It all started with one dress.
Jovannah Poor Bear-Adams needed a jingle dress to dance in her first powwow, so she did what any 7-year-old would do.
She asked mom.
Cindy Giago grew up dancing in powwows, but she had never made any of the regalia that Native American dancers wear. Still, she obliged her daughter’s request and made the dress, which derives its name from the rows of metal cones that hang from the dress and jingle as a dancer moves.
“I didn’t have any idea what I was doing,” the Rapid City woman said.
One would never know by the looks of the blue and white jingle dress she made for her daughter nearly 20 years ago.
Giago, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation-Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has since handcrafted countless dresses and accessories for family, friends and now, strangers.
She and her husband, Gene, founded Mocca Cin Soul Designs in 2013 to showcase her powwow regalia, beadwork, jewelry and star quilts. Giago, whose Native American name means Her Ways are Sacred Woman, named the online business after her great-great-grandmother, Moccasin Top. Readers can view more of Cindy Giago’s artwork at Mocca Cin Soul Designs on Facebook.
Orders from across the country and Canada keep her sewing machine steadily humming. She designs and sews outfits that celebrate all seasons of life: regalia for graduates, ceremonial attire for a bride and groom, and traditional dress for a grandmother and her grandchild.
Giago takes great pleasure in crafting every piece of art she sells, but her jingle dresses often evoke the most sentiment.
It’s not only the first style of dress she made; it’s the regalia she wore to powwows when she was younger.
“It has spiritual significance,” Giago said. “It’s not just a dance and a dress.”
The jingle dress owes its origins to the Ojibwe Tribe. Accounts of how it came to be differ, but varying versions seem to agree on a dream and an ill child. In a vision, an Ojibwe man, sometimes described as a medicine man, received instructions for a type of dress and dance that would cure his ailing daughter or granddaughter.
A dream about jingle dresses recently led Kat Felix to Giago. The Rapid City woman danced as a child, but an ugly remark prompted her to quit.
She had no plans to dance again until two older women told her in a dream to pick up where she left off.
In her dream, Felix said, she was standing on the sidelines watching other dancers when two grandmotherly figures — one of them her late grandmother — separately approached her and asked why she wasn’t dancing.
“She scolded me,” she said of her grandmother in the dream. “She said it was time to start dancing again.”
Felix’s first order of business was finding someone who could make her a jingle dress. An Internet search proved Giago to be the best artist for the job, so she immediately placed an order with the seasoned seamstress.
Giago drew her inspiration for Felix’s regalia from a dress on display at Crazy Horse Memorial. The historic garment, which dates back two centuries, features hundreds of cowrie shells.
“Kat mentioned she liked shells,” said Giago, who sewed considerably fewer shells to Felix’s dress than the clothing behind glass. The shells complement the dress’ cotton floral print and striking striped chevrons.
Rows of triangular metal cones round out the ensemble.
“The hardest part is putting down the jingles,” Giago said.
Early on in her dressmaking venture, Giago used ribbons to hold up each cone. When it became apparent that ribbons didn’t hold up well, she sought an alternative method of attaching jingles to the dress.
“Satin is too slick,” she said. “It frays, and then the jingles fall off.”
Now she uses bias tape, a stretchy strip of fabric, to bind the clinking metal to the material.
Giago purchases the bulk of her jingles from Prairie Edge in downtown Rapid City. Retail clerk Nancy Witt said customers regularly snatch up the store’s selection of gold, silver and copper cones.
“It’s a constant thing,” she said. “It’s usually before a major powwow or right before winter.”
Schools with cultural or dance clubs also stock up on jingles for their students.
Witt, who has made a jingle dress, finds many people don’t have a clear idea of what they’re doing before they start.
“Most people learn on their own,” she said.
Giago, who said she learned from her mistakes, estimates it takes her about 20 hours to complete one jingle dress. She’s made dozens of dresses since she launched her company.
Despite the volume of quality regalia his wife produces, Gene Giago said she never makes the same outfit twice.
“No two are alike,” he said. “They are unique, one of a kind.”
Cindy Giago has viewed a few outfits online that closely resemble her work. When she comes across a piece that looks suspiciously familiar, she remembers imitation is the best form of flattery.
“I take it as a compliment,” she said.
Giago credits her family with promoting her artistic endeavors.
Gene Giago remains one of his wife’s biggest fans. He willingly offered up his roomy “man cave” in the lower level of their house so she would have more space to pursue her passion.
Giago’s older brother and sister-in-law continue to support and nurture her efforts.
“It is through their teachings that I am able to do what I do,” she said of Rick Two Dogs, a Lakota medicine man, and his wife, Ethleen Iron Cloud Two Dogs. “They helped me to believe in myself and taught me that everything has a spirit.”
Nine-year-old Aaliyah shares her mother’s love for traditional dance and dress. The Valley View Elementary student is well on her way to following in Giago’s artistic tracks.
“She loves to sew,” Giago said. “She said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like you.’”
Giago can longer dance in time to the beat of the drum. A car accident left her unable to withstand the jarring impact of feet hitting the floor. On the especially hard days, when she’s struggled with the effects of her injuries and pondered giving up, Gene Giago has urged his wife to not quit “the thing that makes you happy.”
People find purpose when they serve others, and Giago finds great meaning in making regalia so that others may dance.
“I live vicariously through my art,” she said.