Brownielocks and The 3 Bears
(aka the largest outdoor Indian Powwow in the United States!)
The Crow Fair dates back to 1904 and takes place every year on the third weekend in August in an area south of Billings, Montana.
A government Indian Affairs agent named S.C. Reynolds who was stationed in Crow Agency, Montana wanted to to persuade the Crow Indians to settle down in one area and support themselves by farming. Up until this time, the Crows were a nomadic tribe that wandered from place to place. Since County Fairs were very popular in the United States (especially the Midwest) at this time. Reynolds decided to organize an agricultural fair were Crow farmers could exhibit their livestock and produce. The women could show off their crafts and other domestic skills. Reynolds managed to sidestep the federal government's ban on tribal dancing, singing and ceremonies.
The event was a real success! Soon, it also included parades, a rodeo, horse races, foot races and reenactments of famous Crow battles. This fair gave the Crow Indians an opportunity to keep their cultural traditions alive. It also became a real popular tourist attraction for Crow Agency (located just a few miles from the site of Custer's Last Stand).
The fair has been held every year since 1904 as I said above, except during World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939 - 1945) and during the Great Depression of the 1930's.
Crow Indians are not the only ones to attend. Native American Indians of all tribes start setting up their tepees a week or so before the event. It's not uncommon to see 1,500 or more tepees lining the shores of the Little Bighorn River. (read more below)
The fair begins with the Grand Entry (see below). This is an elaborate procession led by an honor guard of Native American war veterans and features Crow Indians on horseback in traditional dress, drumming groups and representatives of the various dance groups who compete at the powwow. The dancing takes place in a large open-air dance arbor (see below), which is the central point of the fair. The drum groups also compete for prizes, with both the drummers and dancers being dressed in their traditional and elaborate Native American costumes. These often include bells, feathered headdresses, beaded buckskin shirts and dresses.
Hundreds of Native American cowboys also compete in the all-Indian Championship Rodeo.
Approximately 4,000 Crow Indians live on the Montana reservation, but during the Crow Fair celebration they are joined by more than 50,000 tourists each day from all over the world!
The most popular dance performed is called the Crow Hop, although many other traditional dances are performed. The Crow Hop movements imitate the crow, for which the dance is named. One style involves stomping hard on the heel of the foot, while another combines skipping and hopping. This dance evolved around the same time the Crow Fair started. Several groups of Crow Indians would establish separate encampments where the Dance Arbor is located. They used the Crow Hop to make their way from one encampment to the next.
This dance arbor is about 200 feet in diameter. As I said above, it's where the Grand Entry takes place and where all the drummers and dancers compete. It is open to visitors day and night, but it does have certain rules of etiquette that must be observed. For example, cutting across it to get from one area of the fairgrounds to another is discouraged.
The dancing competition is very popular. In fact, there are so many who want to compete, that they can't all fit at once. They have both male and female Fancy Dancers who have quick, breathtaking movements. Then there are the Grass Dancers (named for the thick fringe of yarn decorating their shoulders, aprons and pants) whose movements are meant to make this fringe shimmy and sway. Then there are the Jingle Dancers, whose costumes have rows of small tin cones (made form the lids of tobacco cans) stitched into them to make noise. Then there are the Fancy Shawl Dancers and the Southern Cloth Dancers. These are more known for their elaborate dress. The drum groups accompany the dancers, who MUST stop exactly in time with the final drum beat or risk losing points in the competition. Some of the drummers have "trick songs" that have endings that can't always be anticipated. Therefore, this poses a special challenge for the dancers!
This is an elaborate procession of fair participants. It is led by Native American vets carrying Canadian, Mexican and American flags. Then there are the male dancers. Then the female dancers. The older dancers precede the younger dancers.
The men's Traditional Fancy and Grass Dancers enter the arbor first. Then the women's Traditional Fancy and Jingle Dress Dancers in carefully prearranged order.
Many of the parade participants are on horseback, that represents how the Crow crossed the western plains hundreds of years ago. The horses also wear traditional Crow saddles and hand painted saddlebags. There are also floats, which are usually flat bed trucks with drummers and dancers, whose cabs are used to display Crow blankets, elk tooth dresses and other traditional finery. This leaves only a small area of the windshield clear for the driver to see where he is going.
The highlight of the Grand Entry is the appearance of Miss Crow Fair, who is usually seated in an open Cadillac convertible with her princesses (young beauty queens from other Native American powwows) around her.
The Grand Entry is also restaged several times, giving everyone who comes to the Crow Fair a chance to witness it's most prominent spectacle.
Visitors who drive to the fair can see several miles of tepees even before they reach the fairgrounds. This is why the Crow Fair is also known as "The Tepee Capital of the World." Families also tend to set up their tepees in the same location each year. And, just like in some sporting events where private viewing booths are handed down from one generation to another, it's the same with the tepee campsite locations for tepees. It's not uncommon for a particular spot to be handed down from one generation to the next.
The original tepees erected at the fair were covered with sewn-together buffalo skins and decorated with paintings. The tepees today are made of canvas, but it's still popular to decorate them with pictures representing the family's history.
Return to our August Holidays Page for more celebrations.
Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs 3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2003