Every year during the third week of August, Native American culture draws visitors by the thousands to Crow Fair, billed as the “Tepee Capital of the World.”
The fair, held on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Crow Agency, near Billings, Mont., features a rainbow of parades, dancing, feathers, beads, horses and more. American Indians from every western state and Canada gather en masse to celebrate Indian culture.
Vacationing visitors arrive curious and full of questions. Unfortunately, Crow Fair, like most powwows, has always provided a visual feast but little enlightenment for non-Indians.
Now, however, many Crow and Cheyenne tribal members on the surrounding reservations are beginning to offer educational opportunities to visitors, believing that first-hand knowledge will help dispel the myths and confusion about Indian ways and history.
Visitors to the Billings area can now begin their Crow Fair experience well before the event. Cultural tours, reservation horseback rides and museum visits can make Crow Fair the culmination of an enlightening vacation.
Museums are a good place to start. Self-guided and self-paced visits to three area museums will provide education by immersion.
Chief Plenty Coups State Park, near Pryor (30 miles south of Billings), showcases the Crow tribe’s history. In August, warblers sing in the tall cottonwoods surrounding the homestead property of Chief Plenty Coups (pronounced “coo”) and his family. Nearby, tobacco and other small offerings encircle the Medicines Spring, a site that has been of spiritual importance to Crow Indians since it was revealed to the Chief Plenty Coups during a spiritual quest in his youth.
In 1928, Plenty Coups and his wife deeded their home, general store building, and land for a park. “This is not as a memorial to me, but to the Crow Nation,” the chief said at the dedication.
One of the first things visitors learn at the on-site museum is that the concept of “counting coups” is different than portrayed in old western movies.
“Warriors were challenged to accomplish certain deeds, and it was more of a strategic game - bloodletting was not a requirement,” says Rich Pittsely, museum curator. “Chief Plenty Coups was an extremely gifted young warrior, both physically and intellectually. He was able to count the four major coups of his tribe before the age of 25.”
The four coups warriors strove to complete were to touch an enemy in battle without wounding him, to capture an enemy’s weapon without killing him, to capture a horse tethered to a lodge, and to lead a successful horse-capturing or war party.
Plenty Coups, who later visited Washington, D.C., on several negotiation missions, encouraged his people to make peace with whites and to educate themselves, believing that the future of his tribe depended on understanding white man’s ways. “With education you are the white man’s equal,” he said, “but without it you are his victim.”
Plenty Coups, who died in 1932, was “our last traditional leader,” says Burton Pretty On Top, a cultural expert with the Crow tribe. “Since then, we have a new way of life, and our leaders are elected officials. Our leaders are more political in nature, whereas before they were spiritual leaders.”
More information about Crow culture is available at Little Bighorn Community College in Crow Agency.
The Crow Reservation, which covers nearly 4,000 square miles, is bordered on the east by the smaller Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The culture and history of the Northern Cheyenne tribe is distinct from that of the Crow.
About 100 miles west of Billings on Highway 212, visitors can learn the Northern Cheyenne at the Cheyenne Indian Museum at the St. Labre Indian Mission and School in Ashland. The museum features an extensive collection of rare and historically significant artifacts from the Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux and several other tribes. Paintings, beadwork, quill work, authentic clothing, tools and weapons are showcased and explained.
The school and mission itself, which educates nearly 700 children per year, demonstrates the tangled history of native American and Anglo interaction.
The museum’s promotional film, understandably, doesn’t emphasize the negative issues resulting from early mission schools, which often separated children from their family and culture, forbidding any language but English. The film does depict the benefits enjoyed by the generations of children educated by the mission, especially the current generation, which has access to an indoor swimming pool and many enviable educational amenities.
Because time has taught its lessons, the school now encourages native culture, and the St. Labre Catholic chapel pointedly reflects native spiritual values. Tours are available with museum visits.
For another look at Cheyenne culture, stop by the Dull Knife Memorial College in Lame Deer, 20 miles west of Ashland. The John Woodenlegs Memorial Library houses portraits of tribal elders.
