Eugene Tapahe

Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project
November 7, 2023
Eugene Tapahe

Modern West is honored to debut Eugene Tapahe's solo show, Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project. This ongoing photography series honors the healing and uniting power of the Ojibwe jingle dress and gives hope through art, dance and culture. Read below to learn more about Tapahe's inspiration and process for this body of work.



You have mentioned growing up on the Navajo Nation with your grandmother. Can you tell us about your experience in youth – how did you come to art? Were you influenced by your upbringing?

When I was young, all I wanted to be was a sheepherder. Because that’s all I knew. I grew up traditionally with my grandma. We didn’t have running water or electricity, or access to a vehicle, nor did we have internet, smart phones, or a regular phone. 

I learned to be creative at an early age, sticks and stones became toys, and of course herding sheep was the highlight of the day. This was the time my grandma pointed out and identified the names of the herbs, trees, and plants, and what they were used for. They were for food, ceremony, and healing.



The most memorable time I remember was laying my head on grandma’s lap when she wove her rug. During this time, she would share our family and traditional creation stories that were passed down to her by her grandma. She said, “this rug represents our woven time together, our legacy, our identity.” She said my ancestors were storytellers. Today, I use these traditional stories and methods to inspire my process to create my art. 




In your process for ‘Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project,’ you traveled over 25,000 miles documenting your daughters and friends in the Ojibwe jingle dress. Can you tell us about your journey and how you chose your destinations?

The concept behind, "Art Heals: The Jingle Dress Project,” originated from a dream to combine the beauty of the land with the healing power of the jingle dress dance during the uncertain times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our goal was to take the healing power of the jingle dress to the land, to travel and capture a series of images to document the spiritual places where our ancestors once walked. So, we decided to travel to national and state parks across America because they were open and used to be Native American land.


It was important to capture the unity of the land and the girls in their jingle dresses. When we were on location, I told the girls to feel the land, feel the ancestors that once lived there, and to channel this spirit. When the girls danced the jingle dress dance on location they could feel the ancestors of the land dancing with them, spiritually. 



This project was challenging. We didn’t have the luxury to do numerous scouting trips prior to our photo sessions. In fact, some of the locations we went to –– I never photographed before –– so I didn’t know what to expect. Even though I have been doing landscape photography for ten years, it was still difficult. I had to rely on nature’s light, shadows, weather, contours of the land, and wildlife. The miracle of this project is that when we had stormy and rainy days, the sunshine and beautiful light came through for the photo shoots. Eventually, the storms returned when we left the location. The images are so powerful and spiritual when I see them. I hope when people look at them they feel the same way. 



Can you tell us about the history and significance of the Ojibwe jingle dress and the dance? Were these concepts something you grew up learning about or did it come to you later in life?

The origin of the jingle dress dance to the Ojibwa people happened during the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, through a father’s dream whose daughter was sick with the virus. His dream revealed the new dress and dance with the power to heal. When the dresses were made, they were given to four women to perform the dance. When the sick young girl heard the sound of the jingles, she began feeling better and grew stronger. By the end of the night, she was dancing too.



In 2016, the healing power of the jingle dress dance impacted my family during the Standing Rock movement. After a brutal raid on one of the camps by the military police and national guard in North Dakota, the spiritual leaders organized a sacred jingle dress dance to heal the world. We were able to witness this special dance. It was powerful and it changed our lives forever.


As a Diné person, I have understood the teachings of my ancestors and have personally seen miracles happen through ceremony. This way of life, this belief is strong amongst Native people. This is my purpose with my art, to bring this spiritual feeling and healing.



Can you speak to why you chose photography – or light – as your medium for this project? Who or what were your inspirations for this project – contemporary and/or historical?

In photography, as in life, there are disciplines of right and wrong, light and dark. This balance and composition define the beauty of my life’s work. This connection of traditional life and the modern world has deeply influenced my creative philosophy.

When on a photo excursion I listen to the land and my heart. I combine this with the shadows, lights, darks, and emotions to compose the story wanting to be told. This is my passion –– to be the storyteller –– to document the spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and the beauty of my culture and people. I want to feel the unseen and capture it through my own viewfinder — my heart.


For me, art is in the process and creation of my work –– it’s healing –– this sacred connection with culture and land. When I compose my art from the natural elements, I don’t just produce art, I share my prayers and blessings. I hope my work can create a peaceful and harmonious connection between the land and people, to bring healing and unity.



How has this project impacted you, your friends + family and your community?

It has been beautiful, emotional, empowering, and most importantly, healing. It has changed our lives for the better. We didn’t know this project would have become global and so impactful to people all over the world. As my daughter so eloquently said, “Dad, you’re not in this to make money or get rich, you’re in it to change the world.” And I have, I changed my world, I am so much happier and fulfilled. This project has most definitely healed me.



Your MFA thesis at BYU is ‘Art Heals.’ Is this an extension of this project? If so, how is it similar or how does it vary? What is next for you after graduation?

Throughout my life I have navigated between two realms–– the Diné and today’s contemporary world. In the early years of living on the Navajo Nation, my grandma showed me how to live off the land. I still remember her words, “Son, if you take care of the animals, the earth, and the water, they will take care of you –– it’s healing.” I learned at an early age the importance of respecting, preserving, and protecting the land. I carry these words and teachings in my heart forever.


Inspired by these traditions, I create original compositions to represent different aspects of my life. This spiritual identity I have with the land and the earth’s elements is what I want to convey. I want to bring the land into contemporary spaces to provide a feeling of peace and reverence –– ultimately to heal and reunite us with the earth.


Art heals has always been a part of my work. It doesn’t matter what form of art medium or installation. I aspire to capture the spirit of the work which is influenced by my culture and traditional teachings. This is my identity; this is the inspiration for my contemporary art.


After graduation, I hope to continue my work in other venues, and to take my work to communities across the world. I will allow the concept and compositions of my art to dictate the medium of expression. I have some exciting and never-before-seen work in progress and will be revealed in the near future. I am grateful for the opportunities that come my way. You will have to wait to see where my heart will take me next.