Joe Medicine Crow, the last Plains Indian to earn the title “war chief” through military accomplishment, died Sunday at the age of 102.
Medicine Crow, an official Crow Indian Tribe historian who had written books about his heritage, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian in the US, by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Medicine Crow, born on the Crow reservation near Lodge Grass, Mont., in 1913, was the step-grandson of White Man Runs Him, a scout for George Armstrong Custer and an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Medicine Crow began his warrior training at age 6, when his grandfather would wake him in the middle of the winter night and have him run around the cabin in the snow in his bare feet.
Medicine Crow said such training, which grew increasingly rigorous, came in handy when he joined the Army and served during World War II.
He had spent the latter half of 1942 working in the naval ship yards in Bremerton, Wash., before joined the Army in 1943 and becoming a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division.
When Medicine Crow went into battle, he would wear his war paint beneath his uniform and a sacred eagle feather beneath his helmet.
While serving in Germany, Medicine Crow, unbeknownst to him, completed the four requirements necessary to become a war chief: touching an enemy without killing him, taking an enemy’s weapon, leading a successful war party and stealing an enemy’s horse.
Medicine Crow managed to steal not just a single horse, but more than four dozen when one night he found a farm where German SS officers were lodged. Medicine Crow entered the barn and corral, mounted a horse and, with a Crow war cry, led the horses to the American side as the Germans took shots at him.
It wasn’t until Medicine Crow had returned home from the war and had detailed his actions to tribal elders that it was realized he had accomplished the feats necessary to become a Crow war chief, according to the Billings Gazette.
Medicine Crow, the last person to have heard direct oral testimony from individuals present at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla., earning an Associate of Arts degree in 1936. He then enrolled at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., and earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Psychology in 1938, becoming the first Crow male to attain a college degree.
He then went to the University of Southern California where he obtained his master’s degree in Anthropology in 1939, thus becoming the first Crow Indian to earn a master’s degree. His master’s thesis was titled “The Effects of European Culture Contacts Upon The Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.”
Medicine Crow had completed all coursework toward the doctorate at USC by June 1941, when he took a teaching position at the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon for a year. His graduate studies were then interrupted by World War II.
After serving in the Army, he returned to the Crow Agency. In 1948, Medicine Crow was appointed tribal historian and anthropologist, and served as a board member or officer on the Crow Central Education Commission almost continuously since its inception in the early 1970s.
In 1999, Medicine Crow addressed the United Nations. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Southern California, Rocky Mountain College and Bacone College.
Medicine Crow’s books include Crow Migration Story, Medicine Crow, the Handbook of the Crow Indians Law and Treaties, Crow Indian Buffalo Jump Techniques and From the Heart of Crow Country. He also authored a children’s book entitled Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.
(Top: President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Crow War Chief Joseph Medicine Crow during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House Aug. 12, 2009. Below, Medicine Crow’s World War II experience is detailed in a PBS clip.)