A Crow Indian Powwow

Big Horn, Montana, hosts a colorful spectacle of Native American heritage.

I love a powwow. I’ve been to a dozen or so all over America, and I never tire of watching Native Americans, decked out in tribal regalia, come together to honor mother earth through dance and song.

In my quest to find the most beautiful powwow to photograph, I was told to go to Crow Fair on the Little Big Horn River in Montana. Started as a county fair in 1904, when the government was pushing the Crows to become farmers (officials thought contests like “biggest pumpkin” would motivate them), the weeklong event each August has become a celebration of Plains culture, attracting the largest gathering of Northern Plains Indians, whose 1,500 teepees transform the area into the teepee capital of the world. This I had to see for myself.

Under billowy clouds, I set out from Sheridan, my favorite town in my home state of Wyoming. Barreling down the endless highway to the twang of country music, I crossed into Montana and caught my first glimpse of teepee city, hundreds of them lining the river. The sounds of the Grand Entry drew me to the center stage of the arena.

Crow Indian Powwow: dance

The opening ceremony always puts my eyeballs in a state of shock—everyone parades in wearing feathers, bear claws, elk teeth, buckskin, face paint, fringe and glittery beads. It’s the jingliest sparkle-fest imaginable. I’ve been known to lack restraint in the accessories department, but a powwow puts me to shame.

I think of powwows as the Native American version of the Paris couture shows, only better because the regalia are delicately hand-stitched by mothers and grandmothers and passed down for generations. Not that sewing for Karl Lagerfeld isn’t a religious experience, but these people truly sew their souls into their outfits.

Crow Indian Powwow: child

The Crow Fair did not disappoint. The colors were brighter, the sounds louder and the smells of tanned hides, burning sage and sweet grass more fragrant than at any other powwow I’d experienced. For hours I watched the dancing, listened to the chanting, taking pictures of it all. I came away having witnessed the finest theater—and adding a few new pieces of beadwork to my collection along the way.

Photos © Lisa Eisner