On the occasion of the Crow Fair centennial, photographer Erika Haight shares some favorite images from past fairs and highlights from conversations with a Crow family about the big celebration in Montana.
In the months leading up to the much-anticipated 100th anniversary of Crow Fair, the Crow are busy planning, beading, praying, saving money for giveaways and specials for the parade and powwow, and gathering supplies for their camps. Soon the banks along the Little Bighorn River will once again fill with tepees as they did a century ago. Families will gather, meals will be prepared, songs will be sung — a tradition that seems to have no end.
For me, this historic milestone means frequent trips to the reservation, scheduling photoshoots and interviews, spending time with friends and family. It’s an honor to sit and visit with those who are willing to invite me into their lives. And it’s a photographer’s delight to take time away from all the activity to find quiet visual moments in closeup. On a beautiful late-spring day in Montana, the Spottedtail family shared their stories and thoughts on the upcoming celebration.
100 Years Of Tradition
Donald Spottedtail: What’s special about the 100-year anniversary is that we have come a long way as a Crow people, especially considering the transition from the old Crow way of life to the 20th century. Our people and the transition they made from pre-reservation to reservation life and how our language has survived the times, our way of life as a people — to me, that’s the significance of the centennial Crow Fair celebration. Over the years, I have seen the rapid growth of campers, which is a good thing. It means more participation, and more families being proud of who they are as Crow. We are still here, and we will always be here.
A Special Spot
Donald: Our spot has been there for over 40 years now. It’s been in my family — it was my grandparents’ camp. It belonged to my grandfather. Of course my aunts and uncles, it’s their camp, too. Then my generation, and now my children. At Crow Fair everybody is there. Kids are playing. Everyone moves to our spot in the evening to eat and have coffee.
Getting Ready For The Fair
Donald: Crow Fair takes planning. Like for your brush arbor: Where are you going to get your branches? Throughout the year, wherever I go — Crow Agency or up toward Ashland — I say, “Yeah, that one is for Crow Fair.” Then when it comes time for Crow Fair, I go to that spot. I scope out where I get the branches because a lot of the times now it’s getting more scarce, because more people are going after branches every year because of the increase of camps. So you have to be really strategic.
Alexsandra Spottedtail: And fast. You also have to make sure your structure is still holding up and that the wood isn’t rotted.
Donald: When I do cut branches, I always make sure not to totally cut everything off; I always make sure that there is enough so that there will be more growing in the years to come. It’s a way of respecting what the Creator has given us as a people.
A Family Focus
Donald: To us, the significance of Crow Fair is our family reunion. We have family that come and camp with us, stay with us. On Sunday everyone is having their big dinners at their camps.
The history is important because [it shows our] survival. There is one Crow Tribe, but there were two or three bands. One band would be in a different location in Crow territory, and this was for survival; [they’d be] hunting buffalo or wildlife, picking berries or wild turnips for sustenance. But there was a certain time of year when all the clans would come together.
That is pretty much how Crow Fair is today — family that you haven’t seen for a while. We are like any society, we are like any people. We have our differences, we have our own personal issues, whether it’s politics or whatnot, but Crow Fair is a time when everyone puts all of that aside for that one week. They all camp together, and they are all one people, and they show that hospitality, they show that love for each other. Whether you come from near or far, you get that love from your family. That is one thing that every person gets is that family is everything. That’s what Crow Fair represents to me: Everyone puts aside their differences and worries, what’s going on back home, whatever is going on out in the world. They put everything to the side, and they focus on family.
Crow Fair [is about] staying at camp, and having that good cup of coffee. Coffee is part of the hospitality. A lot of the life lessons I learned from my grandfather; he would teach me to always have hospitality. No matter who comes into your house, welcome them in. Give them a meal, or [if you’re not] eating, a cup of coffee. Even offering a glass of water speaks a lot. Talk a good conversation, and when they leave, compliment them, because you want to make people leave your house with a good heart. When they go back home, they will say, “I was treated so well.” It’s a blessing that they are speaking over your home. That is what my grandfather taught me: always to have that hospitality. That’s part of the overall Crow culture. We are known for our hospitality. It doesn’t matter what family you go and visit — they will take you in and give you what little they have to make you feel welcome.
Changing With The Times
Alexsandra: The families are larger now. When I was younger, my dad would bring the horses and everything, and I don’t remember it being [so] crowded.
Donald: I have seen the rapid growth of campers, which is a good thing — more participation and more families being proud of who they are as Crow.
The Making Of Memories
Alexsandra: My grandfather always would bring the horses for me and my cousins to ride. This is what I remember most. It’s a big deal because of all of our relatives that we don’t get to see that often, like our favorite cousins and aunties — they are all in one spot. No matter what, everyone always [has come] together in one spot during Crow Fair.
One thing I will always remember is they found a snake under my bed at camp. I was just a little girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, and I was playing dolls with my cousins. I kept seeing something; it kept catching my eye. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I guess I pushed my cousins out of the tent and ran and told my uncle. He came in and grabbed it and just snapped his neck. I remember one time my mom and dad bought my sister and me a 20- or 22-foot tepee, a big tepee, and it was for just us. We were maybe 12 or 13 years old. Every year my uncles would sigh and say, “I guess it’s time to put up Ali and Birdie’s mansion.”
Hopes For Another Hundred Years
Donald: Our people are resilient. I believe there will be a 200-year Crow Fair celebration, but I think that because of technology, and because of more of our people being assimilated into society through education and careers, that [future] generations will be more advanced. I just pray the way things are going that our language continues, because you see fewer and fewer people speaking our language as time goes on. If anything, during this Centennial Crow Fair I would want my Crow people to recognize and remember togetherness. We are still people. We are still Crow people. And we share one homeland. May we continue for generations to come.
Crow Fair takes place annually the third week of August near Billings, Montana, on land surrounding the Little Bighorn River. The 100th anniversary of Crow Fair & Rodeo will be celebrated August 15 – 20. visitmt.com
From the August/September 2018 issue.