Beyond the Photos, the Real Magic of Crow Fair

Even viewed in the most favorable light, impersonal images from a powwow such as Crow Fair miss the most important aspects of the event itself, and the people and cultures on display.

8-21-08

Grand Entry gets the cameras clicking. Photo by Adam Sings In the Timber

This year during one of the daily parades at Crow Fair, the annual powwow and rodeo held along the Little Big Horn River on the Crow Reservation in southern Montana, one of my mothers-in-law yelled combatively at a professional photographer who planted himself between her and one of her grandchildren on parade.

“Hey, get out of the way,” she hollered. “We’re taking pictures, too.”

The guy knelt down and kept shooting film.

Okay. You’re probably wondering about the multiple mothers-in-law. Not to sound like an anthropologist, but there are certain things you need to know if you intend to spend your life with a Crow woman. Crow is a matrilineal culture with strong extended family ties. This means not only your wife’s mother but her aunts, too, are your mothers-in-law. And that same term often applies across the family tree, at many removes. For me, this adds up to scores of women. It’s one of those things you live with when your family, like ours, straddles cultural lines on a daily basis.

It’s difficult to write about my experiences with my family, because Indians are so routinely objectified by America’s mainstream culture. That’s what was happening when the photographer stepped between grandmother and grandson.

It’s easy to understand why the photographer came to the parade. It provides an excellent opportunity to view and appreciate traditional Crow beadwork and regalia. As powwows go, Crow Fair is also quite large, plus thousands of Crows camp out for the week in teepees, which makes a picturesque backdrop. It’s normal to see whole crews from the Smithsonian, National Geographic or the BBC pitch temporary camps along the parade route.

You’ve seen the end products on television, in calendars and on postcards as well as in art galleries and other public spaces. As I write this, a series of Crow Fair portraits hang on the walls at the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman. As is usually the case, the images are anonymous: “Crow Fair Portrait #7.”

With the click of the shutter, the individual gets transformed from a kid, say, into an impersonal commodity (Indian at a powwow). The photograph, and not the person in the photo, is the work of art.

I’m picking on photography, and not news or media in general, because most news stories and television programs on powwows, loaded as they are with empty platitudes about tradition, are little more than vehicles for the colorful images: a gentle-faced brown-eyed child in a fearsome war bonnet, an aging veteran with a stately visage and a craggy nose.

It’s hard to know quite what to think about this. It would be easy to lay a blanket of disdain on the photographers, but that ignores the broader cultural issues.

To start with, you could argue, from an economic development standpoint, that photography of non-religious Native ceremonies attracts tourists and puts money in Indian pockets. You’d be right. Likewise, you might suggest that those photographs celebrate one of the most beautiful aspects of Native American culture. Hard to argue with that.

Yet the idealized images also contribute to a binary view of Indian culture. One hand holds the noble Indian. The other—reinforced by the flat, two-dimensional quality of the first—has the usual unflattering stereotypes.

And even viewed in the most favorable light, those impersonal images of brown faces and colorful outfits miss the most important aspects of the daily parade and of Crow Fair itself.

In the mornings from Thursday to Sunday in our camp, my mothers-in-law lead the preparation of whoever is going to be in the parade. It’s a painstaking ritual. (It’s common to see people doing beadwork the day before and continuing by kerosene lamplight late into the night, desperately completing a beaded belt or pair of arm bands.) The outfits are specific, each piece assembled just so. The horse gets rigged up. Then horse and rider head for the start of the route.

At 10 a.m., a cannon booms. As at all the camps, we haul folding chairs from beneath the shady arbor at our eating area. (The temporary city of thousands of teepees and wall tents is organized in family clusters, each around a central cooking and eating area.) The parade is one of the few moments when the entire community joins together in one casual, relaxing event.

The togetherness makes it a perfect time to take photographs of the spectators, which is what I like to do. Ironically, it’s actually difficult, when doing so, to avoid collecting images of the non-Indian photographers, who seem to suddenly appear in the shots, most often at the edges but sometimes in the center of the frame.

This isn’t a lamentation. After all, the vast majority of the cameras (especially if you include camera phones) at Crow Fair, as any casual survey of the parade route will show, are in the hands of family members taking pictures of each other.

But I would like to point out what’s missing, aside from the names and identities of the subjects, in those photos in the gift shops and the anonymous tourist albums:

It’s the expertise and labor—usually undertaken as a gift to the wearer—that went into the beadwork and blankets and other parts of the outfits. It’s the tightly knit social fabric that keeps this powwow, rodeo and parade continuing, year after year, for no reason other than the joy and momentum of a long and specific cultural tradition. And it’s the real, complex human identity of people like my mother-in-law’s grandson, which can never be captured in a “Crow Fair Portrait.”

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Filed under 2008, Old News Stories and Columns

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