From: Graetz, Rick, and Graetz, Susie. Crow Country: Montana’s Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000.
“Wake up! Get Going! You’ve waited for this all year, sleep late another time,” the camp crier’s voice blares over the mobile loud speaker, coaxing folks from their beds. It’s daybreak and soon the coffee is on, the scent of bacon frying is in the air, horses have been watered and another eventful day at Crow Fair has begun.
Uhba’asaxpiluua , the tribal name for any dance, celebration or gathering means, “where they make the noise.” And what a joyful noise it is! Youngsters running from camp to camp, people laughing and shouting greetings. Dancer’s ankle bells and jingle dresses ring out while drummers and singers set the beat. Horses make their presence known and the well amplified voice of the emcee calls one and all to the various feeds, parades, Grand Entries and contests.
In 1904, S. C. Reynolds, the local government Indian agent, devised a plan to help the Crow Indians become self-sufficient through farming. Patterned after mid-west county fairs, he envisioned a festival where cash prizes would be awarded for the best produce, handicrafts, and processed native foods. As an added incentive to make the idea more enticing, Agent Reynolds lightened the United States government’s restrictive policy towards traditional Indian ceremonies and social events.
A marketing success, Crow Fair soon encompassed active participation by the entire tribe and gradually revived more rituals. During World War I, the fairs ceased and when they resumed after World War II, the focus had changed. Agricultural aspects went by the wayside, but the social and cultural affairs held on and continued to grow.
Today, this six day event, held the third week in August just outside the Crow Agency is often called “The Tepee Capital of the World.” Approximately 1,500 tepees are set up along the banks of the Little Bighorn River interspersed between the grand cottonwood trees and the eastern bluffs. The heart of the camp is the 200-foot in diameter, open-air arbor or dance arena. Here, day and night, the pulse of the fair is felt as participants and viewers flow in and out.
The day commences with an impressive parade of vividly outfitted people on horses, cars, trucks and floats, all dutifully decorated with multicolored blankets and intricate beadwork. There is always a large turnout as rivalry for the cash prizes is intense.
Soon after the parade, the all-Indian rodeo and horse races test athletic skills. With the inception of the fair, horse racing changed from straight line to circle, due to the whiteman’s influence; hence, Chichia’xxaawasuua, ("running in a circle") the tribal name for Crow Fair. In the arbor, dance contests, which are divided into gender, age and style categories, persevere throughout the hot afternoon.
“Dancers, one hour until Grand Entry! Be sure to be ready,” warns the announcer. All participants begin the ritual of preparing for the competitions.
An honor guard of flag bearers (usually military veterans... who are considered warriors in this modern age) leads the way, then the men’s Traditional, Fancy and last the Grass dancers file into and circle the arena. Women’s Traditional, Fancy and then Jingle Dress follow. As the vibrantly colorful line spirals inward, the dance floor begins to resemble a vibrant human mosaic.
Several competing drum groups positioned around the periphery of the dance floor, perform in turn for the different dances and are judged on their talent throughout the session. Dances are either inter-tribal (participation by all and not judged), exhibition (not judged), or contest (judged). From a spectator’s point of view, the judged events are the most interesting and spectacular. Here the contestants do their utmost to out perform each other with incredible footwork, body movement and attitude. The drum groups have “trick songs” they can end at any moment. It is very important for dancers to stop right on time with the drum beat, any misstep results in a lowering of their points.
Each rated category is distinctive both in the style of the outfits worn and the manner and rhythm of the dance steps. Traditional men’s and women’s outfits, while colorful, are more on the line of what their name implies. Both use hand objects when they perform. Distinctive clothing features for the men are bone breastplates, a feather back bustle and a fur or feather headdress. Large sleigh bells, worn around their ankles as well as on a strip that hangs from the waist, add a new, jangling dimension to the beat of the drum songs. A vigilant posture and the demeanor of a great warrior scout or huntsman best describes the sometimes deliberate, often boastful, movements of a traditional male dancer.
The women wear beautiful beaded and fringed buckskin dresses, hightop moccasins, fur braid wraps and eagle feathers in their hair. Proud and upright, the women hold court on the dance floor. Gentle, yet exact steps and body motions allow the dress’s long fringe to swing in time with the drum beats.
Glorious and unrestrained defines both the regalia and the actions of the male and female Fancy dancers. The men, like brilliant exotic birds with two incredibly colorful, large and flowing back bustles, execute highly energetic, non-stop spins, jumps and drops. Strength, talent and endurance are needed to compete successfully.
Women Fancy dancers wear fringed, elaborately decorated shawls that they extend wing-like. Their movements are delicate yet fast paced, more like beautiful butterflies flitting, dipping and twirling through a garden of riotous color.
Long, thick fringe, made of brightly colored yarn, cascades from the shoulders, apron and pants of the largely entertaining Grass dancers. No bustles are worn, but ornate beadwork, porcupine headdresses and sheep bells are part of the outfit. Keeping the fringes in constant motion with innovative shoulder and body shakes, the performer weaves and bends his body with each demanding step. To win takes stamina and creativity.
Measured, purposeful dance steps set shiny tin cones, made from Copenhagen lids and sewn in rows on brightly colored sheaths, ringing. With heads held high, proud Jingle Dress dancers use imaginative footwork to meld their own music with that of the drum groups. Aptly named, they are pleasing to both the eye and the ear.
Sprinkled throughout the dances are giveaways which pay homage to those who have made special accomplishments during the year. This presentation of a myriad of goods, by the honoree to friends and family members, is usually preceded by a solemn honor dance with relatives, who are soon joined by all who wish to show their respect.
Food concessions and booths with T-shirts, jewelry, hand-crafted beadwork, art, leather, fur and feathers surround the arbor tempting visitors and participants alike. Since Crow Fair is a family event, the use and sale of alcohol and drugs are forbidden, therefore the atmosphere is open, friendly, boisterous and welcoming.
But Crow Fair is much more than pageantry, excitement, contests and giveaways; it is first and foremost a reunion of family and friends. A chance to visit without the pressures of the everyday work life. Those living away from the reservation, usually make Crow Fair their annual visit, often traveling great distances to do so. Adults and children gather together sharing not only camp sites and food, but also their heritage and culture. It is a complete and cooperative effort involving all...from the preparation and setting up of the campsite and tepees, to the daily cooking and cleaning, to helping each other get ready for the festivities. One can easily see why the Crow People look forward to, and plan for this all year long.