“My grandfather taught me to be a warrior. During WWII this training had come in handy and I completed the four requirements for a Crow Indian warrior to become a chief.” Joe Medicine Crow was 95 years old when he spoke these words to President Barack Obama who presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor) a year later in 2009. But what were the four requirements he was referring to? 1) Lead a war party on a successful raid 2) Capture an enemy’s weapon 3) Touch an enemy without killing him and 4) Steal an enemy’s horse. These trials would be difficult enough against hostile tribes such as the Sioux and Cheyenne but as a scout in WWII they sounded utterly impossible.
Joe Medicine Crow (aka High Bird) was born in 1913 on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. His maternal step-grandfather was a scout for US General George Armstrong Custer and an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. As a child Joe learned the oral history of his tribe from his father and grandfather, which led to his appointment as tribal historian and years later his address to the United Nations in 1999. He was the first of his people to receive a Masters Degree but his pursuit of a PhD was interrupted when WWII broke out and Joe enlisted as a scout in the 103rd infantry.
In preparation for every battle Joe always painted his arms with bright red war paint and strapped a sacred eagle feather under his helmet for good luck. During his tour of duty Joe was given an apparent suicide mission. His commanding officer asked him to lead seven men across a field of barbed wire and artillery fire to salvage some dynamite from an American position that had been annihilated. Not only did he manage to secure the TNT and blow a hole in the German Siegfried Line, he completed the mission without losing a single man.
Soon after, while the 103rd was trying to secure the closest village, Joe found himself all alone, sprinting through a back alley behind German fortifications. During his mad dash a German soldier stepped out in front of him and Joe knocked straight into the man, causing the Nazi to drop his rifle. Joe could have shot the man on the spot but instead chose to drop his own weapon and wrestle the man to the ground. Joe eventually gained the advantage and began choking the German soldier who eventually cried out “Mama” when he could no longer breathe. In a display of compassion, Joe released his grip and led the soldier back to camp as a POW. By doing so he had fulfilled the second and third requirement for becoming a Crow war chief; however the fourth trial, stealing an enemy horse, seemed to be out of the realm of possibility…or was it?
While he and his scouts were on a recon mission in 1945 Joe found himself only a few yards away from a camp for senior German war staff officers. The officers kept a corral full of 50 thoroughbred horses. Before sunrise Joe crept passed the guards into camp carrying only a rope and his Colt 1911 service pistol. After wrapping a bridle around a large thoroughbred he jumped bareback on the horse and let out a war cry, freeing dozens of thoroughbreds from the corral. The Germans fired at him with their Lugers as Joe raced through the darkness still chanting a Crow war song.
Joe and his party went on to liberate a concentration camp in Poland before he returned to his people in Montana. Having completed these four herculean tasks Joe Medicine Crow was made a War Chief of the Crow tribe and went on to write several books on Native and Military history, including the classic Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond.
On June 25, 2008, Joe 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, both for service during World War II. But despite all these accolades Joe never strayed far from his roots. Just as he had learned the history of the Crow from his elders, so too did he spend much of his time teaching that history. “The first is now the last,” he once said. “Ever since Columbus was discovered by America in 1492, this indigenous man of the New World has been pushed down, down, down and here we are at the bottom.”
Joe continued to do lectures until his death on April 3, 2016 at the age of 102. He was the last War Chief of the Crow tribe and appeared in the 2007 Ken Burns PBS series The War. He may be the only person who can be viewed as a link between the historic 19th century Indian Wars, the 20th century WWII, and the 21st century war for native justice.