Joseph Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Indian war chief and a passionate historian, died on Sunday at age 102.
A member of the Crow tribe, Medicine Crow was an outspoken advocate for his people, whose suffering he witnessed in the wake of the U.S. government's relegation of American Indian tribes to reservations and the policy of cultural genocide in government-run boarding schools.
"He was my everything," his son Ronald Medicine Crow told the Billings Gazette. "I don’t think I will be able to fill his boots because he was able to accomplish so much in his history."
Medicine Crow's tribal name is "High Bird," but when he registered with the U.S. government as a member of the Crow tribe he had to officially take the name "Medicine Crow" from his paternal grandfather—who "was considered the greatest warrior of all time," Medicine Crow said. As a young man, he was determined to follow in his grandfather's footsteps.
Medicine Crow earned the status of war chief after he fulfilled the traditional qualifications while fighting as an infantry scout for the U.S. military in Germany during WWII. He was the last member of the tribe to do so. The Washington Post explained:
According to Crow tradition, a man must fulfill certain requirements to become chief of the tribe: command a war party successfully, enter an enemy camp at night and steal a horse, wrestle a weapon away from his enemy and touch the first enemy fallen, without killing him.
Joe Medicine Crow was the last person ever to meet that code, though far from the windswept plains where his ancestors conceived it. During World War II, when he was a scout for the 103rd Infantry in Europe, he strode into battle wearing war paint beneath his uniform and a yellow eagle feather inside his helmet. So armed, he led a mission through German lines to procure ammunition. He helped capture a German village and disarmed — but didn’t kill — an enemy soldier. And, in the minutes before a planned attack, he set off a stampede of 50 horses from a Nazi stable, singing a traditional Crow honor song as he rode away.
Watch Crow retell his WWII story in this PBS documentary:
After his wartime experience, Medicine Crow became the official historian of the Crow people.
Medicine Crow was directly related to Crow warriors who took part in the infamous 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, including his great uncle, White Man Runs Him, who worked as a scout for General Armstrong Custer. As a child, Medicine Crow was often told firsthand accounts of the bloody battle.
As a diligent chronicler of Crow history, Medicine Crow always sought to correct inaccurate retellings of the battle popularly known as Custer's Last Stand. The Gazette reported:
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In 1939, he was working toward his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Southern California when he saw a flier seeking extras to be in a new movie about the battle of Lt. Col. George Custer’s last stand. Medicine Crow immediately volunteered for the project, called "They Died with their Boots On."
The director assigned Medicine Crow to the script-writing department, which Medicine Crow didn't care for, "but they were paying good money."
He was later fired for saying that Custer "jumped the gun and got 265 soldiers killed." Medicine Crow told the producer that the movie was messing up an important part of history. About 25 years later, he wrote his own version of what happened in the battle.
Medicine Crow would go on to write almost a dozen books about Crow history, including a memoir published in 2006.
He was also a lifelong believer in the power of education, and became the first Crow tribal leader to receive a Master's degree and to pursue a Doctorate.
At age 94, he spoke in a documentary about being the last living person who had spoken directly to Crow warriors who took part in the Battle of Little Bighorn:
The historian and war chief spoke at a United Nations Peace Summit in New York in 2000 "about the rights of Indian people and how we should be respected, and our native beliefs should be respected and preserved," as he told the Billings Gazette. Medicine Crow was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for his activism.
The 102-year old Medicine Crow upheld the Crow culture's deeply-held warrior tradition as he fought to retain the history, culture, and rights of the Crow tribe throughout his life.
"The great spirits said, 'I am going to make you warriors, strong and cunning,'" Medicine Crow told the Gazette in 2006. "Kids train to be warriors right from toddlers. We were a war-faring people."
Medicine Crow also told the Gazette "that a great warrior, No Vitals, had a vision that the Crow people would have to be strong to fend off the other tribes and white men, who would try to take their good land."
"The government tried their best to transform (Crow) people into the ways of the white man," he said to the newspaper. "Yeah, they tried, all right. But we had what you might call cultural persistence."