Clusters of white canvas tepees are visible as far as the eye can see. Adults talk together, holding babies on their laps, while children run around playing and laughing. And tribal members, young and old, ride by on horses.
But there are a few differences.
Pickups and cars now drive along paved roads. Light-weight nylon tents are scattered among the tepees. Vendors sell pizza, hamburgers, Indian tacos, fresh-squeezed lemonade and tourist trinkets.
If campers run out of food, they can drive to the nearest store. And when the reunion is finished, they go back to life on the reservation or in the city.
Perhaps one of the biggest constants is family. When Crow Fair comes around each August, families gather in the same spots, enjoying a reunion and the opportunity to compete in or watch the powwow, morning parade, rodeo and horse races.
Thousands of Indians gather at the encampment in the middle of town. An equal number of tourists come from as far away as Europe to catch a glimpse of Native life.
On Friday, families set up chairs or just stood watching the first parade of this year’s Crow Fair, which began Thursday and will run through Monday. This is the 92nd edition of the annual summer gathering.
Much of the parade consisted of tribal members on horseback, old men, young girls and everyone in between. Many wore traditional dress, but others sported cowboy hats and neckerchiefs or jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps.
Colorful blankets draped many of the horses. Some were decorated in beads.
At the front of the parade, after the color guard, three teenage girls dressed in traditional elk-tooth dresses rode slowly on horseback. They are called the good girls, said Autumn Whiteclay, watching with her sister, Lissa LaFrance, and watching the parade.
Two of the three are her nieces, 15-year-old twins Joree and Taylor LaFrance of Wyola, Whiteclay said proudly. The third is Heidi Wilson of Missoula.
Her nieces have excelled academically, as well as in sports and on horseback, Whiteclay said, which earned them the honor of leading the parade. A crier followed them on foot who proclaimed in the Crow language all of their achievements.
“My dad, Francis Whiteclay, first put them on a horse when they were 2,” she said. “He taught them their horsemanship.”
The twins wear elk-tooth dresses that their great-grandmother, Joan Horn, received as wedding presents. Altogether, five generations of Whiteclay’s family are at Crow Fair this year.
The parade mirrors early Crow life, said Lissa LaFrance, the twins’ mother. In camp, the women would be the ones to put up and take down tepees, cook and tend to the children. The men’s job would be to hunt, to provide for their families.
“When they would move camp, the women and children would go first,” LaFrance said.
In Friday’s parade, the three girls were followed by a float that carried the girls chosen as the Indian princesses. After that, a long line of riders.
Finally, unlike the early treks, a series of vehicles decorated in colorful blankets and signs, carried adults and kids along the parade route. Many of them tossed out candy, as well as water bottles and small balls to children who quickly gathered them up.
After the parade, participants and watchers scattered to their tepees and tents. Some went for a dip in the river. Others walked over to the arbor, in the center of the encampment, where food is for sale and where the powwow would begin hours later.
Daisy Dineen, from Vancouver, Wash., her brother J.D. Cline of Denver and her daughter Rochelle Rothaus of Olympia, Wash., sat and enjoyed some shade on the covered bleachers. Dineen and Cline grew up in Crow Agency, with their mother a member of the tribe.
This was Rothaus’ third time at the fair, and she brought her husband, daughter and son. It’s kind of a family tradition, she said, but it’s more than that.
“It’s part of our family’s heritage,” she said.