The story of how Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow’s actions during World War II made him the last Plains war chief.
A young Joe Medicine Crow. His grandfather was a chief of the Crow tribe. Photo Credit: PBS
Joseph Medicine Crow was born near Lodge Grass, Montana on October 27, 1913. The step-grandson of White Man Runs Him, a scout for General Custer and an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Medicine Crow was raised by his elders in the warrior way. He grew up listening to stories of battles and of a time before tribes were sent to reservations. He was 11 years old when his grandfather died in 1925. Medicine Crow is the last living person with a direct oral history from a participant of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Medicine Crow was the first member of the Crow tribe to attend college and, in 1939, he also become the first to receive a master’s degree. His thesis from the University of Southern California (“The Effects of European Culture Contact upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians”) is widely utilized by historians and scholars alike. He became well-known for his work regarding the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Of the war, he once stated “No One wins. Both sides lose. The Indians, so called hostiles, won the battle of the day, but lost their way of life.”
Joseph Medicine Crow, about to enter the dance arena at the annual Crow Fair, holds a dance stick representing the horses he captured from German SS officers in World War II. Photo Credit: Glen Swanson/The National Museum of the American Indian.
Medicine Crow was working on his doctoral dissertation when the United States entered World War II. At the age of 34, he joined the U.S. Army, serving as a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division in Europe. Whenever he went into battle he would paint red stripes on his arms under his uniform. He also carried a yellow-painted eagle feather in his helmet to shield him from harm. During the war, Medicine Crow successfully completed the four required tasks to become a Crow war chief.
According to Crow tradition, in order to achieve war chief status, one must fulfill the following deeds:
- Touch or strike the first enemy fallen, whether alive or dead
- Wrestle a weapon away from an enemy warrior
- Enter an enemy camp at night and steal a horse
- Command a war party successfully.
He accomplished the first two deeds at the same time. His unit came upon a small town housing some German soldiers. Sent around a street and into an ally, Medicine Crow literally ran into a German soldier. After knocking the enemy’s rifle to the ground the two fought hand-to-hand. After going back and forth with the opposing soldier, Medicine Crow finally had his opponent in a choke hold but spared his life when the German started saying “momma.”
Another time Medicine Crow, armed with seven men and explosives, successfully placed the explosives along German positions on the Siegfried Line. This fulfilled another war deed. The last of the four deeds he needed to accomplish – steal an enemy horse – took place towards the end of the war. One day, Medicine Crow was scouting ahead of his company and saw Germans riding horses along a road to a farm. It was decided to attack the Germans in the early morning while they slept. Medicine Crow asked the Captain to give him a couple of minutes to take care of the horses. The Captain agreed. In the early hours, Medicine Crow and another soldier crawled into the horse shed. Fashioning an Indian bridle out of a little rope, they chased the horses out of the shed and over a hill. As he rode away, Medicine Crow sang a traditional Crow honor song. Around 50 horses were stolen from the battalion of German officers.
Medicine Crow, in his own words, describe the horse event during an interview with the National Museum of the American Indian:
In World War II, I managed to have captured fifty head of horses. These were not ordinary horses. They belonged to SS officers, you know? During the last days of the war over there, there was a lot of confusion, so a bunch of these SS officers got on their horses and took off … They were heading back to Germany. And here’s that old sneaky old Crow Indian now following them, watching them. So they camped for the night. I sneak in there and took all their fifty head of horses, left them on foot. So I got on one, looked around there and I even sang a Crow victory song all by myself. Crows do that when they think they’re all by themselves, they do things like that. So I sang a victory song.
President Obama awarding Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photo Credit: Bacone College
Through his actions in World War II he is the last Crow Indian to become a war chief and, as he states, the last Plains war chief. He returned to the Crow Agency after the war and was appointed tribal historian and anthropologist in 1948. He received both the Bronze Star and France’s Legion of Honour on June 25, 2008. On August 12, 2009, Medicine Crow, at the age of 95, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. The Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award in the country. Upon hearing he was selected to receive the award, Medicine Crow said, “I am humbled and honored to join the ranks of the renowned citizens who have received this medal over the last 62 years.” Ken Burns featured Medicine Crow in the 2007 PBS series “The War.”
Medicine Crow lives on the Crow Indian Reservation in Lodge Grass, Montana. He is said to be the oldest living man of the Crow tribe.
Video of Dr. Joe Medicine Crow recounting his actions during World War II in Ken Burns’ The War.
Dr. Joe Medicine Crow, among others, honored in 2009 with the Medal of Freedom by President Obama. His sections appear around the 7:15 and 24.35 marks.
Lorna Thackeray, “Crow Tribal Historian to Receive Medal of Freedom,” Billings Gazette, July 30, 2009.
Allison Engel, “Medal of Freedom Goes to Medicine Crow,” University of Southern California, August 27, 2009.
“Joseph Medicine Crow,” National Park Service.
“Joe Medicine Crow: Life and Work,” World Wisdom.
“The War” PBS.
Custer Battlefield Museum
The National Museum of the American Indian