Joe Medicine Crow

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Joe Medicine Crow
Joe Medicine Crow in full feathered headdress plays a drum for U.S. President Barack Obama
Medicine Crow (right) with President Barack Obama in 2009
Joseph Medicine Crow

(1913-10-27)October 27, 1913
DiedApril 3, 2016(2016-04-03) (aged 102)
NationalityCrow, American
Alma materLinfield College
University of Southern California
Occupation(s)Historian, war chief, anthropologist, author
RelativesPauline Small (cousin)
White Man Runs Him (step-grandfather)
Awards Presidential Medal of Freedom
Military career
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1943–1946
Rank Technician 5th grade
Unit103rd Infantry Division
Battles/warsWorld War II
Awards Bronze Star
Légion d'honneur

Joseph Medicine Crow (October 27, 1913 – April 3, 2016) was a Native American writer, historian and war chief of the Crow Tribe. 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 of 1876.

Medicine Crow was a World War II veteran, serving as a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division of the US Army. He received the Bronze Star Medal and the Légion d'honneur for his service during World War II. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

Medicine Crow was a founding member of the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth.[1] He was the last war chief of the Crow Tribe and the last Plains Indian war chief.

Early life[edit]

Joseph Medicine Crow (his Crow name meant High Bird) was born in 1913 on the Crow Indian Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana, to Amy Yellowtail and Leo Medicine Crow.[2] As the Crow kinship system was matrilineal, he was considered born for his mother's people, and gained his social status from that line. Property and hereditary positions were passed through the maternal line. 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 his son's inspiration.[citation needed]

White Man Runs Him, step-grandfather of Joe Medicine Crow

His maternal step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, was a scout for US General George Armstrong Custer and an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.[3] Joe Medicine Crow's cousin was Pauline Small, the first woman elected to office in the Crow Tribe of Indians.


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 General George Armstrong Custer.[4]

Beginning in 1929, when he was in eighth grade, Medicine Crow attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, which also had preparatory classes for students of high school age. He studied until he 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 earned a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1939; he 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., due to the United States' entry into World War II.[4]

Medicine Crow taught at Chemawa Indian School for a year in 1941, then took a defense industry job in the shipyards of Bremerton, Washington in 1942.[5]

World War II[edit]

After spending the latter half of 1942 working in the naval ship yards in Bremerton, Washington, Medicine Crow joined the U.S. Army in 1943.[5] He became a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division, and fought in World War II. Whenever he went into battle, he wore his war paint (two red stripes on his arms) beneath his uniform and a sacred yellow painted eagle feather, provided by a "sundance" medicine man, beneath his helmet.[3]

Medicine Crow completed all four tasks required to become a war chief: touching an enemy without killing him (counting coup), 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 him after turning a corner and finding himself face to face with a young German soldier.

He also led a successful war party and stole fifty horses owned by the Waffen SS from a German camp, singing a traditional Crow honor song as he rode off.[7][8]

Medicine Crow is the last member of the Crow tribe to become a war chief. He was interviewed and appeared in the 2007 Ken Burns PBS series The War, describing his World War II service.[3] Filmmaker Ken Burns said, "The story of Joseph Medicine Crow is something I've wanted to tell for 20 years."[9]

Tribal spokesman[edit]

After serving in the Army, Medicine Crow returned to the Crow Agency. In 1948, he was appointed tribal historian and anthropologist.[10] He worked for the BIA beginning in 1951.[11] 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.[7]

Medicine Crow was a frequent guest speaker at Little Big Horn College and the Little Big Horn Battlefield Museum. He also was featured in several documentaries about the battle, because of his family's associated oral history. 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 a founding member of Little Bighorn College and of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming beginning in 1976.[11][13]

As historian, Medicine Crow 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.[8] 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 wrote a book for children entitled Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.


Medicine Crow continued to write and lecture at universities and public institutions until his death, at the age of 102, on April 3, 2016. He was in hospice care in Billings, Montana.[14][15] He is survived by his only son Ron Medicine Crow, daughters Vernelle Medicine Crow and Diane Reynolds, and stepdaughter Garnet Watan.


External media
audio icon A Crow Warrior vs. The Nazis, Joseph Medicine Crow on StoryCorps
video icon President Obama Honors Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients, see 24:25–25:50, White House[16]


Combat Infantryman Badge
1st Row Bronze Star Medal
2nd Row Army Good Conduct Medal Presidential Medal of Freedom American Campaign Medal
3rd Row European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal World War II Victory Medal Knight
Legion of Honour


  • Native Spirit and The Sun Dance Way DVD (World Wisdom, 2007)
  • Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond (National Geographic Children's Books, 2006) ISBN 978-0-7922-5391-4
  • From the Heart of the Crow Country: The Crow Indians' Own Stories (Bison Books, 2000) ISBN 978-0-8032-8263-6
  • Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird (Abbeville Press, 1998) ISBN 978-0-7892-0160-7
  • The Last Warrior (Sunset Productions, July 1995) ISBN 978-99953-31-04-7
  • The Crow Indians: 100 years of acculturation (Wyola Elementary School, 1976)


  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". The New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "Joe Medicine Crow". PBS. Archived from the original on April 7, 2016. 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 "Joe Medicine Crow: Life and Work".
  7. ^ a b "President Obama Names Medal of Freedom Recipients". July 30, 2009. Retrieved March 29, 2017 – via National Archives.
  8. ^ a b "War songs of the Plains". The Economist. Vol. 419, no. 8985. April 16, 2016. p. 78.
  9. ^ Miniter, Brendan (September 19, 2007). "Ken Burns Returns to War". Wall Street Journal Opinion. Retrieved September 19, 2007.
  10. ^ "Joseph Medicine Crow". National Park Service. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  11. ^ a b Bauer, Patricia (2016). "Joseph Medicine Crow | Native American Historian". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved January 23, 2019.
  12. ^ "Joseph Medicine Crow". Montanakids. 2007. Retrieved March 28, 2013.
  13. ^ Ladue, Robin A. "The Last War Chief". Tribal Business Journal. Retrieved January 23, 2019.
  14. ^ a b Brown, Matthew (April 3, 2016). "Crow Tribe elder, historian Joe Medicine Crow dead at 102". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
  15. ^ Ferguson, Mike; Niedermeier, Jordan (April 3, 2016). "Joe Medicine Crow dies in Billings on Sunday morning". Billings Gazette. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  16. ^ "The Presidential Medal of Freedom". Retrieved April 4, 2016 – via National Archives.
  17. ^ Brown, Matthew (April 4, 2016). "Crow Tribe elder, historian Joe Medicine Crow dead at 102". Star Tribune. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  18. ^ Bacone College (June 28, 2010). "Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow". Archived from the original on December 13, 2021 – via YouTube.
  19. ^ "The official journal of National Council for the Social Studies" (PDF). University of South Florida. Retrieved April 4, 2016.[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ "Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow Congressional Gold Medal Act". Retrieved August 28, 2008.
  22. ^ Associated Press, "Crow Tribe Elder Joe Medicine Crow Dead at Age 102"

External links[edit]