Crow Fair

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Crow Fair

Date of Observation: Third weekend in August
Where Celebrated: Crow Agency, Montana
Symbols and Customs: Crow Hop, Dance Arbor, Dancing Competitions, Grand Entry, Tepees


The Crow Fair, considered to be the largest outdoor Indian powwow in the United States, dates back to 1904. S.C. Reynolds, a government Indian Affairs agent in Crow Agency, Montana, wanted to persuade the Crow Indians, who were traditionally nomads who wandered from place to place, to settle down and support themselves by farming. County fairs were very popular in the American Midwest at the time, so Reynolds organized a typical agricultural fair where Crow farmers could exhibit their livestock and produce and the women could show off their crafts and domestic skills. He even managed to sidestep the federal government's ban on tribal dancing, singing, and ceremonies. The event was a great success, and it soon expanded to include parades, a rodeo, horse and foot races, and reenactments of famous Crow battles. It gave the Crow an opportunity to keep their cultural traditions alive, and it also became a major tourist attraction for Crow Agency, which is located just a few miles from the site of Custer's Last Stand. The fair has been held every year since then, with brief interruptions during World Wars I (1914-18) and II (1939-45) and during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Crow and other Native Americans start setting up their TEPEES a week before the event, and it is not uncommon to see 1,500 or more tepees erected on the shores of the Little Bighorn River. The fair begins with the GRAND ENTRY , an elaborate procession led by an honor guard of Native American war veterans and featuring Crow Indians on horseback in traditional dress, drumming groups, and representatives of the various dance groups who will compete at the powwow. The dancing itself takes place in a large open-air DANCE ARBOR , which is the focal point of the fair. Drum groups also compete for prizes, and both drummers and dancers are dressed in traditional and often elaborate Native American costumes that include bells, feathered headdresses, and beaded buckskin shirts and dresses. Hundreds of Native American cowboys compete in the all-Indian Championship Rodeo.

Approximately 7,500 Crow Indians live on or near the Montana reservation, but during the Crow Fair they are joined each day by more than 50,000 tourists from all over the world.


Crow Hop

Although many traditional Native American dances are performed at the fair, none is more popular or more closely identified with the event than the dance known as the Crow Hop. Imitating the movements of the bird for which it is named, one style of Crow Hop involves stomping hard on the heel of the foot, while another combines skipping and hopping.

According to representatives of the tribe, the dance evolved around the same time that the Crow Fair began. Several groups of Crow Indians would establish separate encampments where the DANCE ARBOR is now located. They used the Crow Hop to make their way from one encampment to the next.

Dance Arbor

The arena known as the dance arbor is about 200 feet in diameter. It is where the GRAND ENTRY takes place and where all the drumming and DANCING COMPETITIONS are held. Although it is open to visitors day and night, there are certain rules of etiquette that must be observed. Using it as a shortcut to get from one part of the fairgrounds to another, for example, is discouraged.

Dancing Competitions

There are so many dancers who compete at the Crow Fair that they can't all fit in the arbor at once. There are male and female Fancy Dancers whose movements are quick and often breathtaking. There are Grass Dancers-named for the thick fringe of yarn decorating their shoulders, aprons, and pants-whose movements make the fringes shimmy and sway, and Jingle Dress Dancers whose costumes are stitched with rows of small tin cones made from the lids of tobacco cans. Other dances include the Fancy Shawl Dance and the Southern Cloth Dance. Drum groups accompany the dancers, who must stop exactly in time with the final drum beat or risk losing points in the competition. Some of the drummers have "trick songs" whose endings cannot always be anticipated, posing a special challenge for the dancers.

Grand Entry

The Grand Entry is an elaborate procession of fair participants, particularly the dancers. It is led by Native American veterans carrying Canadian, Mexican, and American flags, followed by the male and then the female dancers, with the older dancers preceding the younger. The men's Traditional, Fancy, and Grass Dancers file into the arbor first, followed by the women's Traditional, Fancy, and Jingle Dress Dancers in carefully prearranged order.

Many of the parade participants are on horseback-a reminder of how the Crow crossed the western plains hundreds of years ago-and the horses themselves wear traditional Crow saddles and handpainted saddlebags. There are floats, usually flatbed trucks with drummers and dancers, whose cabs are used to display Crow blankets, elk tooth dresses, and other traditional finery, leaving only a small area of the windshield clear so the driver can see where he's going. A highlight of the Grand Entry is the appearance of Miss Crow Fair, who is usually seated in an open Cadillac convertible, and her "princesses"-young beauty queens from other Native American powwows.

The Grand Entry is restaged several times, giving everyone who comes to the fair a chance to witness its most prominent spectacle.


Visitors who drive to the fair can see tepees going up for several miles before they reach the fairgrounds, and it is for this reason that the Crow Fair is known as the "Tepee Capital of the World." Families tend to set up their teepees in the same place every year, and it's not uncommon for a particular campsite to be handed down from one generation to the next.

While the tepees that were originally erected at the fair were covered with sewntogether buffalo hides and decorated with paintings, today they are usually made of canvas-although it is still popular to decorate them with pictures representing the family's history.


Eagle Walking Turtle. Indian America: A Traveler's Companion. Santa Fe: J. Muir Publications, 1989. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to Fairs and Festivals in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.


Canku Ota

Montana's Official State Travel Information Site

Crow Fair

Third weekend in August
The Crow Fair is one of the biggest powwows in the U.S., held since 1918 at Crow Agency, Mont., about 65 miles southeast of Billings. The fair, held Thursday through Sunday, is hosted by the Crow tribe but attracts thousands of other Indians (Peruvian Incas and Alaskan Eskimos were among those attending in 1991), who set up more than 1,000 tepees on the camp grounds.
Dancing at the fair includes not only traditional Plains Indian dances but also the Crow Hop, which is similar to a war dance and is unique to the Crows. It was originally a men's dance, but now women also take part, and all wear clothes of buckskin, feathers, quills, and bells to add a counterpoint to the drum beats.
There are rodeos with cash prizes, horse races, a relay of bareback riding, art exhibits, and demonstrations of such crafts as pipe carving and jewelry designing with turquoise and silver.
Crow Tribal Council
P.O. Box 159
Crow Agency, MT 59022
406-638-3700; fax: 406-638-3881
EndurHarv-1995, p. 299
GdUSFest-1984, p. 107
IndianAmer-1989, p. 33
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