Last of the Crow war chiefs turns 101 in Montana

Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow was trained in the old warrior traditions, which he took with him into WWII

In this family photo, Joseph Medicine Crow wears a headdress beaded by his granddaughter and a war shirt from the Custer Battlefield Trading Post in Crow Agency, Montana. The Bighorn Mountains are in the background.
Ramona Medicine Crow

CROW AGENCY, Mont. — The last Crow war chief entered the log-cabin trading post at the edge of the Little Bighorn Battlefield just after noon on a Sunday, supported by his son on his left and a cane held firmly in his right hand.

Often, at tribal events such as powwows, he’ll swing his cane overhead in celebration. But on this October afternoon, with wind sweeping across the stretch of southern Montana that’s home to the Crows, the cane simply supported the centenarian — Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow in English or High Bird, his traditional name, in Crow.



“I was fortunate when I was growing up,” he said, after a lunch of stew, frybread and pie at the trading post’s cafe. “The Crow Indians were still retaining the culture, and they felt it was their duty to teach me to carry on the tribal heritage.”

In turn, he’s made it his duty to document and share it.

On Monday, Medicine Crow — tribal historian, storyteller, decorated World War II veteran, first in his tribe to attain a master’s degree, last to achieve the status of traditional Crow war chief and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — turns 101. As he described in a recent letter to a longtime friend and colleague, “On Oct. 27, I will have seen 101 snows.”

And yet he still feels “young and strong.” The eldest in a tribe of more than 10,000 members whose communities are scattered across nearly 3,600 square miles of plains and mountains, he is perhaps as much beloved for his hold on history as he is for his humor.

“I go to powwows — I’m a powwow man — and I go to rodeos too,” he said, asserting at one point that he is just a mere 91 years young before his son, Ronny Medicine Crow, corrected him.

“You’re 101, remember?” he shouted, so the old man could hear. “Not 91.”

That is when Medicine Crow paused, met the eyes of family members gathered around and released a moment of laughter. “I tried to cheat,” he said, smiling, and then he continued, speaking of his “many, many fond memories of growing up a Crow Indian.”

War paint beneath his uniform

While brief, Medicine Crow’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II has emerged as among the most celebrated Native American military experiences of the past century.

In 2009 the White House identified him as both “a warrior and living legend” when he was awarded, along with 15 others, the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, saying “history flows through Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow–High Bird.”

“Wearing war paint beneath his uniform and a sacred feather beneath his helmet, Joseph Medicine Crow completed the four battlefield deeds that made him the last Crow war chief. Historian, educator and patron, a good man,” President Barack Obama said at a White House ceremony.

U.S. President Barack Obama ran into some interference when he gave the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Joseph Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Native American war chief. The ceremony was on Aug. 12, 2009.
Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty Images

In 2008, Medicine Crow met Obama on the campaign trail, telling the then-senator that he had wanted him to help improve the economic standing of Native Americans, said Ronny Medicine Crow.

Nearly 30 percent of Native people live in poverty, according to 2010 U.S. census figures, and statistics show a litany of health disparities, with high rates of heart disease, diabetes and other ailments.

“He said, ‘We want you to bring us up to modern American societal standards,’” Ronny Medicine Crow said, recalling his father’s comments. Then Joseph Medicine Crow sang Obama a praise song and told him he would sing one for him again when he reached the White House. The promise was fulfilled the day he received his medal.

Since the war, Medicine Crow has maintained that he did not realize while serving that he had carried out the four warrior deeds, which include seizing an enemy’s weapon, coming into contact with him in hand-to-hand combat without taking his life, stealing an enemy’s horses and leading a successful war party.

The revelation came only after he returned home, when men of his grandfather's generation asked him to tell his stories from the 103rd Infantry Division.

He told of how he disarmed a German soldier during a raid and how in hand-to-hand combat he had his foe by the throat but spared his life in a moment of empathy. He told how he led six men up a hill under mortar fire at the German Siegfried line to retrieve explosives for his unit and how he raided a farmhouse corral with permission from his commanding officer and made away with German horses, leaving the Nazis without their steeds for escape.

