CROW AGENCY, Mont. — Teens wearing Vans and athletic shorts ride horses bareback throughout the camp while young men walk horses down to the Little Bighorn River to cool off. Others spray themselves with water bottles or line up for a snow cone.
A mother dips the top of her baby’s head into a stream of water while he cries. Many people are relaxing in the shade until the Parade Dance starts, which will end the 2019 Crow Fair.
Tammie Hugs remembers when she was a girl, waking up to see perfect stitches lining the teepee surrounding her, handstitched by her grandmother. She remembers hearing the camp crier before sunrise, who rode on horseback as he woke people with his loud voice.
“I would always wake up and look at her stitches,” she said.
Hugs and her family put the tent up every year until it fell apart about 10 years ago.
Today, many tents that line the roadways are machine-made. There are trailers, RVs and camo-covered pup-tents. The camp crier drives a truck with a public address system, but still wakes people before sunrise. Every year, Crow Fair brings thousands of people from all corners to the teepee capitol of the world to celebrate Crow traditions. The 101st Crow Fair took place Aug. 14-19.
Hugs has come to Crow Fair every year since she was a young girl. She said many things are still the same, like the dancing, drumming and daily parades, but it is more frightening to be there now. Hugs said with concerns about partiers and human trafficking, she keeps her children and grandchildren close by.
While Hugs doesn’t know anyone who has disappeared personally, she is constantly reminded via Facebook that a family member could vanish at any moment.
The Montana Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Facebook page recently posted a list of missing Montana Native people compiled by the FBI. At least nine of the names listed are being investigated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs‑Crow Agency.
Despite those concerns, Hugs encourages people to come to Crow Fair to see what makes the culture unique. She said it is comforting that every year she spends a few days cooking, dancing and watching young people get involved in traditions.
“It’s important to be with family and sit down together,” she said.
She said it’s a lot of work to construct a teepee and camp out for five days, but it’s worth it.
Jasmine Othermedicine also values the time she spends at Crow Fair with her whole family together, preserving fading traditions. She said more people showing interest in the fair is good, because it exposes others to Crow traditions.
Othermedicine hopes by being at Crow Fair, people learn to respect her culture. She said misconceptions about life on native reservations persist, like a belief that all native people drink and take drugs. She encourages people to experience what the culture is truly about at Crow Fair: being with family.
“Drugs have really taken over our res,” she said. “But most of us have never touched it.”
Othermedicine’s grandfather, Tilton Old Bull Senior, has been the camp crier for about 20 years. He said his job is to ensure his people have a positive Crow Fair experience, so they’ll come back next year. His goal with every Crow Fair is to have people leave smiling and happy.
Othermedicine hopes her children will learn some of the Crow language from her grandparents as they grow up.
“They’re the best kind of teachers around,” she said.
Lahna Goodluck likes waking up to Old Bull’s songs because his voice is peaceful. Old Bull said the songs he sings have been passed down through generations and he hopes to share them with his own grandchildren.
“I was blessed with those special songs,” he said.
Crow Fair has grown over the past five years and thousands of teepees go up each time, Old Bull said. He encourages people to bring the traditional teepee instead of trailers and pup-tents.
On the last day of Crow Fair, teepees didn’t come down until the Parade Dance had gone through each camp. The Parade Dance stops four times throughout the camps to celebrate the four seasons. People in the parade say a prayer at each stop for family, health and luck in the new year.
Old Bull said it is important to make newcomers to Crow Fair feel welcome by sharing meals and creating fellowship through activities and shared traditions.
“We Indians, we give more than we ask for,” he said.
Tribal members from other states attend Crow Fair every year, as well as people from Europe and South America, Old Bull said.
As five days of festivities came to an end, dancers of all ages and drummers walked through the camps, wearing modern sunglasses and Under Armour beneath traditional outfits featuring bells, beads and feathers.
Corky Old Horn encouraged people to join in the dancing over a microphone connected to his truck.
“[Crow Fair is] all about one big family reunion,” Old Bull said.