Crow Fair: Indian Pow Wow And All-Star Rodeo
From thousands of tee pees to hand games, dancing, and rodeo, you will find many things to see and do at the annual Crow Fair.
Crow Fair is considered to be the largest outdoor Indian Pow Wow and All-Star Indian Rodeo in the world, although there is a larger indoor pow wow in Connecticut. Within five miles of the famous Custer's Last Stand battle grounds also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, it lies in the middle of a popular summer tourist route across Montana.
As you approach Crow Agency, Montana the week before the third weekend of August, the first thing you notice are the teepee poles going up for several miles before you actually reach the pow wow grounds. During the beginning years of this celebration, about 108 years ago at this same location, the teepees were covered with tanned buffalo hides carefully sewn together with sinew and decorated with paintings from visions, or family colors.
Today, most teepees are made from canvas, however, they are still individually decorated to represent the medicine or history of their owners and their families. The Crow Fair official slogan is "Teepee Capital of the World" and boasts more than a thousand teepees, as well as another 5,000 or so conventional tents and several hundred RVs.
The visitors begin to trickle in a full week in advance of the festivities to claim their favorite camping spot. While camping is technically assigned on a first come-first served basis, many families have been camping in the same spot for over a hundred years and others will respect this and reserve their space.
By the Monday before the celebration begins you will start to see food wagons and tents spring up to feed the hungry crowds as each day more campers arrive. On Tuesday or Wednesday, over a hundred Crafting families pull in and begin to set up their displays of handmade crafts and supplies for sale and toys for children.
Volunteers abound running around making last minute repairs to the arbor and grounds, making sure crafters set up in the correct place and have paid their fees, testing the electrical and P.A. systems, directing visitors to the camping areas, setting up First Aid stands, putting out trash cans, a fresh coat of paint on bleachers and the like.
Forty or fifty well-known drum groups and dozens of hand game tournament teams also arrive and begin their preparations for the weekend and the Blackjack Gambling Tents go up. Many of the competitors from the All-Indian Championship Rodeo that will also be held over the weekend at the fairgrounds, come over and join the crowds at the pow wow grounds. Cowboy hats and fancy belt buckles mix with more traditional dress and street clothes.
Celebration is in the air and you will see smiling, happy people everywhere visiting with friends and seldom seen family. As the week wears on the excitement grows and grows to a frenzy by Thursday morning when the five day celebration officially begins with the blessing and purifying ceremonies that make the arena sacred ground. Sometimes there is a Walk for Sobriety from the town to the pow wow grounds and coveted T-shirts are handed out to all participants.
Visitors should think of the arena or dance arbor, as it is also called, as an outdoor church. The same rules of etiquette and reverence should be applied. It is considered disrespectful to take a shortcut across the arena or to allow children to run and play in it, for example.
On Thursday afternoon and Friday morning time is reserved for traditional ceremonies such as namings and giveaways, and feeds to honor this or that. Thursday evening there is a social dance, where anyone may join in the round dances.
This generally stretches into the sunrise hours of Friday morning when the evening's dancers head for their teepees and tents for a well-deserved nap and another group of pow wow people take their place for more ceremonies. From this point on, the action is almost nonstop around the clock. There is no lack of things to see and do.
On Thursday evening the hand-game teams warm up for the tournaments with a few friendly games. Everyone places a side bet on their favorites. On Friday evening the official Hand Game Tournament starts and will go nonstop until the end of the pow wow. This will be the last event to finish.
High stakes bets are placed, won and lost, and won again several times over the course of the weekend. Puzzled tourists spend hours enjoying the songs and trying to figure out how the game works. It's very similar to the child's game of Button Button, Whose Got the Button, and yet its not. It's complicated to explain the finer nuances to a novice.
Each day beginning Friday morning, there is a parade assembled that will wind its way through all the camps to finally end near the dance arbor. The parade will be made up of kids on decorated bicycles, visiting royalty in convertibles sitting on Indian blankets, horses decked out in beaded collars and fancy paints rode by more visiting princesses, elders, and warriors in traditional dress. Many of the dancers will follow on foot decked out in their finest regalia, and occasionally, there will even be a rare float. This starts around 10:00, give or take an hour.
At approximately 1:00pm on Friday they will have the first Grand Entry. I say approximately because everything here runs on "Indian Time" and seldom is anything punctual. There will be other Grand Entries at approximately 7:00 PM on Friday, and at 1:00pm and 7:00 PM on both Saturday and Sunday.
The dance arena at Crow Fair is approximately the size of a rodeo arena. There are so many dancers that they usually need to have two rounds of Grand Entry dancers to bring all the dancers in because there isn't room for all of them at once, which is the more traditional way of doing Grand Entry.
There is a certain order to Grand Entry. Everyone is dressed in regalia according to the style of dance they dance. First, an honor guard of veterans carry in the flags, then all the Men file in starting with the Traditional Dancers which are mostly the older men, followed by the Grass Dancers and Fancy Dancers.
Next come the mostly older women, who dance Traditional or Southern Cloth, the younger women who dance the Fancy Shawl Dance, then women with small children, and bringing up the rear are the older children that don't need accompanied by their mothers.
An honoring song is sung, then a Veteran's song, a prayer said then the Grand Entry is over and the Competition Dancing begins, with a few social dances, blanket dances, and giveaway ceremonies mixed in as the evening progresses.
During Competition, only those who have signed up to compete and have a number will dance. During Social Dances, the announcer will tell you that anyone can join in. You do not have to be wearing regalia to dance in a social dance.
Throughout the dancing and ceremonies the announcer will keep you informed of what's happening and instruct you in appropriate behavior. In duller moments between events he will likely entertain you with that wonderful ironic sense of humor that seems unique to the Reservation Indian.
In addition to the official dances and ceremonies, there will be many groups scattered and gathered throughout the camps for drumming and singing, feasting and storytelling, or just visiting. The craft booths and food stalls will all be doing thriving business throughout. Some years there might even be a few carnival-type rides.
The Blackjack tents will be busy with card games and bets, and thousands of teenagers will be "walking out" which means they are walking around and around the outside of the arbor area hoping to meet new friends and find old acquaintances. Thousands of feet in boots and moccasins will beat down the grass until it disappears and they stir the dust into a deep fine powder.
On Friday evening and all day Saturday and Sunday, approximately 50,000 to 60,000 additional "day tourists" each day from all over the world will swell the crowds, and have a taste of the flavor of a true western pow wow. Most find it an enjoyable and memorable experience.