According to Crow tradition, a man must fulfill certain requirements
to become chief of the tribe: command a war party successfully, enter
an enemy camp at night and steal a horse, wrestle a weapon away from
his enemy and touch the first enemy fallen, without killing him.
Joe Medicine Crow was the last person ever to meet that code,
though far from the windswept plains where his ancestors conceived
it. During World War II, when he was a scout for the 103rd Infantry
in Europe, he strode into battle wearing war paint beneath his uniform
and a yellow eagle feather inside his helmet. So armed, he led a
mission through German lines to procure ammunition. He helped capture
a German village, and disarmed but didn't kill an
enemy soldier. And, in the minutes before a planned attack, he set
off a stampede of 50 horses from a Nazi stable, singing a traditional
Crow honor song as he rode away.
"I never got a scratch," he recalled to the Billings Gazette
Medicine Crow died Sunday at age 102, according to the Gazette.
He was the Crow's last war chief, the sole surviving link to a long
military tradition. But he was also an activist, an author, a Medal
of Freedom recipient and a vital chronicler of the history of his
"I always told people, when you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you're
shaking hands with the 19th century," Herman Viola, curator emeritus
at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Indians,
told the magazine at Medicine Crow's alma mater Linfield College.
Medicine Crow was born in a log home near Lodge Grass, Mont.
in 1913. He was given the name Winter Man by a visiting Sioux warrior,
he wrote in his memoir, in the hope that he would grow up strong,
healthy and able to endure adversity.
His upbringing matched his name. Medicine Crow's maternal grandfather,
Yellowtail, raised the boy in the Crow warrior tradition, putting
him through a grueling physical education regime that involved running
through snow barefoot to toughen his feet and bathing in frozen
rivers to strengthen his spirit. From other relatives, Medicine
Crow heard stories of the Battle of Little Bighorn from people who
were there, including his great uncle White Man Runs Him, who served
as a scout for General Armstrong Custer.
"At that time, my grandparents were our teachers," he told the
Billings Gazette in 2006.
tribal historian Joe Medicine Crow speaks of unity at a dedication
of a "Peace Memorial," near where the bloody Battle of the
Little Bighorn began 125 years ago, Sunday, June 24, 2001,
in Garryowen, Mont. American Indians and whites urged reconciliation
and unity among the races Sunday during the dedication.
But life on the Crow Reservation in the early 20th century was
also steeped in hardship. The tribe was down to some 2,000 members,
devastated by disease and hunger, not to mention the loss of children
at harsh boarding schools that attempted to strip them of their
heritage. In his memoir, Medicine Crow recalled how his relatives
stole cattle to survive.
"We were down to our lowest ebb," he said of that time.
According to Linfield Magazine, Medicine Crow believed that
school was his means to reverse the tide. He recalled how another
Crow chief, Plenty Coups, had told him education would make him
a white man's equal, the lack of it "will make you his victim."
"That to me was a personal challenge," Medicine Crow told the
magazine in 2009. "I wanted to prove to people, not only to Indian
people but people in general, that an Indian is capable of becoming
a good college student. People said that Indians are just too dumb,
they are not capable of getting a college education. I wanted to
this family photo, Joseph Medicine Crow wears a headdress
beaded by his granddaughter and a war shirt from the Custer
Battlefield Trading Post in Crow Agency, Montana. The Bighorn
Mountains are in the background.
Crow graduated from Linfield College, a liberal arts school
in Oregon, and in 1939 he got his master's in anthropology from
the University of Southern California the first person from
his tribe to ever earn a graduate degree. His thesis: "The Effects
of European Culture Contacts Upon The Economic, Social, and Religious
Life of the Crow Indians."
After graduating, Medicine Crow went to work at a Native American
school in Oregon. But then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and
the declaration of war, and by 1943 Medicine Crow had enlisted in
"We were a war-faring people," he told the Billings Gazette.
"Naturally, I thought about the famous warriors when I went to Germany.
I had a legacy to live up to."
Plains Indians won honor by counting "coups," or acts of bravery
in battle. The most illustrious coup was to touch an enemy and escape
unharmed something that Medicine Crow wasn't intending to
do when he helped raid a German village in 1943. But then he (literally)
bumped into a German soldier while scouting in an alley.
"I swung my rifle to knock his rifle off his hands," he told
filmmaker Ken Burns for the documentary "The War." "All I had to
do was pull the trigger."
Instead, Medicine Crow dropped his own weapon and "tore into"
the other man. After a moment's tussle, he grabbed the man's neck.
"I was ready to kill him," he said.
And then the German yelled, "Mama."
"That word 'Mama,' opened my ears. I let him go."
When Medicine Crow came home from the war in 1946, he recounted
that incident and his other exploits in Europe to Crow elders, not
realizing they added up to anything more than a few stories.
"You have completed the four deeds," they told him.
He chuckled as he recalled the moment when it dawned on him,
"So I guess you're looking at the last Plains Indian war chief,"
he said in "The War."
In 1948, Medicine Crow was appointed tribal historian and anthropologist.
He had an impeccable recall of stories he'd been told as a child,
and served as the last living link to the Crow's pre-reservation way
of life and history. He served on historical and educational commissions,
authored nearly a dozen books on Crow culture, and wrote a history
of the Battle of Little Bighorn based on the memories of his great
uncle, a Crow scout who tried to warn Custer that he was about to
be ambushed but was ignored. Medicine Crow had tried to incorporate
that history when he was recruited to help write "They Died With Their
Boots On," the 1941 Errol Flynn film about the battle, but he was
likewise dismissed by the movie's white producers.
Joseph Medicine Crow looks at his 2009 Presidential Medal
of Freedom after President Barack Obama placed it around his
"I said, 'Some day I'm going to write my own Custer production
and tell it like it is,'" Medicine Crow told the magazine True West
in 2009. In 1964, he did; that script is used in reenactments of
the battle today.
For much of his life, Medicine Crow served as an emissary between
the Crow community and the white world. As a child, he translated
for his great uncle, White Man Runs Him, when white reporters came
to interview him about the Battle of Little Bighorn. He leant his
voice and his memories to countless exhibits on Native American
culture at museums around the country. He spoke at colleges and
conferences and a United Nations summit.
Medal of Freedom
"There is a middle line that joins two worlds together," he
had told Linfield Magazine. "I walk that line and take the best
from each and avoid the worst. I've lived a good, well-balanced
way of life. I encourage my grandchildren and young Crow Indians
to do the same and they will be happy."
Medicine Crow used his platform to speak for his people. In
2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama was making a campaign stop
at a veterans' center in Billings, Mont., Medicine Crow confronted
"When you get to the White House," he said, according to the Cody,
Wyo. Enterprise, "remember we Indian people since 1492 have been at
the bottom of the ladder in America. We want you to bring us up to
recognize us as first-class citizens."
The next year, President Obama would award Medicine Crow the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the
During the ceremony, Obama said that Medicine Crow was "a good
man, a 'bacheitche' in Crow," according to the AP.
"[His] life reflects not only the warrior spirit of the Crow
people," he continued, "but America's highest ideals."
Cody (Wyoming) Stampede Parade Grand Marshal Chief Joseph
Medicine Crow High-Bird.