Joe Medicine Crow did not set out to become a war chief…much less the last surviving war chief, but when World War II drew the Unted States into the fight, Medicine Crow knew he couldn’t just sit back in his college dorm and refuse to help. Joe Medicine Crow was born on a reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana in 1913. Raised in the warrior tradition of the Crow, he was never one to shirk his duty in battle. He had some great warrior role models to fashion himself after, like his step-grandfather, who had been a scout for Custer at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, and his paternal grandfather Chief Medicine Crow who was one of the greatest Crow war heroes.
Before the war broke out, Medicine Crow enrolled at the University of Southern California and earned a master’s degree for his thesis, “The Effects of European Culture Contacts Upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.” With that, he became the first Crow to earn a master’s degree. After his graduation, he moved to Oregon to work at a Native American school and planned to pursue his Ph D, but then World War II broke out. Medicine Crow told a reporter for the Billings Gazette, “I had an uncle who had other plans for me…Uncle Sam.”
Medicine Crow hadn’t planned on entering the military, but he knew how to fight, and even while he was doing his duty to his country, he was still very aware of his family history. When he was a boy, his grandfather, Yellowtail put him through traditionally rigorous physical training meant to toughen him up. This included running in the snow barefoot and swimming in freezing rivers. His childhood was spent undergoing hardcore Spartan-style feats of strength, piledriving buffalo, riding horses bareback, swimming through mighty rivers, punching things, and running barefoot through snow-covered plains “uphill both ways.” He was taught to control his fear in the face of imminent peril, learned to hunt dangerous animals by himself, and trained his body to survive prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures. This training made him uniquely qualified for the hardships of a foot soldier. He came from a long line of famous warriors, and he kept them in mind when he was sent to Germany. He said, “I had a legacy to live up to.” Still, it was not something he told people about. That was his own legacy to live up to, and it was private. Throughout the war, he wore his war paint under his uniform, and he tucked a sacred yellow eagle feather under his helmet. He was determined to bring honor to his country and to his Crow people.
After the war, he worked for the Crow tribe and later became an appraiser for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, while also working as a Crow historian. While he didn’t get to go back to college, the University of Southern California (his alma mater) eventually awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2003, a degree I think he earned quite honorably.
“War Chief of the Crow Indians” isn’t a title that is given to just any warrior or chief. You don’t become a War Chief just because of your longevity of years or your physical strength. It’s an ancient, prestigious honorific bestowed only upon the bravest, the strongest warrior chiefs, and the only way to attain this hallowed title is by proving yourself in combat and unlocking the four achievements the Crow believed to be the most “insanely difficult” things a warrior can attempt in battle. These four major coups…leading a successful war party on a raid, capturing an enemy’s weapon, touching an enemy without killing him, and stealing an enemy’s horse. Some of those may sound odd to us, but to the Crow tribe, these were indeed major coups. These were difficult and dangerous tasks to attempt. In fact, they required that he put his life on the line by voluntarily bringing himself face-to-face with at least one warrior who is presumably in the process of actively trying to kill you without giving it a second thought. It was the Crow tribe’s way of ensuring that the chief leading them into battle was the bravest and best there was…and Joseph Medicine Crow was just that…the bravest and the best.
As an infantry scout, Private Medicine Crow got the opportunity to lead a group of men into battle in snow-covered battlefields of Western France while the Allies made their push from Paris towards Berlin…his first coup. It was during one particularly nasty portion of the battle for the Rhine, that Medicine Crow’s commanding officer ordered him to take a team of seven soldiers and lead them across a field of barbed wire, bullets, and artillery fire, grab some dynamite from an American position that had been utterly annihilated, and then assault the German bunkers and blow them up with TNT. It was a suicide mission, but according to Medicine Crow, his CO’s exact words were, “if anyone can do this, it’s probably you.”
His second and third coups followed quickly, when after being separated from his unit, Medicine Crow was sprinting through a back yard. He ran head on into a Nazi, who immediately lost his weapon. Not wanting to kill an unarmed man, Medicine Crow threw down his own weapon and proceeded to fist fight the Nazi. When the Nazi almost got the upper hand, Medicine Crow turned the tables and began to choke the life out of the guy…until the man started screaming for his mommy. That took “the kill” out of Medicine Crow, so he let the guy live. He took he German (and his rifle) as a prisoner of war.
The fourth coup came in a rather unusual way. Joe and his men on a scouting mission deep behind enemy lines. While surveying the landscape for enemy troop movements, the small team of recon experts just happened to come across a small farm where some senior members of the German officer staff were hiding out…with their awesome thoroughbred racehorses. Seriously, how could Joseph Medicine Crow pass that up. So, he just had to steal them…and with that he had met all the requirements for becoming a “War Chief of the Crow Indians.” In August of 2009, Chief Medicine Crow was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom…the highest honor awarded to American civilians…for his combined military service and all the work he has done to help improve the lives of the people of the Crow people. The 95-year-old Medicine Crow personally led the ceremonial dance after the ceremony. Joseph Medicine Crow was the last surviving War Chief of the Crow Indians when he died in 2016, at 102 years old.