In black-and-white, photographer Erika Haight focuses on the story in the eyes.
Last August, Erika Haight put on her favorite pair of Silver jeans, black T-shirt, and Ariat boots and got into her red Volkswagen bug to drive 2 hours and 10 minutes southeast from her home in Roundup, Montana, to the Crow Reservation.
It was the beginning of Crow Fair, held the third week of August each year. Haight was going to take photographs of members of the tribe before the parade began. But on this day, the photos would have to wait. She pulled up to the Real Bird family campsite, which amounted to a clearing with a few wooden picnic benches in the center and four or five tepees in a semicircle around them. After a dinner of squash, zucchini, onions, and potatoes — wrapped in foil and cooked on the grill — along with traditional fry bread, Kristi (Real Bird) Old Coyote stood up to make a speech. Most of the Real Bird clan was in attendance, about 40 in all, including Kristi’s mother, one of the tribal elders.
Kristi said she wanted to recognize Haight for the photographs she’d taken of the tribe over the last four years. As she recited a blessing, her husband and brother smudged Haight for healing, protection, and good luck. She was given the name Baalaásitcheesh in Crow, which translates to “One Who Makes Others Happy.”
“They adopted me as part of the tribe,” Haight says. “I cried, she cried — the camp was silent. I felt accepted and loved.”
Five years before, Kristi Old Coyote had approached Haight at her booth at the Montana Historical Society Heritage Keepers Awards ceremony, where she was exhibiting her photographs. After seeing Haight’s images of wild horses, cowboys, and Native Americans, Kristi invited her to Crow Fair. Although Haight had never been, she was familiar with the Crow Indians. Her grandfather lived in the Emerald Hills in the Lockwood area, which bordered the Crow Nation and had once been part of Crow territory. When she was a child, Haight and her grandfather would walk together along the natural spring behind his house, and he’d show her the tepee rings, grooves cut into the rocks from tepees that had sat in one place for so long.
“I have this visual recollection of seeing a warrior chief on a horse in full regalia,” she says. “It’s strange to me that I would have such a clear picture [of something I’d never seen].
With an invitation to the fair, and a member of the tribe to make introductions, Haight began taking portraits of Crow men, women, and children. She now has hundreds. “I’m documenting oral histories when I’m photographing,” says Haight, who knew from the beginning that this was going to be a personal, not professional, project. “I’ve been to funerals; I’ve witnessed new babies coming into the world. I’m not just taking pictures of Crow Indians — I’m getting to know each one of them as a person.”
Haight’s sister once told her that you are never to turn away a gift from the Crow. “I think their real gift to me is their acceptance. Their nod of approval is when I take their photograph. That’s their greatest gift. They’re allowing me into their lives.”
In that spirit, Haight has so far only shared them with the people she’s photographed. “I’ve been approached by private collectors and galleries about purchasing some of my work,” Haight says. “I have a really hard time putting a price or a value on a face. They mean so much more to me than that. I don’t go there to make money.”
She has a collection called Apsáalooke Beauty, a series of portraits of people of all ages, from babies to elders, dressed in traditional clothing: elk-tooth dresses, which signify wealth and have been passed down for generations; beaded moccasins and headbands, which the Crows are known for; and bright Pendleton wool blankets.
As colorful as the visuals are, Haight usually shoots in black-and-white. “In black-and-white, you’re more drawn to look at the eyes than the beaded ornate medallion hanging around the neck,” she says. “This way, you can know them and understand who they are and where they come from. Isn’t that what we all want?”