I was just shy of my 8th birthday when Crow Fair first came on my radar. To their credit, my parents were introducing their kids to a different culture – but they should have warned us it wasn’t going to be like the county fair. The disappointment was real when we arrived and didn’t see a Ferris wheel on the horizon. But the tears were short lived. Even as kids, we could tell Crow Fair was something special.
Every year, during the third week of August, a patch of unassuming prairie along the banks of Montana’s Little Bighorn River transforms into the “teepee capital of the world.” There’s no official count – who wants to take time away from the festivities to tally teepees? – but most sources cite at least 1,200. Constructed of white canvas stretched tightly across lodgepole pines, the teepees stand out sharply against the brown earth. August in southeastern Montana is hot and dry, but it’s also the start of the harvest season – and originally, Crow Fair was established as an agricultural event.
Now in its 103rd year, Crow Fair has grown exponentially to become one of the largest powwows in the world. For five full days, thousands of representatives of different tribes from across the country and even Canada gather to celebrate a culture the US government once tried to decimate. The irony that outsiders are welcome to attend is not lost on anyone – least of all the Crow people. They’re happy to be known for their hospitality, and their horses. Indeed, for every teepee at Crow Fair there is a horse trailer. For tribal members, going to Crow Fair without your horse is like going to war without a weapon. It’s unfathomable.
For starters, there’s the parade around the encampment which kicks off each day of the fair. Most of the participants are on horseback – their animals elaborately adorned as if they’re going to the equine Academy Awards. The riders are also dressed to impress. As a kid I remember being enamored with the royalty riding by. There was Junior Miss Crow Nation, Miss Northern Cheyenne, and Center Lodge Princess – all practicing their pageant waves while wearing traditional dresses far prettier than anything I had hanging up in my closet at home.
After the parade, all eyes are on the rodeo. Two years ago, I sat high in the grandstand, perched on the edge of my seat watching fearless men and women risk it all to race around the arena on seemingly wild horses. Their goal? To win a cash prize and a year’s worth of bragging rights.
While the kids’ pony race always draws a huge crowd, the signature event is the Indian relay. Specific to Native American rodeos, this unique event requires riders to ride a lap on one horse, climb on the back of another horse for the second lap and then climb on the back of a third horse for the final lap. The riders do all of this bareback. It’s athleticism and horsemanship at its finest.
Before the last of the dust settles, rodeo-goers start making their way to the dance arbor. Some show up hours in advance to plant their lawn chairs around the periphery of the large expanse of grass where the evening’s dancing and ceremonies will take place. I usually end up in the bleachers in the back. Still, there’s no bad seat at Crow Fair. The evening begins with the grand entry where everyone stands for the presentation of the colors. Tribal members who are veterans and active-duty military carry tribal flags, the Montana State flag, the American flag, and the POW MIA flag.
Next, the dancers file in. “Be proud but not prideful,” reminds the emcee who announces them. The men – sporting head-to-toe regalia – enter first. Like their feather headdresses, their beaded belts, metallic armbands, and elaborate breastplates are all works of art. They dance, bowing their heads as if humbled by some unseen force of nature, to the beat of the drums. The drumming, and the singing, never seems to cease. It’s the soundtrack for the next few hours as hundreds of other dancers – everyone from toddlers to elders – shuffle in. Since many have sleigh bells sewn onto their fringed boots you hear them coming long before you see them.
It would be remiss to talk about Crow Fair without mentioning the fare. There are the usual suspects like ice cream, pizza, and burgers, but the event’s culinary crown jewel is the Indian fry bread. The line for this flattened dough – deep fried to perfection and served with an array of toppings – is never short, but the wait is always worth it. Until my first visit to Crow Fair, I didn’t think fair food could get any better than cotton candy. Little did I know! Twenty-five years later, I still can’t think of a single food that makes my mouth water more than a piping hot pillow of Indian fry bread smothered in powdered sugar.
Like other powwows, Crow Fair is an alcohol-free affair. It makes the event far more family-friendly which is important because at its core, Crow Fair is basically a massive family reunion. As entertaining as it is, it’s not meant to be a tourist attraction. Can non-tribal members attend? Yes. Is it our right? No. It’s a privilege – and one I’ll never take lightly. In fact, I plan on bringing my future kids to Crow Fair someday. Until then I’m fine flying solo (and not having to share my fry bread).
Crow Fair takes place the third week in August at Crow Agency, about an hour’s drive east of Billings on I-90. Accommodations can be found in the nearby town of Hardin as well as in Billings, Montana’s largest city. Admission is free for enrolled tribal members. Event organizers are still determining the cost of admission for the general public for 2022, but in past years, it’s been around $12 per adult. Entry to the rodeo is an additional $10-$20 per person.
With nearly 600 different tribes in the US, indigenous traditions and cultural practices here are as diverse as on any continent.
Join World Nomad Joel in Washington state, where he meets Native Americans who introduce him to their food, hospitality, music, dance, and most profoundly, a sweat lodge.
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