Chief Joe Medicine Crow’s inspirational life spans a remarkable era
By Robin A. Ladue, PhD
Part three of a Six-Part Series
Joe Medicine Crow, the last war chief of the Crow people, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He died in 2016 at the age of 102.
In his long life, he was a soldier and a warrior, a teacher, and a historian of the Plains Tribes. He was a founder of the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth. While this brief synopsis sums up a few of this remarkable man’s achievements, there is far more to his century-long life story. His life spanned a time before Native people were considered citizens of the United States and were allowed to vote, to a time where Native people from all over the country and Indigenous people from all over the world came to stand in unity against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that is set to be drilled under the traditional lands of the Standing Rock Sioux and the Missouri River.
Joe Medicine Crow (High Bird) was born on the Crow Reservation in Montana. His mother was Amy Yellowtail and his father was Leo Medicine Crow, also a war chief. Joe Medicine Crow’s maternal step-grandfather was a scout for George Armstrong Custer, the U.S. Calvary colonel who met his demise at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. It was from the stories of his maternal step-grandfather that Chief Medicine Crow began to learn the history of his people, and about the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
At a time when few Native people attended college and were usually forced into the Native American residential boarding schools, Chief Medicine Crow began attending Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in his early teens. He received an associate of arts degree in 1936, and he immediately went on to study psychology and sociology, receiving his bachelor’s degree from Linfield College in 1938. He continued his education, earning a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California in 1939. Chief Medicine Crow became the first member of the Crow Tribe to earn such a degree.
In 1941, Chief Medicine Crow had completed his course work for a Ph.D., but left school when World War II erupted. He was a teacher at the Chemawa Indian boarding school in Oregon, which today remains one of the few operating Indian residential schools. He worked for a time in the Bremerton Shipyards before joining the Army. Interestingly, he followed in the footsteps of his maternal step-grandfather and became a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division. It is reported that, in keeping with his Crow traditions, he wore war paint and a sacred eagle feather beneath his helmet when he entered battles.
According to the oral tradition and what writings there are, Chief Medicine Crow was able to complete the four tasks required to become a Crow war chief:
• One, be the first warrior to touch an enemy during a battle.
• Two, take away an enemy’s weapon.
• Steal an enemy’s horse.
• Lead a successful war party.
Tribes that were near the Crow tribe included the many bands of Sioux, the Blackfoot, and the Cheyenne. The requirements to become a War Chief were the same, or similar, rules for becoming a Crow war chief. It was during his time in the Army that Chief Medicine Crow accomplished the tasks required to achieve the status of a war chief. He was able to touch the enemy without killing him (counting coup), disarmed a German soldier, led a war party, and successfully stole 50 horses from a battalion of German SS officers. As the story goes, he sang a traditional Crow honor song as he rode away.
The magnificence of what Chief Medicine Crow accomplished is awe inspiring, and today is reflected in the actions of the Water Warriors who have, and are standing guard for the sacred water. In this cynical and racist world, particularly in the political climate of the United States today, Chief Medicine Crow’s knowledge and courage stand as beacons that can light the way for all Native people.
After the war ended and Chief Medicine Crow was discharged, he returned to the Crow reservation, the land of his people. In 1948, at the age of 35, he became the tribal historian and anthropologist. He began working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1951 when he was 48. For the rest of his life he advocated for Native people, and also spoke of the history of his tribe, the people of the Big Beaked Bird. He also taught about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and was a founder of the Little Bighorn College.
Chief Medicine Crow spoke in front of the United Nations, and he worked to preserve the stories, history, and the photographic history of his people. He was the author of several books including, Crow Migration Story, Medicine Crow, the Handbook of the Crow Indians Law and Treaties, Crow Indian Buffalo Jump Techniques, From the Heart of Crow Country, and Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.
Chief Medicine Crow epitomized all that was and is good about the warriors, leaders and teachers of Native people. His bravery in battle earned him the Bronze Star and the French Legion of Honor. He was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal. He received honorary doctorates from Rocky Mountain College, from the University of Southern California, and from Bacone College.
Chief Medicine Crow continued teaching and writing until his death at the age of 102, in April 2016. He lived a long and impressive life, but people around him said one of his most outstanding characteristics was his humbleness.
This article has presented three of the six Native American Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees. Every one of the winners have the following strengths:
ï The ability to persevere under the most trying of circumstances
ï A keen sense of tribal traditions, and living a life based on those traditions
ï The ability to place the needs of their people above their own
ï A sense of honor, and a fierceness in preserving what is best about their world.
The three honorees that will be discussed in the upcoming part of this series share these same characteristics. How large the shoulders and shadows of these giants are.
Their actions and their ability to persevere under the worst of conditions helped ensure not only the financial stability, but also ensured that the traditions, values, history and languages of their people will survive for generations to come. ♦