Joseph Medicine Crow, Wartime Hero and Historian, Dies at 102

Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow – High Bird arrives to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House on August 12, 2009. Credit: Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

During World War II, Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow went to battle with red war paint painted on his arms and underneath his traditional uniform. Tucked beneath his helmet was a sacred eagle feather, painted yellow and given to him by a sundance medicine man to shield Medicine Crow from harm. In a way, Medicine Crow’s battle insignia while fighting for the U.S. in Europe symbolizes the legacy he leaves behind: The storied war hero, who performed a series of dangerous deeds that elevated him to war chief status, existed in both the white and Native worlds — shaping both.

Medicine Crow, the last war chief of the Crow tribe and a notable historian, died at age 102 in Billings, Montana, on April 3. He is being remembered this week as not just a wartime hero — one who stole 50 horses from a Nazi stable — but also an important purveyor of history.

“Dr. Medicine Crow dedicated much of his life to sharing the stories of his culture and his people,” President Barack Obama said in a White House statement. “And in doing so, he helped shape a fuller history of America for us all.”

Raised in warrior traditions in Lodge Grass, Montana, and as a part of the Crow Tribe’s Whistling Water clan, Medicine Crow heard stories, as a child, about the Battle of Little Bighorn from his ancestors who were there. His step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, was a scout for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer before the Battle of Little Bighorn. Medicine Crow chronicled his tribe’s history, and has given numerous lectures about the Battle of Little Bighhorn, even writing the script that has been used in annual re-enactments held every summer in Hardin, Montana. A year ago, at age 101, the tribal historian spoke at the groundbreaking of a middle school in Montana that was being named after him.

"I always told people, when you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you're shaking hands with the 19th century," Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Indians told the Associated Press. "He really wanted to walk in both worlds, the white world and the Indian world, and he knew education was a key to success."

Medicine Crow attended a Baptist mission school, then was the first of his tribe to graduate from college. He was studying for an advanced anthropology degree when WWII began. Medicine Crow earned his master’s degree from the University of Southern California, where he studied the effects European culture had on Native Americans. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in 2003.

Medicine Crow's people had defended their land against the Lakota and the Cheyenne for decades. On the reservation, his grandfather trained him in the warrior tradition. Decades later over in Europe, Medicine Crow would achieve war chief status, and perhaps somewhat by happenstance.

In order to attain the esteemed “war chief” status, four daring war deeds needed to be completed: Touch a living enemy, take an enemy’s weapon, steal the horse of an enemy, and lead a victorious war party.

For his deeds, Medicine Crow, disarmed a young German soldier during a confrontation. He grabbed the soldier by the neck, choking him. But when he heard the young man say “Momma,” he let him go. He also led a squad up a hill at the German Siegfried line to retrieve explosives for his unit. Also, with permission from his commanding officer, Medicine Crow raided the Nazi stable, capturing the German battalion's horses.

Obama, in the White House statement, described Medicine Crow as a bacheitche — meaning “good man” in Crow. Obama recounted Medicine Crow’s bravery in battle that earned him the Bronze Star from America and the Legion d'honneur from France. In 2009, Obama honored Medicine Crow with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Yet I suspect his greatest honor was one he earned from his people: the title of war chief — the last Crow to hold that distinction,” Obama said in the statement.