Inside the 'teepee capital of the world'

Story highlights

  • Over 1,000 teepees, hundreds of horses at Crow Fair Rodeo
  • Annual festival one of largest gatherings of Native Americans
  • Vibrant traditional costumes, singing, dancing in Montana hills
  • Includes adrenalin-fueled feats of horsemanship

A mini metropolis of teepees sprawls across the parched plains, and in the early hours of the morning the first to rise are the children.

They have an important job to do.

"We'd wake up in those teepees, and we were pretty happy to slip the bridles off the horses and ride bareback to the river," remembers Jim Real Bird, today a man of 58.

"We'd take the horses to the river to drink water -- that was our first job as young boys."

Each August, the rolling hills surrounding Little Big Horn River in Montana are transformed into the "teepee capital of the world," with over a thousand tents and hundreds of horses converging for the Crow Fair and Rodeo.

Started over a century ago in 1904, the four-day festival is one of the largest gatherings of Native Americans in the country, with spectacular traditional costumes casting a luminous kaleidoscope of color beneath a brilliant blue sky.

It's also an important training ground for the next generation of rodeo stars.

"It's one of the largest Indian rodeos within the United States of America," explained Real Bird, who today teaches youngsters how to hold on for dear life in the arena.

"We've had quite a few young Indian men that have ridden here, gone into professional rodeo, and become world champions."

Real-life horse whisperers

Indeed, if you thought the world of rodeo was simply that of the white cowboy, think again.

There is another master of the saddle, one who has honed their horsemanship over hundreds of years.

"American Indians have a special relationship with horses because it was a way of life," said Jim's uncle, 78-year-old Robert Old Horn, also of the Crow Nation tribe.

"My family were known for their ability to ride bucking horses. There was a mastery to how they could ride a horse -- it involved timing, balance," said Old Horn, each word tumbling out slow and deep.

Outside the rodeo ring however, there's another sport taking place at Crow Fair -- and it's as fast and furious as they come.

Indian Relay

In the world of Indian Relay fearless jockeys race bareback around an oval track three times, leaping from horse to horse while still in motion.

At the end of each lap the rider jumps from their first horse, hits the ground running, then climbs onto the back of their next horse for the following lap.

"It's more or less carried on from the warrior days of old, when they would go and invade enemy camps and make off with their horses," said Old Horn, who took part in his first relay when he was just 16.

"Today, white people might call it stealing. But back at the time it was a mark of bravery and courage to enter the camps, knowing you could meet your end."

The adrenalin-fuelled relay takes place without helmets, saddles, or goggles, and Old Horn is philosophical about the risks.

"There's a lot of danger in anything you do," he says evenly. "But there's the courage of the participants and the determination to master whatever it is they do."

Colorful Crow

As the sun sets, the evening pow wow begins, the sounds of traditional singing and dancing flowing through the campsite.

Riders don't just pack their horse saddles for the annual fair -- they include their dancing outfits and drums too.

"During the day they'd do the races and rodeos, and then in the evenings they took part in a pow wow," said Real Bird, about a tradition stretching back 100 years.

"They'd talk their own language, and they knew the Native American songs."

And once the boisterous nightly celebrations have given way to sleep, the children will be the first to stir in their teepees come the dawn.

Read: The magic and mayhem of Indian Relay

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