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Alexandria's Runestone Museum 'tinkle cone dress' is a rarity

Pictured is the back of the Anishinaabe Indian dress on display at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria and recently featured in American Indian Art Magazine. The dress, circa 1930, is of faded red cotton sateen, adorned with dentalium shells, glass beads, metal conches and hand-rolled tin can cones with red printed labeling still visible on the inside. The dress has a mock collar and scalloped peplum with three tiers on the skirt. Forum Communications

ALEXANDRIA -- The Runestone Museum in Alexandria has been receiving some national attention lately, and this time it has nothing to do with the famed Kensington Runestone.

The attention focuses on another exhibit - a native American "tinkle cone" dress.

According to Julie Blank, Runestone Museum director, the dress was part of the Dr. Clifford Irwin Oliver collection, which was donated to the museum shortly after it opened in 1958 by Oliver's daughter.

The dress caught the attention of Dr. Cory Willmott, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, during a visit to the museum in July 2004.

With permission from the museum staff, Willmott took detailed photos of all of the Anishnaabe artifacts in Dr. Oliver's collection.

"Besides the tinkle cone dress, there are also many other valuable items, some of which I might publish in the future," Willmott noted. "I have studied Anishinaabe artifacts in dozens of museums around the world, so I was very excited about this collection in general, as it is not known to scholars in my field."

Willmott authored an article titled "Anishinaabe Regalia of the Reservation Era, 1870s-1930s" that was published in the Summer 2012 Great Lakes issue of American Indian Art Magazine.

The article discusses the importance clothing and regalia played in the lives of Anishinaabe Indians during the reservation era - a time when contemporary ceremonial and powwow dress originated.

Willmott noted that the dress originated around 1930 and is what is known as a "tinkle cone dress."

In the late 1920s or early 1930s, a young woman would have worn this dress for performance purposes, along with accessories such as a loom-woven headband, small beaded purse and long strands of beads or multiple loom-woven beaded necklaces.

They might have performed the "Jingle Dress Dance" - a sacred healing dance that has since become one of the most popular competition dances at powwows all over North America.

Willmott noted that the dress is in exceptional condition and she knows of only three others in the following museum collections - Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

She noted that none of those dresses are actually on display, but are rather in storage for preservation purposes.

"I was well aware of the rarity of that dress when I first saw it in 2004," she noted. "Even though it is faded [the dress was originally bright red], one can still see the skill and artistry that went into making it. The cones are so tightly and evenly wrapped and placed. The materials are all high quality. The lines of the dress are beautifully arranged and the composition of the decorations is very creative."

A photo of the unique dress has also been selected to be featured in the American Indian Art 2013 calendar due out later this summer.

Never fear - the runestone is not being overshadowed, and continues to make headlines.

The stone and Alexandria's 28-foot tall Viking - Big Ole - were featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Minnesota History, a quarterly magazine produced by the Minnesota Historical Society.

The nine-page spread, complete with historic photos and memorabilia, was written by Adam Hjorthen. Hjorthen, a Ph.D. history student at Stockholm University in Sweden, wrote about the runestone for his master's thesis and is currently writing his dissertation on 20th century Swedish American commemorations.

The magazine article, titled "A Viking in New York: The Kensington Runestone at the 1964-1965 World's Fair," tells the story of the stone's trek to the World's Fair nearly 50 years ago, under the watchful eyes of Big Ole.

The Runestone Museum in Alexandria also received accolades of another type recently.

It was selected as one of the "uncommon travel gems" profiled in the AAA Travel Treasures section of the March/April 2012 issue of AAA's Home and Away magazine.

"We're thrilled to be getting all this attention," said Blank. "We've got a lot of great things here and it's fun to be recognized for that on such a wide scale."