The Last Crow War Chief Leaves Behind An Amazing Military Career

Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow passed away at the age of 102. But who is Joseph Medicine Crow?

He was not just a man of great age; he was a man of great status and character among us. Among his own people he was a War Chief, a historian, and a man whose family of warriors were among those who actually fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn (also known as Custer’s Last Stand). Medicine Crow’s great uncle, White Man Runs Him, had been one of Custer’s Crow scouts.

For all of us, he was a WWII hero, a scholar, and a man of great wisdom.

According the Washington Post, Medicine Crow was born near Lodge Grass, Montana, on the Crow Reservation in 1913. He was raised in the traditions of a Crow warrior by his maternal grandfather, Yellowtail. This was a tough “boot camp” of sorts, involving things like “running through the snow barefoot to toughen his feet and bathing in frozen rivers to toughen his spirit.”

The site of the Battle Of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand / Via Robert Montgomery
The site of the Battle Of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand / Via Robert Montgomery

The young Medicine Crow also grew up hearing stories told by members of his family about the Little Bighorn battle by those who had been there, including his great uncle.

Medicine Crow was smart; early on he saw the value of an education. He went on to earn a college degree in liberal arts from Linfield College in Oregon, then a masters degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California. He told a reporter for Linfield Magazine (PDF):

“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 disprove that.”

Joseph Medicine Crow receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 / Via The White House
Joseph Medicine Crow receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 / Via The White House

He enlisted in the Army in 1943 after the events of Pearl Harbor. He went to Germany as a scout with the 103rd Infantry. When he went into battle, he did so with war paint beneath his uniform and a yellow eagle feather in his helmet.

An interview of Medicine Crow done by the Billings Gazette said that, on one occasion, Medicine Crow was involved in the capture of a German village. During the course of it he fought hand-to-hand with a German soldier and disarmed him, sparing his life. This was consistent with the warrior tradition of the Plains Indians, like the Crow. It is called “counting coups.” A warrior’s bravery is seen as most evident in the midst of a battle, not so much in the killing of the enemy as it was in getting close enough to touch them physically.

Just before the battle, Medicine Crow had stampeded a large number of German military horses and sang a traditional Crow honor song as he did it.

He told the Gazette, “I never got a scratch.”

Source: flickr/U.S. Department of the Interior
Associate Attorney General Tom Perelli, Secretary Salazar and Joe Medicine Crow.

When Medicine Crow came home from the war, he told this story to the Crow elders who told him that he had fulfilled the four deeds that qualified him to be a War Chief. The four deeds are: “To command a war party successfully, to enter an enemy camp at night and to steal horses, to wrestle a weapon away from the enemy, and to touch the first enemy fallen without killing him.”

After the war Medicine Crow became the tribal historian and anthropologist. He could remember and tell stories with extreme clarity that had been told among the Crow going back to the times before the Crow were forced into Reservation life.

Over the years he served on several historical commissions, wrote several books on Crow culture, and a history of the Battle of the Little Big Horn based on the memories of his great uncle. Joseph Medicine Crow was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Obama.

The Veterans Site wishes to honor the memory of Joseph Medicine Crow, to thank him for being a model to both the Crow Nation and to America. We send our condolences to his family and to the Crow Nation for their great loss.

He was one of a kind and we are the better for having had him among us.

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