One-hundred years later, Crow Fair continues to celebrate culture with the largest Native American event in Montana.
The Apsáalooke people of the Crow Indian Reservation south of Hardin, Montana, host the annual six-day event in Crow Agency with powwows, parades and rodeo.
Long-term fair participant and Crow Tribe member, Dale Old Horn, says the story behind Crow Fair began in 1862 when then-U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. This law encouraged Easterners to occupy Indian land. The law was then expanded under U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, forcing Native Americans to assimilate Western culture and lose their ethos.
By 1904, the U.S. government wanted to prove the law's success with a fair similar to county fairs. The Crow Tribe were to display livestock and home goods, but event planner and Indian Agent S.C. Reynolds was not prepared for the dancing that commenced at the inaugural fair.
"Before that time, the Crows had been dancing clandestinely; they had to hide from the authorities and hide from the U.S. army and the U.S. agency forces," Old Horn said. "Formally, they began to dance at Crow Fair."
While some elements of the fair remain true 100 events later, like the flat track racing Reynolds was known to participate in, Crow Fair has evolved as Native Americans took ownership of what was supposed to disintegrate their culture further.
Old Horn defines Crow Fair as "an event that strengthened the practice of the Native culture."
Crow Fair begins during the middle of the third week in August through the following Monday; a specific schedule is to be determined.
Between Friday, Aug. 17, and Sunday, Aug. 19, morning parades led by the color guard begin each day at 10 a.m. A procession of veterans and active members of the armed services, the President, Vice-President and First Vice-President of the Crow Fair, Crow tribal officials and women on horseback travel through the campsites. Contests in varying categories like “best traditional dress” are included in the parades, according to the Crow Fair website.
With one of the largest powwows in the country, Crow Fair draws more than 50,000 people to participate or just come and watch. The four-day powwow focuses on traditional dance style; Crow tribe dancers don regalia resembling what was worn at the turn of the 19th century.
The powwow grand entries begin at 1 p.m. led by the veteran honor guard. Participating contest dancers of all ages follow in the procession. An announcer presents drum groups also in competition.
The Crow Fair Rodeo completes the fair’s offerings with entertainment including youth events, professional cowboys and cowgirls and horse racing at the Edison Real Bird Memorial Complex.
Rodeo director James Real Bird says the crowd gets into events like the flat track and Indian relay racing.
“It’s something I look forward to every year,” said Real Bird, who has been attending the fair for 29 years.
Sharmaine Hill is this year’s rodeo queen and Jay Old Coyote is powwow director. Since beginning to plan the event last September, Old Coyote jokes that he has six white hairs now.