Medicine Crow, American hero. Photo by James Woodcock, Billings
The beach at Normandy had become crowded with the dead. Lifeless
bodies strewn across the sand and others, animated by the surf, washing
back and forth with the tide. Over 2,000 American G.I.s died there
on June 6, 1944, as part of a massive Allied offensive to liberate
France from Nazi control and to begin the ultimate assault on Germany
itself. It was the final act of the most destructive and bloody war
in world history.
Although the Allies gained a foothold that day, surrender was
the last thing on Hitler's mind. "The news couldn't be better,"
he reportedly exclaimed after hearing of the Allied invasion, "Now
we have them where we can destroy them." Indeed, such self-delusion
was what made Hitler and the forces of fascism so dangerous. Rather
than assume a defensive posture, the Nazis went on the offensive.
They ratcheted up war production and rolled out new weapons of mass
destruction, such as the V-2 rocket that could reach a target hundreds
of miles away and, perhaps, carry an atomic warhead. Time was of
the essence, not only to disrupt the Nazis from developing an atomic
bomb, but also to stop the systematic, industrial-scale extermination
of Jews, Romani, LGBTQ people, the disabled, and anyone deemed "undesirable."
While history is painted in shades of gray, this war was black and
white: the Nazis had to be stopped as quickly as possible, caution
thrown to the wind.
Joe Medicine Crow was working on his doctorate degree at the
University of Southern California when he received notice that he
had been drafted. He answered the call of duty, dropped his studies,
shipped off to boot camp and eventually to France. Because he held
a master's degree, Medicine Crow initially served as a clerk typist.
But as the casualties mounted and the situation became increasingly
dire, he was reassigned to a combat unit on the front lines as a
runner, taking messages across enemy territory from one platoon
What made Medicine Crow's job especially perilous was that the
Nazis had built up a system of trenches, foxholes, landmines, and
heavy artillery batteries that were relentlessly pounding Allied
positions. The only way American troops could break through was
to take out the Nazis' big guns. That meant sending a small squad
to manually place crates of dynamite at those positions. On paper,
it was a suicide mission, but Medicine Crow's commanding officer
had no other options. He had faith in the young Native academic:
"If anybody can get through, you can," he told him.
With that, Joe Medicine Crow led a group of six men over the
barbed wire through a thick cloud of smoke, dodging landmines, heavy
machine-gun fire, and exploding mortar shells. Defying the odds,
even logic itself, he completed the mission without losing a single
man. For his bravery, Medicine Crow earned the Bronze Star and was
made a knight in the French Legion of Honor.
After the war, Medicine Crow returned home to his tribal community
where he lived to be 102. He spent those years as a great advocate
and champion of tribally controlled education, helping to found
both the Crow Education Commission and Little Big Horn College.
The National Indian Education Association named him Elder
of the Year in 2009. That same year, President Barack Obama
awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest
civilian honor in the United States.
Medicine Crow's story is at once exceptional and typical. Few
have earned such great honors, but many Native people in our armed
forces have exhibited the same bravery and courage. Proportionally,
more American Indians serve our country than any other population
demographic. This issue of Tribal College Journal is dedicated to
Unlike many mainstream institutions, tribal colleges and universities
(TCUs) make it a point to recognize and honor veterans. Read Sherrole
Benton's feature article, "Opportunity
and Transition," and find out the many ways one tribal college
is offering programming and working with veterans services to help
vets transition back to civilian life and into college. At College
of Menominee Nation and other TCUs, "Veterans are in a perfect position
to become college students," Benton writes. At the same time, "they
have a few hurdles to overcome," she says, and the tribal college,
rooted in traditional tribal values where ceremony plays a vital
role, is a place of healing and community connection.
Just ask Aaron Lee, a student at Diné College, vice president
of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Student Congress,
and a veteran of three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In
this issue's Voices
department, Lee discusses his personal experience and the toll that
war took on him and his family. Like so many of our veterans, he
suffered survivor guilt and a lack of self-identity. But a tribal
college helped alleviate that. "Diné College has allowed
me to learn about the effects of historical trauma, the resilience
that our people have despite history and having the odds stacked
against us," he writes. "Diné College has also instilled
in me just how relevant and critical my Navajo identity is and how
it can be applied to all aspects of my life." Thanks to Diné
College, Aaron Lee is one of our finest student leaders today, and
his story underscores how the tribal college movement is about much
more than just classrooms, books, and term papers.
That has certainly been the case since the creation of Navajo
Community College in 1968, but the importance of creating and maintaining
a space where that tribal and community connection can thrive and
advance Native lives goes back much further. In her feature article,
Legacy of Sacrifice and Honor," Jancita Warrington, director
of the cultural center and museum at Haskell Indian Nations University,
takes us back to World War I and discusses how the Haskell Institute
honored those who served then and continues to honor those who serve
today. As we approach the centennial of the Great War, Haskell has
rolled out a variety of programs, exhibits, and celebrations to
commemorate Haskell veterans' service. You can take a more in-depth
visual tour of Haskell's history in our web-exclusive
slideshow at tribalcollegejournal.org.
As Benton, Lee, Warrington, and the other writers in this issue
make clear, tribal colleges have a long history of honoring veterans
and continue to help improve their lives. But it's not a one-way
street. With their experience, courage, honor, and sense of duty,
veterans likewise improve and enrich our tribal colleges. Shortly
after Joe Medicine Crow received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,
Little Big Horn College President David Yarlott reflected on the
elder's valor and life of service, stating, "Those who know him
or have been in contact with him are better for it."
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College