The Montana-based photographer and adopted member of the Crow talks about the annual Crow Fair, inspiration, tradition, and Western imagery.
August is still months away, but Erika Haight is already dreaming about the 100th anniversary of Crow Fair. An adopted member of the tribe, the Montana-based photographer has devoted many years to documenting her Crow family and the huge annual “family reunion” that transforms land near the Little Bighorn River outside of Billings, Montana, into the Tepee Capital of the World. The 1,000-plus tepees and impressive regalia make for a visual spectacle, but it’s the intimate moments and expressive faces that particularly compel Haight.
Cowboys & Indians: Why is the centennial of Crow Fair so meaningful for you?
Erika Haight: I think of all of the generations of people that will be parading that day, how some of the greatest photographers in the world were there to witness the very first event, and how special that must have been. How far we have come — the technology, advancement in education, clothing styles — yet there, during those times, it’s as if time stands still. The photos from a century ago and photos from today when converted to black-and-white look exactly the same side by side. You see the faces; although we know they are not the same, they still look familiar. Crow Fair is art, culture, and old-time tradition. But more than anything, it’s the people. Aside from spending time with my friends and family on the reservation this coming year, the anniversary will indeed be a highlight of my photographic career.
C&I: Tell us about some of your favorite Crow Fair images.
Haight: My entire body of work is made up of intimate portraits. The children of Crow hold a special place in my heart. I love their cautious little faces before they know who I am. First interactions are what I live for. This is my favorite time to document them. They are guarded, careful to make sure that I am a friend. It’s in this moment that my best work is captured ... Crow children at play, leading their prized ponies, reaching their hands out from a parade car draped with Pendleton blankets, buffalo robes, beadwork, and umbrellas.
C&I: What are some other sources of inspiration?
Haight: I’m attracted to Native American culture, Western culture, and nostalgia. I find inspiration in things that most people would walk by without a second thought. A much-loved antique teddy bear whose eyes have fallen out, an abandoned old farmhouse, cabinet cards neatly placed in my old farm hutch, individuals I meet and have had the privilege of knowing. I find inspiration at antiques markets, on the road driving on a Sunday afternoon, or walking through a patch of burned pine trees. Inspiration is everywhere — you just have to look!
C&I: What makes the West and its inhabitants particularly photogenic?
Haight: The Wild West still exists, I can assure you. Cowboys and Indians are always full of character, both in their outward appearances and their outlook on life in general. I am so fortunate to live in this wild and rugged place. Opportunities are everywhere! The silhouettes of war bonnets and cowboy hats always make for a great photograph.
C&I: Who are some photographers whose work you particularly admire?
Haight: I love the works of Evelyn Cameron, Edward Curtis, and Richard Throssel. Recently, I discovered Bill Wittliff. His Dreams of Tenochtitlan
resonates with me and my time spent on the Crow reservation.
C&I: How do you find the courage to pursue fine art as a career?
Haight: I have always loved art, the idea of art, and the ability to create something beautiful. It’s easy to commit to something you love — pursuing it is just the natural progression of things. It is painful at times. Hanging a piece in a gallery or posting it online for the whole world to see and critique is intimidating. The fear of rejection is real, but the alternative is so much worse. I have a story to tell, and I have been given the gift of doing that through a series of images that have taken me years to collect. I have come to the understanding that these photographs will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I am comfortable with that. So when my fears take hold, I say to myself, “I have so much to share, and if not now, when?”
See Erika Haight’s work at erikahaightphotography.com.
From the February/March 2018 issue.