Adorable tiny tots, beautiful children, handsome men and gorgeous women are all decked out in fine traditional and contemporary regalia. The wearers carry a noticeable aura of pride as they stand tall and move with elegant grace on stage in front of the overflowing audience of smiling onlookers. It is beauty embodied. It is the Native American Clothing Contest.

 The genesis of this event is related to the beginning of Indian Market itself. In black-and-white archival photographs from early fairs, you can see artists in their traditional Pueblo or Navajo attire. When the artists came to the market, they not only brought their exquisite artwork for display and judging, but they also came wearing equally immaculate dress.

At first, informal awards were granted to the best-dressed artists. From these early awards developed the competition that is presently touted as the most photographed event of the weekend. Now, it is a separate event that you do not want to miss, held on the Sunday morning of Indian Market, when dozens of marketgoers take time off from visiting booths to sit and enjoy a fabulous show.

The competition begins with some of the most memorable contestants, the tiny tots in the traditional category, and it continues on through all the age groups to the adults. From baby bonnets to beaded moccasins, all the clothing is a delight for the eyes and spirit.

Girls and women don attire ranging from cream-colored buckskin dresses embellished with flowing fringes and sparkling beaded details to exquisitely woven Pueblo mantas and Navajo rug dresses. The boys have been ceremoniously painted on the skin, and they wear garments handmade by loved ones. The contestants also carry unusual accessories, including rare eagle feather fans, Victorian lace parasols, white or rust-colored moccasins and silver concho belts. Large bracelets, rings and strings of beadwork or turquoise are worn as signs of family wealth and prestige.

But this contest isn’t just a feast for the eyes; it is also a time for sharing and learning. The show’s emcee describes the garments and jewelry, explaining the history, legends and relevance of what stands before us. Clothes aren’t just things that cover our bodies and protect us from the elements; they are also embedded with symbols that reference our cultural values and who we are as a people. For example, during the contest last year, the tin cone tinklers on a dress worn by Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (Sioux Assiniboine) recalled the story of an Ojibwe grandfather who sought medicine for his granddaughter when she fell deathly ill. In a dream, he was told to create the dress and to have his granddaughter dance in it. When a person is granted a vision of this power, he or she is obligated to see it take form in this world. The grandfather followed the instructions, and his granddaughter was healed. This medicine has been passed on to this day. The healing power of the jingle dress is still called upon, and the values of dancing for our personal and communal well-being are carried on from the past to future generations.

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