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Apsáalooke reflect on the significance of the Crow Ultimate Warrior Challenge

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Montana Media Lab
Lodge Grass High School students conduct an interview about Crow Native Days during a workshop with the Montana Media Lab.

Horses stand in weathered stables underneath a faded, green tin roof at the far end of the Edison Real Bird Memorial Complex in Crow Agency one day in June. Marvin Falls Down Sr. is at the stables.

“I’ve been working with race horses for about 40 years now,” Falls Down Senior says.

Falls Down trains horses for races at the track just south of the stables. But before he began training horses, he used to compete.

“We won some good races here at this track quite some time ago,” he says.

The grand stands near the track shelter crowds during a variety of events, like Crow Native Days. The annual week-long celebration is made up of cultural competitions. One of these competitions is the Ultimate Warrior Challenge. It’s a triathlon made up of running, canoeing, and horseback riding.

The Ultimate Warrior Challenge has roots in Crow culture. Several hundred years ago, the Crow Tribe possessed one of the largest numbers of horses of the Plains tribes. Darrin Old Coyote is the former chairman of the Crow Tribe.

“Our survival and our resilience comes from the horse,” Old Coyote said. “And that's what's featured at Crow Native Days. From the reenactment, to the horse racing, to the rodeo, even to the Ultimate Warrior, horse culture is incorporated. At Native Days at the end of the day, we're celebrating the horse culture of the Crow people.”

Old Coyote said Crow Native Days started as an alternative to Little Big Horn Days, an event in nearby Hardin.

“The leadership and some of the community leaders, they got together and they said, ‘Let's keep everyone at Crow drug and alcohol free.’ And also to keep culture alive,” Old Coyote said.

Old Coyote said the Ultimate Warrior Challenge draws big crowds.

“It’s kind of the main feature,” he said. “It’s the only one of its kind anywhere in the US and Canada, and even probably the world.”

Noel Twoleggins, a Crow Native Days event coordinator, says the event is a "symbol of who we are as people."

"We come from a running culture, a horse culture," Twoleggins said. "And I believe it implements the pride of who we are as Native and Indian people.”

Cheryl Birdhat Polacek, age 44, has been competing in the women’s Ultimate Warrior Challenge since the early 2000s.

“I only skipped because of COVID or not being able to ride a dang horse,” she said.

Birdhat Polacek is older than most of the other competitors.

“When I first started doing this, the average age was probably like mid- to early 20s. But I think it's getting younger than that,” she said.

She described how it feels to compete.

“When you're running past the casino and your lungs are starting to burn because your body doesn't want to sprint over a half a mile. And you have to get in the water or you're switching horses over there, or you're on miles three or four and it's breaking 90 degrees," she said.

"It is not easy."

Cheryl competed in the women’s challenge, and 32-year-old Ian White has competed in the men’s challenge. White introduced himself with his Apsáalooke name.

“It means ‘Runs With Spirit.’ It was given to me by Ben Cloud,” White said.

White remembers what kept him going through the long race.

“Not [wanting to] quit myself, to prove my mental toughness and physicality,” he said.

It’s been a few years since White last competed in the race. He said he hasn’t been able to find time to train because he’s been caring for his family. He shed some tears talking about the competition.

“It's been hanging over my head these past few years,” he said. “It hurts not doing it.”

White said it’s a big deal just to finish the race.

“It’s probably the best thing I've ever accomplished in my life,” he said.

This year the Ultimate Warrior Competitions were held June 25 and 26.

This story was reported by Lodge Grass High School students in a Montana Media Lab workshop. The Montana Media Lab is located at the University of Montana School of Journalism. This story was reported by Angeline Toineeta, Minerva Stewart, Kevyana Howe, Jevany Laverdure, Joakiah Laverdure, Chandra Whiteman, Jazmin Madill, Fawn Red Wolf, Angelina Toineeta, Jamesci DeCrane, and Shekinah Falls Down.