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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Serving Those Who Served
by Bradley Shreve - Tribal College Journal
Joe Medicine Crow, American hero. Photo by James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

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 to another.

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 them.

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, "A 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

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 Journal.

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