Chief Joseph Medicine Crow-High Bird, last link to the 19th century

Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow

A National Treasure: Joe Medicine Crow, PhD., war chief, historian, and the last link to the Battle of Little Big Horn. He lived on the Crow Reservation in Lodge Grass, Montana, until his death on April 3, 2016.

Epic:  World War II veteran, he had always gone into battle wearing war paint beneath his military uniform and a yellow eagle feather inside his helmet.  Through his deeds he became a Crow war chief.

The last of the Plains Indian war chiefs.

“Warfare was our highest art, but Plains Indian warfare was not about killing. It was about intelligence, leadership, and honor,” Medicine Crow wrote in his 2006 book Counting Coup.

Post Note

His story is that of an historical legend.  I was captivated by his Native American Indian full head dress, it was more magnificent than any other I had ever seen in modern times.  An indication of an exceptional leader and warrior.  The narrative of its significance, his acquisition, is outstanding.   For that alone, I began to create this post.  I discovered so much more.  After I had cobbled together this post, I found an excellent piece that I copied here from   Joe Medicine Crow had been interviewed by Ken Burns for The War, the video clip.  The written piece fills in gaps for my work, it’s elegant and a bit more personal.

“Joe Medicine Crow was born October 27, 1913 on the Crow Indian reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana. One of his grandfathers, White Man Runs Him, was a scout for George Armstrong Custer before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Another grandfather, Medicine Crow, was a legendary tribal chief. Joe Medicine Crow was raised by his elders in the tribe’s warrior tradition. He was taught to master his fear, to ride bareback, to track game, and to withstand extreme cold. He was also schooled in the stories of those who had distinguished themselves in battle against the Crow’s ancient enemies, the Cheyenne and the Lakota. Only the greatest warriors, those who accomplished four particularly dangerous war deeds in combat, could become a chief. They had to touch a living enemy, take an enemy’s weapon, steal an enemy’s horse, and lead a victorious war party.

Joe Medicine Crow was the first member of his tribe to go to college, and was in graduate school in California when America entered the war. He joined the Army, became a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division, and fought in Europe. Whenever he went into battle, he would paint red stripes on his arms beneath his uniform, and he carried in his helmet a sacred, yellow-painted eagle feather provided by a Sun Dance medicine man to shield him from harm.

While he was in combat in Europe, and without quite meaning to, Joe Medicine Crow performed the four necessary war deeds to become a war chief like his grandfather. First, he led a seven-man squad carrying explosives through a wall of artillery fire to blast German positions along the Siegfried Line. Then, while helping to take over a German-held village, he literally ran into a German soldier, knocking him down. He quickly disarmed the soldier, taking away his rifle Finally, in the last weeks of the war, he stole dozens of horses from a battalion of German officers. He is the last Crow Indian to become a war chief.”

The Legend

According to Crow tradition, a man must fulfill certain requirements to become a war 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.

Medicine Crow was a scout for the 103rd Infantry Division and fought in Europe during World War II.  He always went 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.  He led a war party and stole fifty horses from a battalion of German SS soldiers.   In the minutes before the attack, Medicine Crow set off a stampede of fifty horses from a Nazi stable, singing a traditional Crow honor song as he rode away.

Joe Medicine Crow was the last traditional Plains war chief, having achieved the war deeds necessary to be declared a “chief” during World War II.  He served in Europe and earned the Bronze Star, a US Forces individual military decoration for acts of bravery or merit, or for meritorious service. Medicine Crow was also honored for his service to France during World War II when he received the National Order of the Legion of Honor from the French government on June 25, 2008. He was recognized for leading a war party that, under fire, retrieved dynamite to use to attack German guns. He also overcame a German soldier in hand-to-hand combat on a street in France (sparing his life), and captured fifty SS horses at a farm where German officers were staying. Joe Medicine Crow was nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal. Interviews with Dr. Medicine Crow were included in the 2007 Ken Burns PBS series “The War.” In those interviews, he describes some of his World War II experiences.

The Legacy

His grandfather, Yellowtail, started to train Medicine Crow to be a warrior when he was only 6-years-old. The training involved grueling physical activity, such as running barefoot in the snow.

Joe Medicine Crow will be the likely be the last war chief.  He had earned the honor in spectacular fashion against the Nazis during World War II.   He was born into the Crow Tribe’s Whistling Water clan in 1913.  He had carried on a legacy of bold deeds that was familiar to him.  One that he had been prepared to fulfill since early childhood.  Chief Medicine Crow, Joe’s father, was a highly distinguished and honored chief in his own right, who at the age of 22 became a war chief.  Dr. Medicine Crow was the last living person to have heard direct oral testimony of the Battle of Little Bighorn, from his relatives and other people who were there.  He heard the stories from his step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, who was an eyewitness and had served as a scout for General George Armstrong Custer.

Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, said it was hard to overstate Mr. Medicine Crow’s value as a link to history: “Joe personally knew four scouts that had been with Custer . . . it was unbelievable to meet someone who could really give you insights into that time period.”

English: Photo of three of Custer's scouts: Wh...
English: Photo of three of Custer’s scouts: White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead and Hairy Moccasin. The photo was taken in 1907 and is now in the public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
White Man Runs Him, c.1908. Crow scout serving with George Armstrong Custer’s 1876 expeditions against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne that culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Edward S. Curtis portrait of White Man Runs Him, c. 1908. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Custer and White Man Runs Him (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


George Armstrong Custer, U.S. Army major gener...
George Armstrong Custer, U.S. Army major general, killed in battle at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chief Medicine Crow, 1880
Grandfather – Chief Medicine Crow, 1880
Joe Medicine Crow as a young man.
Joe Medicine Crow as a young man.


Joe Medicine Crow
In 1939, Medicine Crow became the first of his tribe to receive a master’s degree

Dr. Joe Medicine Crow (1913-2016) was the Crow Tribal Historian and a revered elder of the Crow tribe. In 1939, he was the first member of the Crow tribe to obtain a master’s degree. His Master’s thesis, “The Effects of European Culture Contact upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians”, remains the most widely read source on Crow culture. He received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California and Rocky Mountain College.

For his war deeds during World War II and “contributions to the preservation of the culture and history of the First Americans” and his “importance as a role model to young Native Americans across the country,” and other services to America, Joe Medicine Crow received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, on August 12, 2009.

“Dr. Medicine Crow’s life reflects not only the warrior spirit of the Crow people, but America’s highest ideals,” President Obama said in 2009 when he awarded the war chief the Medal of Freedom.  – The White House

Dr. Medicine Crow was a guest speaker at Little Bighorn College, the Custer Battlefield Museum, and several other colleges throughout the nation. Also an author, his books include, A Handbook of Crow Indian Laws and Treaties, and From the Heart of the Crow Country. He lived on the Crow Reservation in Lodge Grass, Montana, until his death on April 3, 2016.

Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow-High Bird died on April 3, 2016, at the age of 102.

WW’s Books / DVDs
Author’s Writings On-line
Film clips with the Author
Film clips about the Author
Quotes On the Author
Online Resources

Chief Joseph Medicine Crow

See Also

Native Americans in World War II