Back in Billings, the Western Heritage Center shows native culture in a larger context. “Our Place in the West” is an interactive exhibit on the history of the Yellowstone Valley. Crow and Northern Cheyenne culture is woven into the display. Every Tuesday, visitors have an opportunity to meet Crow Indian Lawrence Flatlip, who presents his culture and answers questions about the Crow people. Flatlip is also available by appointment; schedule a meeting via his voice mail at the museum.
For visitors who want to go beyond the museum experience, horseback tours of the northern Cheyenne Reservation are offered by Cheyenne Trailriders. Proprietors Zane and Sandy Spang are members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe who love sharing the experience of the reservation’s beautifully wooded hills and unique sandstone formations. Zane Spang leads the tours and offers low-key culture and history lessons. Seeing native American land from astride a horse, far beyond the reservation roads, and spending time in quiet conversation with those whose heritage is this land is a privilege and an education.
Trips vary from two hours to four days, and may include visits to wild-horse corrals, ancestral tipi rings, buffalo pastures or petroglyphs. Overnight trips include entertainment by clown dancers, storytellers and flute players (these are available on day trips, too, by special arrangement). Up to 15 different trips are offered, and children are accommodated from age six. There’s also an automobile tour of the reservation for non-riding visitors.
No trip to Crow Fair country would be complete without a visit to Battle of the Little Bighorn National Monument. The monument provides an excellent opportunity for whites to contemplate our nation’s mixed history of interaction with native Americans.
Less than a decade ago, the battlefield was still named after Col. George Custer and presented most interpretations of the battle from the Cavalry perspective. Now the national park, renamed by Congress, has a native American superintendent, and most of the interpretive presentations are made by native Americans.
Finally, it’s time for Crow Fair. And those who didn’t take the time to do their homework and explore the surrounding reservations and parks before arriving have one more chance to acquire some background and have questions answered. The Western Heritage Center, as part of its “Museum Without Walls” program, hosts an interpretive tepee where visitors can meet native American staff.
Be sure to walk around the grounds, where hundreds of tepees are set up by the dancers and drummers, who come and stay for several days. Another feature of these camps are “brush arbors,” traditional awnings of tree branches set up to shelter the campers.
Each day of the fair begins with a not-to-be-missed parade. Tribal members from throughout the country, astride horse or car, rejoice in their heritage, displaying elaborate bead and quill work, some handed down from generations past.
A Cheyenne tribal elder, presenting a culture seminar to visitors at Cheyenne Trailriders, brought her 10-year-old granddaughter, Crystal, to tell the visitors a traditional story. The proud grandmother introduced her granddaughter and explained how, in the old days, Indians from different tribes and bands needed a universal sign language to communicate.
Using the sign language, Crystal started to tell us about Bear, Coyote and Skunk, and a conflict they had. The shy, nervous girl had to start over several times. Suddenly her small audience’s attention was drawn away by three red-tailed hawks rocketing into the air above our heads. The large hawks came closer and closer, screaming their high, desert call.
“See,” said grandmother to granddaughter, “you are meant to tell this story. They are pleased.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Contact Travel Montana, (800) VISIT-MT, for its free brochure “Montana Indian Reservations.” Most of the information below is also found in this brochure. The Custer Country Tourism Guide booklet provides a regionwide overview of activities, and is available by calling (800) 346-1876. Chief Plenty Coups State Park, Pryor, Mont., (406) 252-1289. Admission fee, $3 per carload. St. Labre Indian Mission & School, Highway 212, Ashland, Mont., (406) 784-2741. Free admission. Little Bighorn College, Crow Agency, Mont., (406) 638-7211. Dull Knife Memorial College, Lame Deer, Mont., (406) 477-6284. Western Heritage Center, 2822 Montana Ave., Billings, Mont., (406) 256-6809. Free admission. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, (I-90 Exit 510), (406) 638-2621. Summer hours, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Admission fee, $4 per carload. Cheyenne Trailriders, Ashland, Mont., (406) 784-6150. Crow Fair: Aug. 14-18. Contact Crow Reservation, (406) 638-2601.
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