Joseph Medicine Crow, ‘The Last Plains Indian War Chief’ Turns 100
“He’s waited 100 years for this event, so it doesn’t hurt us to wait an hour,” emcee Robert Old Horn said, as Doctor Joseph Medicine Crow was on ‘Indian time,’ for his own birthday party. Medicine Crow entered the Apsaalooke (Crow) Multi-Purpose Building to thunderous applause as the Crow Nation and other guests stood up as he walked past on October 27.
Medicine Crow holds among his titles being a tribal historian, anthropologist, educator, as well as decorated World War II veteran. In 2009, President Obama bestowed upon Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Prior to WWII, Medicine Crow – who was the first of his tribe to graduate from college – was studying for an advanced degree in anthropology before volunteering for the Army and being sent to Europe.
It was on the European battlefields Medicine Crow completed all of the four tasks needed to become a Crow War Chief. As a scout he led several successful war parties deep behind enemy lines; he stole German horses; he disarmed an enemy; and he touched an enemy (counted coup) without killing him.
His grandfather was Medicine Crow, a renowned fierce warrior and scout during the Plains and Indian wars during the 19th Century. “My grandfather trained me to be a warrior,” notes Joe Medicine Crow. “The Crow people were so-called, ‘warlike.’ We were a very militaristic people.”
He told of how he counted coup on an enemy during Ken Burn’s 2007 documentary, The War. It wasn’t really planned after Medicine Crow saw a lone German soldier walking past in a narrow alley as he hid waiting to ambush someone. “I saw his rifle and I knocked it out of his hands,” he recounts. “All I had to do was pull the trigger, but for some reason I put my gun down and tore into him.”
After a violent struggle, Medicine Crow held the German soldier’s throat by his hands, and he was ready to finish him off. The soldier gasped, “Momma!” and Medicine Crow let him go out of sympathy. With that deed and without meaning to, he had committed two of 4 deeds to becoming a war chief.
Coming upon a farmhouse, they spotted a small group of soldiers and with around 50 horses in their possession. (While the German Army was renowned for being mechanized, they and the Soviets did deploy more than 6 million horses during WWII.) Medicine Crow decided that before they bombarded the area with artillery, they should make off with the horses. They did so just before dawn as the explosions started.
“The one I was riding was a sow with a braid, so I felt pretty good riding it,” he says. “It was a beautiful horse.” As he rode, he sang a Crow praise song.
It wasn’t until after he came home and told elders of his deeds he was informed that he’d actually committed the acts necessary to become a Crow War Chief. “So I guess you’re looking at the last Plains Indian War Chief,” he says.
During Medicine Crow’s birthday feast, Crow tribal members recounted stories of how they were inspired by their ‘grandfather’ Medicine Crow from their decisions to join the military to pursuing higher education. Prince Albert II of Monaco gave him a birthday card thanking him for an earlier gift Medicine Crow had given him during a visit, as did the historian and emeritus of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Herman J. Viola.
But perhaps expressing the sentiments best via a tribute poem was Longmire writer Craig Johnson, who’d written about Medicine Crow the previous month. Old Horn read it out loud:
Stand, my friends, Joe Medicine Crow is walking past… To see the things that those walnut stained eyes have seen… To hear the things those leathery ears have heard… To feel the things that the still beating heart has felt… Stand my friend, Joe Medicine is walking past. Stand, my friend, history is walking past.