunity to show that “Indigenous people are resilient. We’re still here,” she says. “Nan showing me how to make a ribbon skirt, my mom showing me how to embroider a traditional top—these are acts of resistance.”
The jingle dress dance reportedly originated in the midst of the 1918–20 influenza pandemic, when a father had a vision of a dress and a dance that would heal his sick daughter. According to legend, she attended a drum circle where the dance was performed and was healed by the end of the ceremony. At the same time, Indigenous people lived under the Code of Indian Offenses, which banned Native American ceremonies, dances, and cultural practices. Over time, the jingle dress has become symbolic of Native resilience, and it is often used for healing ceremonies.
Aside from jingle dresses, Blassingame makes various types of Native fashion pieces, including more contemporary ribbon skirts, which are adorned with colorful ribbon sewn horizontally on the fabric, sometimes arranged in a pattern or adhering to a certain theme (Flores is making a sunset-inspired skirt). Blassingame first ventured into contemporary pieces in 2017, and a year later she made her fashion show debut at the 2018 Austin Intercultural Fashion Show. Blassingame isn’t dancing at the powwow this year, but she’ll be behind the scenes making sure the schedule runs smoothly. Her handiwork will still be all over the event: she’s made regalia for family and friends as well as other pieces, including teddy bears made from tribal-pattern fabrics.
Despite the months of preparation, sometimes inspiration for pieces strikes the night before, and it’s almost its own tradition to stay up in the late hours of the night finishing skirts and dresses. “We would give Project Runway a run for their money,” Blassingame says. It’s all worth it for the Grand Entry, when the elders from Indigenous communities lead a parade of dancers to begin the opening dance. “It’s just about that moment of coming in the Grand Entry,” she says. “You’ve got that new outfit and it just makes you feel—I don’t know, bougie?”
Flores and Price-Smith are learning how to make clothes that feel “bougie.” Price-Smith, from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, decided to learn how to make her own dresses after attending the San Marcos powwow in October 2022. It was the first one she had gone to in over a decade, and she says joining the dance competition “felt like the first time I was dancing.” She gravitates toward the “old-style” regalia more than contemporary pieces, like the jingle dress her mom once made for her; now she knows how to make her own.
The handmade regalia feels like “couture,” says Price-Smith, because each item is one of a kind. “This dress I’m making right now,” she says, laying down ribbons in blues, greens, whites, and reds on top of a red floral fabric, “there’s not going to be another dress at all that looks like it.”
For Flores, from the P’urhépecha tribe, in Michoacán, Mexico, learning how to make regalia from Blassingame connected her to her community, based a thousand miles away from Austin. Regalia from the P’urhépecha tribe can include embroidered beadwork details, big floral patterns, gems, and rows and rows of pleats on skirts. Flores likes to balance both traditional and contemporary pieces, which is why she plans on having three different outfit changes at the one-day Austin Powwow.
Of course, the powwow is more than just a fashion show. Blassingame says being able to wear regalia and perform traditional dances makes the ceremony all the more meaningful. It was only 45 years ago that Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protected the rights of Native Americans to practice their spiritual, cultural, and religious traditions. “It’s all just about keeping our culture alive and telling everybody about us,” Blassingame says. “For us to be able to share that nowadays is a big thing.”
For Price-Smith, that’s one reason why the jingle dress dance she participates in is so important. “That’s what I’m always thinking about while I’m dancing—not who’s watching or whatever—I’m just dancing for those who can’t.”
Native American traditions often stay in the pages of history books for non-Native people, Flores says. But the colorful blurs that streak the earth during ceremonial dances, deep drumbeats, and long vibratos, and the four hundred small cones clanging together to create rainfall, represent the enduring existence of Indigenous tribes on full display. Native American fashion is just one part of that existence, Flores says. It shows that “we aren’t people of the past. We exist now, and we’ll be here in the future.”