Once in a while, we encounter unique individuals that we would probably never get another chance to meet someone like them, at least not in this lifetime. That was the case when Native American Joseph Medicine Crow fought alongside the troops when The United States joined World War II. Medicine Crow was the last war chief of the Apsáalooke or Crow People, who carried with him a proud and rich story of the Native American tradition.
Born Into a Wonderful Tradition
Joseph Medicine Crow was born on the Crow Indian Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana, on October 27, 1913. His mother was Amy Yellowtail, from whom he gained his social status. The Crow kinship system was matrilineal, so he was considered born to his mom’s people. His father, Leo Medicine Crow, was an honored and distinguished chief who became a war chief at the early age of 22. He became his son’s inspiration, as well as a standard for aspiring warriors.
Joe Medicine Crow’s maternal step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, was one of the scouts for US General George Armstrong Custer, who was also an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. As curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, Herman Viola said, “I always told people, when you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you’re shaking hands with the 19th century.”
A Traditional Warrior in a Modern Warfare
Joe Medicine Crow wanted to become a historian. Before, whenever a newspaper reporter would visit his grandfather to interview him about being a survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, it was Joe Medicine Crow who would often serve as his interpreter. He retold White Man Runs Him’s story over and over again, correcting the factual inaccuracies and biases based on the oral tale of his grandfather.
He enrolled at the University of Southern California to pursue his dream and earned his master’s degree, the first Crow to earn one. He was not done yet. After he graduated, he moved to Oregon and worked at a Native American school while also pursuing his Ph.D. when World War II broke out. As he said, his Uncle Sam seemed to have other plans for him.
He spent half of his 1942 working in the naval shipyards in Bremerton, Washington, before enlisting in 1943. There, he became a scout under the 103rd Infantry Division. Even when he was, at that time, fighting modern warfare, Joe Medicine Crow did not leave behind his tradition. He would wear his war paint: two red stripes on his arm under his uniform. He also had his sacred yellow-painted eagle feather beneath his helmet from a “sundance” medicine man.
War Chief Without Even Trying
In the Crow tradition of counting coups, a warrior can become a war chief if they successfully completed four deeds in battle: lead a war party into a battle, touch an enemy without killing him, take an enemy’s weapon, sneak into the enemy camp and steal a horse. These things sounded too impossible to do during the Second World War, but not to Joe Medicine Crow because he successfully did all these and earned the war chief title. It was not his goal when he enlisted, but he managed to accomplish all these four coups or deeds while battling against Germany. In fact, he had not realized that he had accomplished all of those until he returned home after the war and narrated his experiences to the elders.
He was able to touch an enemy without killing him and at the same time take his weapon when he found himself face to face with a young German soldier. He managed to knock the German’s weapon to the ground and was ready to kill him by choking him to death when the soldier screamed, “Mama,” and he just had to let him go.
He also led a successful war party where they stole not only one but fifty horses from the Nazi SS’s camp, all while he was singing their traditional Crow honor song.
Leaving the Crow Legacy
When the war was over, Joe Medicine Crow spent the rest of his life educating people about their tribe. In 1948, he was appointed as a tribal historian and anthropologist. He also served as a board member on the Crow Central Education Commission from 1972. In 1999, he spoke at the United Nations.
He did so many more things in his life, including becoming a frequent guest speaker at Little Big Horn College and the Little Big Horn Battlefield Museum. He also wrote books like Crow Migration Story, Medicine Crow, the Handbook of the Crow Indians Law and Treaties, Crow Indian Buffalo Jump Techniques, and many more.
He continued to write and lecture at different universities and public institutions for the rest of his life until his death on April 3, 2016, at the age of 102. He left the world with all the amazing Native Indian tales, a treasure that we should forever value and keep alive by continuing to share and tell the future generations to come.