As the tangerine sun sets in the cinnamon skies of Crow Agency, Montana, an exhilarating drum beat followed by vigorous singing lights up the eyes and ears of all around. Underneath an arbor of beautifully polished wood, stand fiercely competitive dancers trying to win, honor their heritage, and express themselves. This is Crow Fair, one of the largest Native American events in North America and held every third week of August for 103 years. Members of tribal nations from all over the continent, especially from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan, are hosted by the Crow Nation for this event. The Crow Fair Pow Wow grounds have been appointed The Teepee Capital of the World, with over 1,500 teepees standing each year.
The first iteration of Crow fair began in 1904 when Crow Nation Leaders and Bureau of Indian Affairs agent S.C. Reynolds created it to promote agriculture on Crow Agency. Patterned off a county fair, Crow Fair’s original goal was furthering the Federal Government’s intention of repressing traditional lifestyles and colonial values of settled farming, Christianity, and ranching. Although they still allowed some small amount of Crow artistic expression through basket-weaving and arts and crafts. The powwowing wouldn’t come until the 1920s due to the Federal government’s assimilationist suppression of traditional singing and dancing. It wasn’t until war heroes like Chief Joe Medicine Crow had returned from World War II that Crow Fair entered its modern iteration. The original intent of creating a county fair dedicated to agriculture was completely dropped in favor of an authentic Apsaaloke celebration of Crow culture and other Native American cultures in 1962.
Today the Crow fair is home to premier powwowing, fine food, and a rousing all-Indian rodeo all run by a committee of the Crow tribe. The Powwowing is a competition consisting of a range of dances from Fancy Dancing, and Grass Dancing to Fancy Shawl, and the ever favorite Crow Hop. The dancers and drummers are judged on qualities such as timing, precision, and the ability to maintain traditional dancing attire. There is also an inter-tribal dance where all people regardless of tribal or non-tribal affiliation are encouraged to join in under the grand circular arbor. Any food a person can want can be found at Crow Fair, from Thai to burgers, to the traditional Indian tacos. When I attended the Crow fair this year, I enjoyed an amazing kidney kebab myself. Miranda Rowland, a Rocky Mountain College grad who attended the event, stated “I look forward to the Crow Fair every year. It’s such an awesome time.” She looks forward to setting up camp and spending time with her family and friends. “Usually, some of my relatives that live in other states will make the trip to come back and visit and spend the week with us too.” They all take turns cooking for the camp so that there is breakfast and dinner each day.
The all-Indian rodeo is truly one of the most riveting rodeos one can behold. Held at Edison Realbird Stadium on Crow Agency, one is given a superb view of bronc-busting, bareback riding, bull riding, bulldogging, calf roping, team roping, and barrel racing. Edison Realbird Stadium was named for the man who gave up his land for the first Crow Fair. An interesting aspect of Crow Fair’s all-Indian rodeo is that traditionally male dominated rodeo events, such as bronc-busting and bull riding, are equally enjoyed by women. The rodeo and horse races culminate in the Indian Relay. Indian Relays are composed of teams of one rider, two horses, two holders and a mugger. Riders begin in standing positions, jump on their horse bareback, make a lap and have to transfer twice mid-race on to two other horses in front of the audience before crossing the finish line.
Long ago the Federal government’s assimilationist colonialism helped create Crow Fair. Today Crow Fair is a shining example of the resilience and pride of Crow culture. It creates a sense of community and rootedness in southeastern Montana. When Rowland was asked what the significance of the Crow Fair was to the Crow Nation, she said,
“Crow Fair is very significant to the Crow Nation. My late grandmother, Joan Horn, had [sic] told me about Crow Fair when I was researching the parade horse. She loved to parade everyday, and she has passed down that tradition in our family. My grandmother had [sic] said that Crow Fair and the parade had [sic] started because the government wanted Crows to be sedentary and to adopt a farmer’s way of life. It was an attempt to assimilate us. Crow Fair was meant to be an incentive to allow people to showcase what they had grown and to bring the tribe all together. It has evolved into the celebration that it is today over the last 100 years or so. It happens every year, (except during the pandemic) during the third week of August. Every day there is a parade, rodeo, Indian relay, and the powwow. There is also a grand entry where all the dancers enter the arbor, and it is so amazing to see. I recommend that as one of the events to see. There is also a reenactment of the battle of Little Bighorn that takes place and is organized by the Real Bird Family in Garryowen, Montana. The parade is pretty amazing too. My grandmother had said that the Crows had [sic] liked to use their best gear, and it was a chance to showcase their regalia when riding in. In today’s parade there are people riding horseback with their regalia on, and people will decorate floats and throw out candy. Saturday is the best day to catch the parade because it usually has the most riders and floats.”
For those of us fortunate enough to be living in Crow country, and those who are fortunate enough to visit, it is an honor to be able to experience the very heart and soul of the land we live in, and that beating heart of southeastern Montana for 103 years has been the Crow Fair.