A Life Well Lived: Medicine Crow

A Life Well Lived: Medicine Crow

Joseph Medicine Crow, a Native American historian and the last war chief of the Crow Tribe of Montana died this week on April 3, aged 102.

Medicine Crow, pictured here, at a ceremony to award him Presidential Medal of Freedom, shows a drum during a reception for recipients and their families in the Blue Room of the White House on Aug. 12, 2009.

Medicine Crow, pictured here, at a ceremony to award him Presidential Medal of Freedom, shows a drum during a reception for recipients and their families in the Blue Room of the White House on Aug. 12, 2009.

Over the long course of Medicine Crow’s life, among many he was a father, a warrior, a solider, a writer, an anthropologist, and an activist.

The Crow, called the Apsáalooke in their own Siouan language, or variants such as Absaroka, are Native or indigenous Americans, from the Yellowstone River valley which extends from what is today Wyoming, through Montana and into North Dakota, where it joins the Missouri River. They are enrolled in the federally recognized Crow Tribe of Montana.

The Crow Tribe name given to Medicine Crow was High Bird. A member of the Crow Tribe’s Whistling Water clan, Medicine Crow was raised by his grandparents in a rural area of the Crow Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana.

His grandfather, Yellowtail, raised Medicine Crow to be a warrior, training Medicine Crow from when was just 7 with a rigorous physical regimen that included running barefoot in the snow to toughen his young feet and spirit.  Crow tradition required, that in order for a man to become chief, he had to command a war party, enter an enemy camp at night and steal a horse, wrestle a weapon away from his enemy and touch the first enemy fallen, without killing him.

The conditions of the tradition were in fact fulfilled by Medicine Crow during World War II where, on the battlefield, he earned the title of War Chief after performing a series of daring deeds, including stealing 50 Nazi SS horses from an enemy encampment and hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier whose life he ultimately spared.

Despite serving in a war dominated by automatic weapons, heavy artillery, and tanks armed with 88mm cannons, Medicine Crow held on to the time-honored practices of his tribe, always wearing bright red war paint into combat, strapping a sacred yellow-painted eagle feather to his helmet for good luck:

“Warfare was our highest art, but Plains Indian warfare was not about killing. It was about intelligence, leadership, and honor,” Medicine Crow wrote in Counting Coup, one the many books he published over the course of his lifetime.

The Associated Press reports, Medicine Crow became the official historian for the Crow Tribe shortly after returning from service in World War II. The news service adds:

“Yet Medicine Crow also embraced the changes that came with the settling of the West, and he worked to bridge his people’s cultural traditions with the opportunities of modern society.”

He was the first member of his tribe to earn a master’s degree in Anthropology and went on to receive several honorary doctorates. For decades he served as a Crow historian, cataloging his people’s nomadic history by collecting firsthand narrative accounts of pre-reservation life from fellow tribal members.

He was also a living link to the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, and was the last person alive to receive direct oral testimony from a participant in the Battle of the Little Bighorn: his grandmother’s brother, White Man Runs Him, a scout for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

“With his prodigious memory, Medicine Crow could accurately recall decades later the names, dates and exploits from the oral history he was exposed to as a child,” says Herman Viola, Curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Indians.

In the years leading to his death, Medicine Crow continued to live with his family in Lodge Grass. His wife died in 2009. Even after his hearing and eyesight faded, Medicine Crow continued to lecture into his 90’s on the Battle of Little Bighorn and other major events of Crow history.

“Joe was a true American hero,” says Darren Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow tribe. “He was a great man in two worlds.”

Main image: Delegation of Crow Chiefs Delegation of Important Crow chiefs 1880. From left to right: Old-Crow Medicine Crow, Long-Elk, Plenty-Coups, Pretty-Eagle.

Read more:

The Lakota tribes of the Great Plains

The Battle of Little Big Horn