Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 26, 2000 - Issue 17

Crow Fair’s Colorful History Dates to 1904
by Rick Graetz for the Billings Gazette
Photos by Brian Freeman

In 1904, a government Indian agent devised a plan to help the Crow Indians become self-sufficient through farming. Nearly a century later, the Crow Fair tradition is still alive and well.

Patterned after Midwest county fairs, the agent envisioned a festival where cash prizes would be awarded for the best produce, handicrafts and native foods. Crow Fair eventually encompassed active participation by the entire tribe and gradually revived more American Indian rituals. After World War II, agricultural aspects went by the wayside and social and cultural affairs stayed.

Often described as “The Tepee Capital of the World,” Crow Fair is scheduled for Aug. 18-20 at Crow Agency. By the end of the week, about 1,500 tepees will be 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 diameter, open-air arbor or dance arena. In the arbor, day and night, the pulse of the fair is felt as participants and viewers flow in and out.

Each morning, a parade of vividly outfitted people on horses, cars, trucks and floats, all decorated with multicolored blankets and intricate beadwork, winds its way through the camp. Later, the all-Indian rodeo and horse races take place. With the inception of the fair, Indian horse racing, with an influence from whites, changed from straight line to a circle; hence, Chichi-a’xxaawasuua, (“running in a circle”) the tribal name for Crow Fair.

In the arbor, an honor guard of flag bearers (usually military veterans who are considered warriors in this modern age) leads the Grand Entry; 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 colorful line spirals inward, the dance area begins to resemble a vibrant, human mosaic.

Several competing drum groups, positioned around the periphery of the arbor, perform in turn for the different dances and are judged on their talent throughout the session. 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 beat, any misstep results in a lowering of their points. Contestants do their utmost to outperform each other with dazzling footwork, body movement and attitude.

Dance classification is by age, gender and style of the outfits worn and the manner and rhythm of the steps.

Traditional men’s and women’s attire, while colorful, is 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 beaded and fringed buckskin dresses, high-top moccasins, fur braid wraps and eagle feathers in their hair. 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 colorful, flowing back bustles, execute highly energetic, non-stop spins, jumps and drops.

Women Fancy Dancers wear fringed, elaborately decorated shawls that they extend wing-like. Their movements are delicate but fast paced, like butterflies flitting, dipping and twirling through a garden of dazzling 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.

Measured, purposeful dance steps set shiny tin cones – made from Copenhagen lids and sewn in rows on brightly colored sheaths – clanging together. With heads held high, the aptly named Jingle Dress dancers use imaginative footwork to meld their own music with that of the drum groups.

Sprinkled throughout the dances are giveaways that 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, handcrafted beadwork, art, leather, fur and feathers surround the arbor. Since Crow Fair is a family event, the use and sale of alcohol and drugs is forbidden; the atmosphere is open, friendly, boisterous and welcoming.

Crow Fair reaches beyond its pageantry, excitement, contests and giveaways. It is foremost a reunion of family and friends, a chance to visit without the pressures of everyday 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 campsites and food, but also their heritage and culture.

Rick Graetz and his wife Susie of Helena are publishers, authors and photographers. Their latest issue of the Montana Geographic Journal is on the Crow Indian Nation.

Legends of Our Times

Crow Fair

Crow Visions



Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry. All Rights Reserved.