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.

White Man Runs Him, c.1908. (Edward S. Curtis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Joe Medicine Crow was the first member of his tribe to earn a master’s degree and left his Ph.D. program to volunteer for service in World War II. (<a href="https://allthatsinteresting.com/joe-medicine-crow">allthatsinteresting.com</a>)
Joe Medicine Crow was the first member of his tribe to earn a master’s degree and left his Ph.D. program to volunteer for service in World War II. (allthatsinteresting.com)

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.