Healing dance: Jingle dress dancer dedicates performance to missing native women

The sound of jingling metal cones emanated through the University Center Ballroom as Kya-Rae Arthur bopped up and down while performing a jingle dress dance at the Ballet Beyond Borders Creative Crossroads event on Saturday.

Arthur’s homemade dress featured rows of shiny metal cones that clanked against each other while she moved in a circle and practiced a pattern of intricate footwork.

“It's just something that I grew up watching and learning,” Arthur said. “You kind of just learn over time from everybody in your family.”

Arthur, who holds the title for Miss Salish Kootenai College, is of Navajo descent on her father’s side, and Chippewa-Cree, Oglala Lakota and Pend d’Oreille on her mother’s side.

Her performance was one of several throughout the day that represented different cultures and varying forms of dance. Panel discussions and presentations accompanied each dance to elaborate on cultural topics and issues.

Prior to performing, Arthur participated in a panel discussion for the Hidden Tears Project with choreographer and filmmaker Jordan Marinov, who also performed. The panel discussed human trafficking and ongoing problems related to missing and murdered indigenous women.

The topic of missing and murdered indigenous women is one that has recently come to the fore, both locally and nationally. However, it's been an issue for as far back as Arthur can remember.

“My personal experience…” Arthur said, choking up. “My cousin went missing this past year, here in Missoula at the Orange Street Food Farm. Her name is Jermain Charlo and people still haven't been able to find her.”

Charlo, a 23-year-old woman, hasn't been seen since she went missing in the early morning hours of June 16. Local and tribal police, as well as the FBI, have spent hundreds of hours looking for Charlo.

Arthur dedicated her dance to Charlo and explained that jingle dress dances are traditionally healing dances. Throughout the 19th century, Arthur said powwows became “more commercial” and developed jingle dress dance competitions. However, the dance is still used for healing purposes.

“I don’t have a lot of experience watching Native American dancing, but I’m always mesmerized by how internal the feeling is,” said audience member Harriet Alterowitz. “It looked like it was her own experience.”

Arthur finished her dance and wandered into the hallway to catch her breath where she met Lowell Hochhalter, the director of the Lifeguard Group, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement agencies to track down both victims and perpetrators of human trafficking through a team of experts and volunteers. Hochhalter also participated on the panel with Arthur.

“You could almost tell as she was dancing that she was carrying that weight of what she was representing,” Hochhalter said.

Hochhalter approached Arthur after the performance.

“She said she was going to wear a traditional dress that weighs 20 pounds but she said it was super heavy,” Hochhalter said. “I thought, ‘That is nothing compared to the weight of what it represents.’”

The traditional dress that Arthur originally planned to wear is made of 365 deer hooves, one for each day of the year.

“Since the deer hooves are a really strong medicine for healing, I don't just wear it for anything,” Arthur said.

Arthur opted for one of the many dresses she has made, representing both her upbringing and her culture.

As a kid, Arthur learned to make her own regalia from her mother, who would ask her to help. Now, she makes dresses and dance outfits and specializes in quillwork and rawhide. She also teaches others in classes through grant-funded programs where she works with different tribes and reservations. She also teaches occasional classes at the Payne Native American Center.

The jingle dress she wore Saturday featured a mustard yellow and brown patterned fabric with a blue geometric design adorned with gold metal cones. A belt pulled the dress around her waist and pink, lavender and blue ribbons flanked her waist and wrists.

“I got it because the fabric reminds me of buckskin,” Arthur said. “It seemed more contemporary and I like the colors because it reminds me of the sky and the sun setting and rising.”

Arthur said that everything she makes is inspired by what she sees in nature.

“On my phone, I'm always taking pictures of random plants because I'll just see it and then I think ‘Oh, that would look really good on a dress’ or ‘That would look good in beadwork,’” she said. “Traditionally, everything we did was based on things that were around us so I try and keep that value in my work.”

Arthur participates in dance competitions across the world. She has performed in Canada, China and Mexico, in addition to performing for Congress and the USDA.

Arthur said she is no stranger to the issues native women face such as domestic violence.

“It's a hard issue to talk about, especially when people that are really close to you are affected by it,” she said. “It's emotional. Even just talking today, I had anxiety because I didn't know what to say. It's a very important issue but it feels hopeless almost.”

Hochhalter said it’s people like Arthur who help humanize the issue.

“When she said ‘We can talk about murdered and missing indigenous women, but this is my cousin,’ we all felt that emotion in that moment,” Hochhalter said.

Hochhalter said he thinks it’s more important that people focus on individuals affected by human trafficking, rather than just looking at the broader issue.

“When we do that as the culture, it allows us to compartmentalize it,” he said. “We put it in this box and we put it up on the shelf alongside all these other issues. Then, we’re able to step back and point a finger and say ‘Who’s going to take care of that?’”

Instead, Hochhalter said it’s more important to focus on the individual. Through his work with the Lifeguard Group, Hochhalter has helped organize 16 searches for Charlo. He urged others to become involved in whatever way they can, noting that the searches the Lifeguard Group conducts are largely made possible by a team of volunteers who assist local law enforcement.

Hochhalter also said that searching for missing women can also feel hopeless at times, but he doesn’t see that as a reason to give up. In the meantime, he said the most meaningful thing he can offer is comfort to those searching for their loved one.

In regard to Charlo, he said he feels like they’ve said everything there is to say.

“When I see the family, and we meet often, it’s just an embrace,” Hochhalter said. “I mean, what are you going to say? It's just the embrace and the connection that communicates the loudest.”