Joe Medicine Crow

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Joe Medicine Crow
An old man in full feathered headdress plays a drum with a man in a suit watching
With Barack Obama in 2009
Born Joseph Medicine Crow
(1913-10-27)October 27, 1913
Near Lodge Grass, Montana, U.S.
Died April 3, 2016(2016-04-03) (aged 102)
Billings, Montana, U.S.
Nationality American
Ethnicity Crow Nation
Alma mater Linfield College
University of Southern California
Occupation Historian, war chief, anthropologist, author
Relatives Pauline Small (cousin)
White Man Runs Him (step-grandfather)
Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom (ribbon).png Presidential Medal of Freedom
Military career
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of War.png United States Army
Years of service 1943–1946
Rank Private
Unit 103rd Infantry Division
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Bronze Star ribbon.svg Bronze Star
Legion Honneur Chevalier ribbon.svg Légion d'honneur

Joseph "Joe" Medicine Crow (October 27, 1913 – April 3, 2016) was an author and historian of the Crow Nation of Native Americans. His writings on Native American history and reservation culture are considered seminal works, but he is best known for his writings and lectures concerning the Battle of the Little Bighorn. During his lifetime he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Légion d'honneur. During World War II, he became the last war chief of the Crow Tribe, and was the last living Plains Indian war chief. He was a founding member of the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth.[1]

Early life[edit]

Joseph Medicine Crow (his Crow name was High Bird) was born on the Crow Indian Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana, to Amy Yellowtail and Leo Medicine Crow.[2] The Crow kinship and descent system was matrilineal. His cousin is Pauline Small, the first woman elected to office in the Crow Tribe of Indians. His maternal step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, was a scout for George Armstrong Custer and an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.[3] Chief Medicine Crow, Leo's father, was a highly distinguished and honored chief in his own right, who at the age of 22 became a war chief. He set a standard for aspiring warriors and was Joe's inspiration.[citation needed]


When he was young, Medicine Crow heard direct oral testimony about the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 from his step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, who had been a scout for Custer.[4]

Beginning in 1929, when he was in eighth grade, Medicine Crow attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and stayed there until he had completed an Associate of Arts degree in 1936. He went on to study sociology and psychology for his bachelor's degree from Linfield College in 1938.[5] He then earned a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California in 1939, and in doing so was the first member of the Crow tribe to obtain a master's degree.[4] His thesis, The Effects of European Culture Contact upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians, has become a well-respected work about Crow culture.[6] He began work toward a doctorate, and by 1941 had completed the required coursework. He did not complete his Ph.D., however, due to the outbreak of World War II.[4] He taught at Chemawa Indian School for a year in 1941, then took a job in the shipyards of Bremerton, Washington. After that he joined the army.[5]

Medicine Crow received an honorary doctorate from Rocky Mountain College in 1999,[6] an honorary doctorate at the University of Southern California in 2003,[4] and an honorary doctorate at Bacone College in 2010, where he was an ambassador and commencement speaker for more than 50 years.[7]

World War II[edit]

After spending the latter half of 1942 working in the naval ship yards in Bremerton, Washington, Medicine Crow joined the Army in 1943,[5] became a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division, and fought in World War II. Whenever he went into battle, he wore his war paint beneath his uniform and a sacred eagle feather beneath his helmet.[3]

Medicine Crow completed all four tasks required to become a war chief: Touching an enemy without killing him, taking an enemy's weapon, leading a successful war party, and stealing an enemy's horse:[6] He touched a living enemy soldier and disarmed an enemy when he turned a corner and found himself face to face with a young German soldier:

He also led a successful war party and stole fifty horses from a battalion of German SS-officers,[8] singing a traditional Crow honor song as he rode off.[9]

He is the last member of the Crow tribe to become a war chief. Medicine Crow was interviewed and appeared in the 2007 Ken Burns PBS series The War, describing his World War II service.[3] Of his story, documentarian Ken Burns said, "The story of Joseph Medicine Crow is something I've wanted to tell for 20 years."[10]

Tribal spokesman[edit]

