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The Secret For The Best Sounding Native American Jingle Dress? Try Copenhagen Lids

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Stacy Nick
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KUNC
While you can buy pre-made 'cones' for Native American jingle dresses, dancer Kelly Cornelius prefers to make her own out of lids from Copenhagen chewing tobacco lids.

For Kelly Cornelius, the dresses and the dances at the powwows have long been part of her Native American heritage.

"We were taught to take care of our outfits and to respect them," said Cornelius – whose maiden name is Wadena. Her father was from the Ojibwe tribe; her mother is Omaha. "Represent yourself in a proper manner because you're representing your family, you're representing your tribe."

Growing up, Cornelius was a champion dancer. Her specialty was the fancy shawl dance. But the jingle dance – and its musical dress – was never too far away.

Traditionally, jingle dresses feature colors like red, green, blue, and yellow. Designs can vary – although Cornelius prefers floral patterns. The regalia includes the dress, moccasins, wristbands, and a headband, a choker and a small bag. And of course, a fringe of metal cones. Cornelius likes all of her dresses to have 365 cones, one for every day of the year.

Those metal cones are the source of the garment's symphony of sound.

Some of Cornelius' dresses have cones purchased from a store – but her favorites are the ones she made herself out of what may sound a bit unusual.

"Copenhagen lids," she explained. "They're the snuff can lids."

Cornelius prefers the jingle of the lids, which have a heftier sound than the tinkle of the pre-made cones.

She collects the lids, keeping an eye on the ground in search of discarded smokeless tobacco cans. Once she wrote to Copenhagen and asked them for spare lids. They sent her 2,000 and a polite note saying it was a one-time deal.

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Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
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KUNC
Kelly Cornelius cuts a Copenhagen lid with a pair of pliers.

"You take the Copenhagen lid… And you cut off that lip," Cornelius said as she demonstrated with a pair of pliers, sans gloves (she admitted gloves should be worn but she's been doing this a long time). "Then you take it… Twist it… Ta-da! And you have your lid."

Her daughter, Jennifer Caraveo, also was a champion dancer. She never got into sewing dresses, but she's all too familiar with those lids.

"My mom had us, with our little gloves on, and we would cut all the Copenhagen lids and then we would twist them… Yep, it was fun!," Caraveo said only semi-sarcastically. "It was a lot of work."

But it never seemed like a chore, she added.

"(Mom) would tell me all her stories of when she was younger and how she used to help her mom do the same thing that I was doing with her," Caraveo said. "So yeah, it was a lot of fun when I was little. It was a fun little hobby – which I need to get myself in now for my boys."

Passing the dancing tradition on is important.

"Not only does it make me feel closer to my culture… but it makes me feel closer to my family, as well, especially when I get out there with my family and my mom helping me teach my sons as well," Caraveo said. "It's a big blessing to have this as my culture."

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Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
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KUNC
Kelly Cornelius and her daughter, Jennifer Caraveo, show off two of Cornelius' jingle dresses, so named for the metal cones that make a jingle sound when they dance.

Caraveo will wear one of her mother's jingle dresses when she dances at the upcoming Northern Colorado Intertribal Spring Contest Powwow.

"They all come to me in a dream," Cornelius said, explaining the origins of her designs. "And when I get up I'm scurrying around always looking for a pencil and paper – no matter what it is – I'm just like, 'OK, grab a receipt of something and draw.'"

Waiting for the right inspiration is critical, because these are not just any dresses. Cornelius recalled once being almost overwhelmed by the importance of her dress during a powwow.

"I was so proud to have my regalia on and to be a part of this powwow, to be a part of my people," she said. "I looked around and I looked at my moccasins, and I looked at my outfit and straightened up my hair pieces. And I almost started crying because I felt so good. And I looked down – I looked at my little girl and she had her little jingle dress on and I just held her hand and I – I just felt really good."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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