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Profile: Dale Old Horn

 

CROW AGENCY, Mont. – During the third week in August the Crow Tribe welcomes thousands of Natives and non-Natives to the annual Crow Fair, and what the Apsaalooke people call the “tepee capital of the world.”

Revelers set up more than 1,700 tepees and 1,200 tents along the Little Big Horn River for five days to reunite with family and friends, and make new ones. The culturally rich celebration includes an inter-tribal pow wow, parades, championship rodeo, horse racing and more.

Dale Old Horn, tribal historic preservation officer, said he has participated in the celebration for most of his 63 years on earth. His father played a pivotal role in bringing the fair back to life after the Great Depression.

The fair entered its 90th year in August 2008.

Old Horn’s love of Indian ceremonies, respect for tradition, and natural sense of humor led him to take on the role as master of ceremonies at the fair’s pow wow in 1980. With the exception of 2008, he has served an intermittent role as emcee for the last several years. Last August he shared the job with his brothers Robert and Jason Goodstriker, Blood, from Standoff, Alberta, Canada.

He developed a love for pow wows long before the word was coined to describe what his parents called an Indian or Omaha dance. Dancing for competition was a rare delight prior to the 1970s.

“If the total number of dancers exceeded 100, it would be remarkable.”

He recalled the first time he danced at the fair.

It was on a Saturday night in 1959 when his Uncle Barney Old Coyote Jr. persuaded him to dress in regalia and dance for the people. A few of Old Horn’s friends decided to join him in the arena.

It turns out that there were no dancers the night before, which would be unheard of at a modern day Grand Entry on a Friday night.

In the following years, his uncle began contributing prize money to motivate dancers to perform, which Old Horn said was the start of pow wow dancing at the Crow Fair.

Old Coyote also worked in the capacity of what is known today as the arena director, and Old Horn gladly assisted him. As a fringe benefit, he learned the ABCs of putting on a successful event.

And from his years of experience in the arena, he admitted that a good sense of humor is essential to the role of an emcee. “If we go as spectators we want to be entertained, Indian and non-Indian alike.”

If he had to pick out his strong suit as an emcee, humor would come last. He learned from his years of involvement with the Black Tail ceremony that respect for the spirituality of a traditional gathering is paramount.

“I have an appreciation of humor, a levity, of having a great respect for the solemn and sanctimonious aspect of any gathering, including pow wows.”

Humor comes naturally to Old Horn. No books or Internet jokes make their way into his repertoire. He said his surroundings are good enough to stimulate his imagination. A plate of food or announcements could easily be the catalyst for a barrage of jokes.

The Crow Fair debuted in 1904 at the persuasion of government Indian agent S.C. Reynolds. He wanted the Crow people to show pride in their farming and livestock skills. These skills were learned through assimilation, as the Crows were a nomadic hunter and gatherer society prior to reservation life.

“He was trying to show the American people that the Crow had become good white men.”

Regardless of his intentions, Reynolds was able to sidestep the ban on Native ceremonies at the time, which opened an avenue for the Crows to celebrate their culture through song and dance.

Reynolds was fond of horse racing, so he called for a track to be built. This tradition, along with dancing, persists to this day. Old Horn said his people first called it “racing in a circle.”

Today there is quarter horse and thoroughbred racing featuring pari-mutuel and simulcast wagering.

In 1908, Old Horn said tribal members heavily involved with wild west shows across the plains introduced the concept of rodeo to the fair. The rodeo’s popularity increased dramatically when Pius Real Bird formed the all-Indian rodeo in 1962.

If the fair were a continuous celebration from its 1904 debut, this year would mark its 105th year. But, there was a hiatus during World War I, World War II and the Great Depression, largely due to lack of funds.

In 1933 the fair came back for good. Old Horn said Father Allen Old Horn served as chief of the committee. With the support of close friends, the fair was soon on its way to becoming one of the biggest Native celebrations in the country.

For newcomers, morning comes early at the Crow Fair. The camp crier’s voice wakes everyone up at sunrise to get ready for each festivity packed day. “If you come to the Crow Fair you can leave your sleep at home and pick up your sleep when you get home.”

Old Horn has served as emcee at numerous pow wows across the country, and has seen his share of changes. He noted that regalia has transformed from earth tones to flashy colors, and beadwork into intricate works of art. “Back in the early ’70s beadwork was understated and buckskins weren’t as white.”

By the mid-70s, male fancy dancers transitioned from small circle bustles into the large fan bustles seen today.

He credits the boom in the Native population to being able to support the modern day pow wow. “We didn’t have the numbers or the money to be as big as we are today in terms of pow wow,” he said. “Dancing was very poor.”

The Crow Indian Reservation is located in south central Montana, bordered by Wyoming to the south and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation to the east.