After serving in the Army, Medicine Crow returned to the Crow Agency. In 1948, he was appointed tribal historian and anthropologist.[11] He worked for the BIA beginning in 1951.[citation needed] He served as a board member or officer on the Crow Central Education Commission almost continuously since its inception in 1972.[5] In 1999, he addressed the United Nations.[8] He was a frequent guest speaker at Little Big Horn College and the Little Big Horn Battlefield Museum, and appeared in several documentaries about the battle. He wrote a script "that has been used at the reenactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn held every summer in Hardin since 1965."[12] Medicine Crow was also a founding member of Little Bighorn college and of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming beginning in 1976 and was given an honorary Emeritus in the recent years.[citation needed]

He was the "keeper of memories of his tribe". He preserved the stories and photographs of his people in an archive in his house and garage.[9] His books include Crow Migration Story, Medicine Crow, the Handbook of the Crow Indians Law and Treaties, Crow Indian Buffalo Jump Techniques, and From the Heart of Crow Country. He also authored a book for children entitled Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.


External media
Joseph Medicine Crow-High Bird - Aug 12 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom - with Obama and award.jpg
A Crow Warrior vs. The Nazis, Joseph Medicine Crow on StoryCorps
President Obama Honors Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients, see 24:25-25:50, White House[13]

On June 25, 2008, Medicine Crow received two military decorations: the Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army, and the French Legion of Honor Chevalier medal.[14]

On July 17, 2008, Senators Max Baucus, Jon Tester, and Mike Enzi introduced a bill to award him the Congressional Gold Medal; however, the bill did not garner the required sponsorship of two-thirds of the senate to move forward Congressional Gold Medal legislation.[15]

His book Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond, written about his life, was chosen by the National Council for the Social Studies as a "Notable Tradebook for Young People" in 2007.[16]

He received an honorary doctorate from Rocky Mountain College in 1999.[17] He received an honorary doctorate at the University of Southern California in 2003. He received another honorary doctorate at Bacone College in 2010, an educational institution where he had been an ambassador and commencement speaker for more than 50 years.[18]

Medicine Crow received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor awarded in the United States) from President Barack Obama on August 12, 2009.[19] During the White House ceremony, Obama referred to Medicine Crow as bacheitche, a "good man" in Crow.[20]


He continued to write and lecture at universities and public institutions until his death at the age of 102 on April 3, 2016, while under hospice care in Billings, Montana.[19][21] He is survived by his only son Ron Medicine Crow, daughters Vernelle Medicine Crow and Diane Reynolds, and step-daughter Garnet Watan.



  1. ^ "PIM 'founder,' war hero Medicine Crow turns 100". Cody Enterprise. Sage Publishing. October 30, 2013. Retrieved November 3, 2013. 
  2. ^ McPhate, Mike (April 4, 2016). "Joseph Medicine Crow, Tribal War Chief and Historian, Dies at 102". New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Joe Medicine Crow". PBS. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow". Custer Museum. Archived from the original on July 30, 2008. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Joseph Medicine Crow Collection Inventory". Little Big Horn College Library. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  6. ^ a b c
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b "President Obama Names Medal of Freedom Recipients". White House. July 30, 2009. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  9. ^ a b "War songs of the Plains". The Economist. 419 (8985): 78. April 16, 2016. 
  10. ^ Miniter, Brendan (September 19, 2007). "Ken Burns Returns to War". Wall Street Journal Opinion. Retrieved September 19, 2007. 
  11. ^ "Joseph Medicine Crow". National Park Service. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  12. ^ "Joseph Medicine Crow". Montanakids. 2007. Retrieved March 28, 2013. 
  13. ^ "THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM". White House. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  14. ^ Kortlander, Christopher (May 21, 2008). "Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow to receive the French Legion of Honor Award and the Bronze Star". Custer Battlefield Museum. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow Congressional Gold Medal Act". Retrieved August 28, 2008. 
  16. ^ "The official journal of National Council for the Social Studies" (pdf). University of South Florida. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  17. ^ Brown, Matthew (April 4, 2016). "Crow Tribe elder, historian Joe Medicine Crow dead at 102". Star Tribune. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  18. ^ "YouTube video". YouTube. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 
  19. ^ a b Brown, Matthew (April 3, 2016). "Crow Tribe elder, historian Joe Medicine Crow dead at 102". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 3, 2016. 
  20. ^
  21. ^ Ferguson, Mike; Niedermeier, Jordan (April 3, 2016). "Joe Medicine Crow dies in Billings on Sunday morning". Billings Gazette. Retrieved April 4, 2016. 

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