The Last Crow War Chief
Joseph Medicine Crow
Remembering a life and death encounter during WWII, when he served as a scout in the U.S. Army’s 103rd Infantry Division, Crow tribal historian and anthropologist Joseph Medicine Crow, who turns 100 this year (the oldest living man of the Crow tribe), tells the story of how he was assigned to surprise German soldiers from the rear in a German town, by taking a back alley and then coming up behind them on the town’s main street.
“I ran up there and I saw an opening…a gate in a wall,” he told PBS, for its 2007 Ken Burns series The War. “So I ran up there and the German soldier was running there. We bumped heads, helmets…and I just knocked his rifle off his hands where he was standing.”
At that point, face to face with the enemy, looking into his eyes, “Joe” had the drop on the young soldier, but did not fire his rifle. “All I had to do was pull the trigger,” he said. “But, for some reason, I put my gun down and tore into him.”
Joe and the German soldier fought fiercely, hand to hand, and after a desperate struggle Joe finally got the upper hand again.
“He had me down, but I turned him over and grabbed him by the throat…I was raised to kill him,” Joe said, with a nervous laugh, clutching his own throat. “Then, his last words were, 'Mama, mama.' When he said that word, 'Mama.' It opened my ears. I let him go."
In battle during the war, Joseph Medicine Crow wore a sacred eagle feather in his helmet and war paint under his uniform, and he earned his status as the last Crow war chief in his tribe’s history (he is also the last living Plains Indian war chief) by accomplishing four required tasks, or coups—laying hands on an enemy, disarming an enemy, leading a successful war party, and stealing an enemy’s horse—a raid in the dead of night, in Joe’s case, stealing 50 horses from a camp of Nazi SS officers behind enemy lines, after which he sang a traditional Crow victory song as he rode into the darkness back to his position.
Joseph Medicine Crow’s honor and accomplishments (full name: Joseph Medicine Crow—High Bird) began before the war and continued afterward. He was the first Crow, for example, to receive a Master’s degree, in 1939 from the University of Southern California (in Anthropology), addressed the United Nations in 1999, and was awarded the Bronze Star and France’s Légion d'honneur on June 25, 2008, the 132nd anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn). He is also an accomplished author, Crow tribal historian and anthropologist (since 1948), and in 2009 received America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
This month, on June 25, (health permitting), Joseph Medicine Crow will attend the historic reenact-ment of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, at the battlefield on the Crow reservation near Garry Owen and Hardin, Montana, the staging of which has been carried out annually according to his written directions since 1965. The reenactments are part of Little Big Horn Days, a multi-day celebration of Old West culture and history presented each June by the Hardin Area Chamber of Commerce & Agricul-ture. The reenactments take place at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, June 21; Saturday, June 22; and Sunday, June 23. Dr. Medicine Crow has typically participated by singing Son of the Morning Star, a traditional Crow warrior song.
Joseph Medicine Crow’s step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, a Crow scout for George Armstrong Custer, survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn and later told his grandson about the battle. From this first-hand account, Joe created the reenactment narrative used by today’s.