Airborne Witnesses

Crow tribal media covers Women’s Ultimate Warrior race with the help of drones
Thursday, June 28, 2018

Photo by Andrew Turck

Crow Media Director Levi C. Flinn controls a drone Saturday morning as it lifts off into the air. This year was the first time tribal media has covered the Women’s Ultimate Warrior competition in Crow Agency through the use of drones.

Photo by Andrew Turck

Autumn Charges Strong (center) begins the Women’s Ultimate Warrior race between Brinna Melendrez (left) and LaChrissa Horn (right).

Photo by Andrew Turck

A jumbotron shows members of the crowd within the Edison Real Bird Memorial Complex in Crow Agency.

Photo by Andrew Turck

Media Director Levi C. Flinn looks for his drone from an ATV Saturday morning outside the Crow Agency Multipurpose Building.

“Come on Levi,” yelled Cordell Stewart late Saturday morning, “this would be a great shot!”

The public relations specialist for the Crow Tribe watched from atop a hill as a horse ridden by Autumn Charges Strong exited the Edison Real Bird Memorial Complex in Crow Agency. Across the path from Cordell was Levi C. Flinn, the media director for the Crow Tribe’s Executive Branch.

At the time, Charges Strong appeared to be a speck in the distance. Within about half a mile, however, she would ride past them en route to her third consecutive victory in the Women’s Ultimate Warrior race. Before she crested the hill, however, Flinn had a drone to launch.

For the first time, tribal media was attempting to cover the Ultimate Warrior race using two jumbotrons in the stadium and two drones to record the proceedings.

Thanks to footage from the drones, the Ultimate Warrior race – an 8.2-mile excursion with running, canoeing and horse-riding sections – was being livestreamed on both Facebook Live and YouTube Live.

The jumbotrons, rented from Marson Productions of Great Falls, showed synced footage of the race supplied to the event’s audience through both the drones and camera operators. Where spectators previously may have seen only a small part of the race, now they could get an idea of where each competitor was in real time.

And for Flinn, Charges Strong was closing in fast. According to Flinn, he enjoyed the “perspective of seeing everything from the sky,” though logistical issues including limited batteries and flight times posed a challenge.

“Thirty seconds,” Cordell said.

Flinn knelt in the grass beside the race’s trail as the drone initialized and its four propellers began to spin. With time to spare, it flew upwards hundreds of feet in the air. He had the shot.

“Move back!” Charges Strong yelled as her horse galloped by. “Move back!”

In retrospect, the media may have been too close to the pathway. Cordell went into a nearby ATV and drove it further from the course in time to make way for the next horse rider.

“It’s been about a year of preparation,” Cordell said of the tribal media coverage several minutes later as he drove the vehicle through the grass and mud on the hill, and back onto solid road. “A lot of test flights, a lot of planning.”

Next to him, Flinn – who had retrieved the drone through the ATV’s nonexistent front window – folded the small machine into an easily-stored square shape. As Cordell sped up the vehicle, he turned his hat in such a manner to protect his face from possible incoming pebbles as Flinn leaned forward to cut down on wind resistance.

Aside from the competitors and the occasional congregation of law enforcement vehicles, Cordell and Flinn had the race’s course largely to themselves. Whenever they reached a checkpoint, Cordell held up an all-access pass and they were let through. Updates for Cordell regarding the race were sent to his cell phone from the stadium by the tribe’s Social Media Director Justin Stewart.

Crow Chairman Alvin “A.J.” Not Afraid Jr., according to Cordell, had encouraged the tribal media team’s drone-related pursuits.

“[He] is a big believer in acquiring these drones,” Cordell said, adding that Not Afraid thinks they will help “showcase our culture and showcase our nation.”

Jared Stewart, media liaison for the tribe, said the tribe’s new use of technology was “almost revolutionary.” He hopes the media coverage can be used to promote the Ultimate Warrior races, and help them catch on like the Professional Bull Riders rodeo and Indian relay races.

“It makes it a lot more enjoyable and it makes it a lot more dynamic,” Jared said. “If we can keep this a consistent thing then maybe, at some point, we could try to expand it into a broader audience – whether it be regionally, nationally or internationally. You never know what the potential for this could be.”

The jumbotrons for the event were rented using funds from corporate sponsors, he said. Citing the tribe’s current economic woes and “fractionalized” environment, he declined to identify the sponsors’ identities. As for the drones, he continued, they were purchased using “pretty intense fundraising” by the tribe’s media team through advertisements and licensing fees.

Whether the tribe’s views are fractionalized or not, event organizer Judy Old Crane believed it “was really cool” to see the competitors “out on the course versus hearing it on the radio.” The experience was only helped by the competitors, who Old Crane said “had ultimate bragging rights” in finishing a course that – for the first time – was the same length as the men’s.

Charges Strong posted the fastest time in both the Women’s and Men’s Ultimate Warrior competitions by three minutes at a time of two hours and seven minutes. Runners up were Brinna Melendrez in second place and LaChrissa Horn in third.

The tribal media team were unable to cover the men’s event due to technical difficulties, though Jared intends to improve upon the process in the coming years.

Charges Strong, for her part, said the presence of drones didn’t affect her to a significant degree, as she tries “to stay focused on the course.” It was a difficult event to run this year, she continued, since the weather was wet and uncooperative. Due to a belief that the race wasn’t scheduled, she added, the competitors hadn’t properly prepared.

Nonetheless, she said, she became quite emotional at the end and was glad the media team was available to follow the race.

“A lot of people don’t get to see everything,” she said. “It’s good they were there.”


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