A Celebration of Tribal Culture for 108 Years, Again in August
BY PAT HILL
Rodeo, parades, pow-wow festivities, and lots of teepees hallmark the Apsaa’looke Nation’s Crow Fair, held every August on Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation southeast of Billings.
The Crow Fair was first organized in 1904 by a U.S. Government Indian Agent, S.C. Reynolds, stationed at Crow Agency, Montana, in the early 20th century. The Apsaa’looke (Crow) people were a nomadic tribe that hunted bison on their seasonal round. Except for a few survivors, though, after the slaughter of the big animals by white hunters the bison were gone by the 1890s. The U.S. Government, which had confined nearly all the Western tribes to reservations by the end of the 19th Century, wanted nomadic Native Americans such as the Crow to consign their wandering ways to the past and farm for a living.
County fairs, highly anticipated events in still-mostly-rural America, allowed farmers to showcase their animals and crops, and also gave farming women a chance to share their handiwork. Reynolds thought such a fair would help ease the Crow into the farming way of life the government had planned for them. The Indian Agent managed to let the Crow incorpor-ate banned activities like tribal dancing, singing and ceremony into the event, and the Crow Fair was born. With the exceptions of World War I and II, and a few years during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Crow Fair, as it is called, has been held every year since 1904.
“We had to adjust to things,” Crow Indian Henry Real Bird told the Pioneer. “We had to adjust to civilization.” Real Bird, who was once a rodeo cowboy, and also served as Montana’s Third Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2011, said his great-grandfather provided the land for the first Crow Fair rodeo, and the rodeo portion of the fair is still held at the Edison Real Bird Memorial Complex.
“In 1962, the Crow Fair rodeo became an all-Indian-tribe contest,” said Real Bird, noting the 50th anniversary of professional Indian rodeo. That year also marks, in all liklihood, the time when Crow Fair became known as the “Teepee Capital of the World,” as rodeo competitors brought along their families to the event.
The week before Crow Fair, the teepee grounds along the south banks of the Little Big Horn River, near the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, start to fill up with native peoples (more than 10,000 last year) from all over the West. Many camp in the same spot their families have used during Crow Fair for generations, their teepees painted with representations of family lore and Native symbols. Much like the great encampment of the Sioux and Cheyenne who also camped along the southern banks of the Little Big Horn River before their encounter with Custer, the modern encampment of Crow Fair participants can be seen from miles away. The teepees usually number about 1,500, with more than a thousand tents also pitched, by the time the event kicks off with the Grand Entry. This is an elaborate procession consisting of drumming and dance groups representing the various tribes present, as well as traditionally dressed Crow Indians on horseback. The Parade portion of the Grand Entry also features floats, usually flat bed trucks upon which drummers and dancers ride; the cabs of the flatbeds are usually so decorated with Crow handiwork, such as blankets and elk-tooth dresses, that only a small area of the windshield is visible, just enough for the driver to see ahead. Also highlighting the Grand Entry Parade is Miss Crow Fair, usually riding in a Cadillac convertible with the top down, and surrounded by beauty queens from other Native American pow-wows. The parade is repeated every day during the event.
The Grand Entry is led by an honor guard of Native American war veterans bearing flags of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and the procession heads to the Dance Arbor, where the dance competitions, one of the highlights of Crow Fair, take place every afternoon and evening. The honor guard is followed by the male dancers, who are followed in turn by the female dancers. The procession is rife with ceremony; upon arrival, dancers in the Grand Entry enter the Arbor area in carefully pre-arranged fashion, with male Traditional Fancy and Grass Dancers entering first, followed by the women’s Traditional Fancy and Jingle Dress Dancers. Dancing is always popular at Crow Fair and other pow-wow events held nearly every weekend during the summer months in the western United States.
Though the Arbor is about 200 feet in diameter, there are so many competitors that they cannot all fit into the Arbor at once. Several dance styles are featured at Crow Fair. Fancy Dancing is known for its quick movements. The Grass Dancers, named for the felt fringe on the costumes, make their fringe dance as well with swaying movements. The Jingle Dancers have rows of tin cones made from chewing tobacco lids adorning their costumes, and their dance is meant to make the cones emit a sought-after certain jingle. Also present in the dance competition are Fancy Shawl and Southern Cloth Dancers adorned in elaborate finery. The drum groups work in conjunction with the dancers, who must stop on a dime when the final drumbeat sounds so as not to lose points in the competition.
Although many other traditional dances are performed, the most popular dance at Crow Fair is the Crow Hop. Movements in this dance style are meant to imitate those of the big black birds. The Crow Hop originated about the same time as the Crow Fair, and in the early days of the fair the various Crow bands camped in separate enclaves around the Dance Arbor would Crow Hop from encampment to encampment while visiting.
Crow Fair is as popular among Indian rodeo cowboys as it is for dancers and drummers on the pow-wow circuit. The rodeo is an INFR professionally-sanctioned event.
“Before, we had horse races on a straightaway,” Real Bird told the Pioneer. “When we were confined in 1883 we had to start running our races in a circle.” In fact, the Crow name for Crow Fair is Chichi-a’xxaawasuua: Running in a circle.
“A lot of big-name guys have been here at Crow Fair over the years since it became an all-Indian-tribe contest after ’62,” said Real Bird. “The cowboys would rodeo in the day, and dance and sing at night. In the ’70s, we had maybe 70 bronc riders…now it’s maybe 20. Participation has gone down…kids are changing…but we still hang on. We still have descendants of Indians that lived all over the West riding at Crow Fair.”
Crow Fair takes place from Aug. 15 to 20 on the Crow Reservation near Crow Agency. Every day begins with the parade at 10 a.m., then transitions into rodeo and pow-wow dancing, drumming and singing at 1 p.m., and starts to wind down at 7 p.m. with another pow-wow. It’s an opportunity for some of the West’s Native peoples to hearken back to a different time and place, and a perfect chance for Montana natives and tourists to take in the splendor and spectacle of a way of life that vanished long ago from Big Sky Country, but surfaces once a year at Crow Fair.