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Pendleton jingle dancer Red Elk wins eighth world title

Last-minute decision to join Gathering of Nations contest meant creating a dress in 12 hours.
Kathy Aney

East Oregonian

Published on April 29, 2015 12:01AM

Last changed on April 30, 2015 9:54AM

Acosia Red Elk competes at the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albequerque, New Mexico. Red Elk won the Jingle Dancing division for the eighth time.

Photo courtesy of Acosia Red Elk

Acosia Red Elk competes at the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albequerque, New Mexico. Red Elk won the Jingle Dancing division for the eighth time.

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A Pendleton powwow dancer has won her eighth world jingle dancing title.

Acosia Red Elk, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, didn’t decide to compete at the world’s largest powwow until two days before she started driving to the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico. The event began last Friday in Albuquerque.

On the previous Monday, Red Elk decided she simply had to dance. The problem was, she only had one of two dresses for the jingle dancing competition. She retreated to her studio and began sewing.

“I laid out the material and started cutting,” Red Elk said. “Twelve hours later, I had a dress.”

Last Wednesday, Red Elk got into a friend’s Jeep and headed to Albuquerque.

Red Elk is something of a rock star in the powwow world. She won five back-to-back world championships at Gathering of Nations from 2004 to 2008. She prevailed again in 2011 and 2014. Three years (2010, 2012 and 2013), she didn’t compete. In 2009, she took fourth.

This year, the 35-year-old arrived at University of New Mexico’s massive Wisepies Arena, known as “The Pit,” and prepared to dance. Her chosen style, jingle dancing, has changed over the decades. The dance started as a prayer of healing that originated with the Ojibwe Tribe in the Great Lakes area. Traditional jingle dancers do a shuffle step and stay close to the ground. Contemporary jingle dancers like Red Elk use fancier footwork — the same basic moves, but “with more pizazz.”

“It’s expressive — a lot like an Irish river dancer. It’s all footwork,” Red Elk said. “You keep your upper body firm. You glide all over the ground.”

Jingle dancers wear dozens of metal cones or bells sewn to their dresses — Red Elk’s dress has 200. To Red Elk, it is the sound of healing.

“My dress speaks,” she said.

Red Elk competed with about 80 other dancers in her division who competed Friday and Saturday nights.

Acosia means “Young Swan Rising,” a fitting name for the graceful and successful dancer. On Saturday night, Red Elk learned she had risen to the top once again. She had won $3,000, a jacket and bragging rights for another year.

Red Elk said she enjoyed the victory, but also simply loved feeling connected to people from all corners of Indian Country.

“The Gathering of Nations attracts 3,000 dancers from all over the world,” she said. “Inspiration is all around.”


Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.


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