While on horseback, he spontaneously broke into a Crow praise song, he said in his memoir, “Counting Coup,” published by National Geographic in 2006.

Raised by a medicine man

When he was a boy, Medicine Crow admired his paternal grandfather, Chief Medicine Crow, a spiritual man and a figure documented in the Crows’ historical accounts as one of their bravest of all time. A photograph of the chief taken during a trip to Washington, D.C., with other Crow leaders to negotiate reservation boundaries, at the age of just 31, is among the most recognizable images to date of a Native American leader.

"He was a medicine man. He fasted. He went to the mountains to receive power,” Medicine Crow said. “So, as a boy growing up, he was right there to live the right way, starting life the good way, the correct way.”

This portrait of Medicine Crow's paternal grandfather, Chief Medicine Crow, taken in Washington in 1880, is among the more recognizable images of a Native American leader.
Charles Milton Bell

Medicine Crow was inducted into the Army in 1943 while pursuing his doctorate in anthropology at University of Southern California. By then he was in his 30s, and a recruitment officer told him that, given his education, he could likely get him a direct commission as an officer, he said.

But Medicine Crow declined.

“I said, ‘Look, my grandfather was Chief Medicine Crow, regarded as the greatest warrior and chief of the Crow Indians of all time,’” he said. “’I want to follow his footsteps. I want to see if I can become as powerful and as good of a man as Chief Medicine Crow,’ so during the war the opportunity would come for me to do that, learn how to fight.”

But the opportunity wouldn’t come until his third and final year in the service, and he reflected in his book that the decision at first seemed like a regrettable one. His first two years, he was a “paper pusher,” he said, and he entered the Army a private and was discharged a private.

After the war, he went home to Montana, unable to continue pursuing his doctorate at USC because the anthropology department had been suspended, his son said. Later he was awarded honorary doctorates from the university.  

He started a ranch. He and his wife, now deceased, had three children, and he worked for three decades as a land surveyor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He finds it amusing that he was encouraged at age 75 to retire. “I was getting too old, they said.” 

The secret to reaching 101

Longevity is in Medicine Crow’s DNA. His great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, uncle and others all lived past 100.

When asked, he considers what it means to live well and how to live long, and some of his theories are simple — so simple, he smiles. Go to sleep early, sleep eight hours, eat breakfast, keep busy working, eat generous and healthy helpings at meals.

Long ago, he also stopped drinking alcohol, which his son said had been prevalent in his life after returning from the war.

“One thing that happened to me, I got married to a good Christian woman,” Medicine Crow said. “She just prayed, and that worked. So I quit drinking, I quit running around. I started living a good, clean wholesome life.” 

His son suggests that doing so added years to his father’s life. The elder Medicine Crow lives alone now, with family nearby checking on him daily.

A photo of a younger Joseph Medicine Crow.
Courtesy Medicine Crow family

His home — a white, wood-framed house shaded by cottonwood trees, at the end of a short, narrow dirt road — is on land he inherited from his great-grandfather One Star just south of Lodge Grass, a community of fewer than 1,000 people and some 20 miles from where the Sioux and Cheyenne rallied to deal Gen. George Armstrong Custer a decisive defeat in 1876.

Lodge Grass is nestled in the Valley of the Chiefs, where the Little Bighorn River cuts through the valley floor. A patchwork of farm fields, tribal land and ranches surrounds the town, which is a gateway to the reservation’s rugged Bighorn Mountains. They remain undeveloped and a place where practically each turn holds a place in tribal history or is marked by a legend.

Crow dancers point their feathered fans to the mountains each summer in a ceremony led by veterans that comes at the end of the tribe’s largest annual celebration, Crow Fair. “I think the First Maker hears us, so we have a good Crow reservation, good time all the time, lots of grass for animals,” Medicine Crow said.

“They raise their hand to say, ‘Aho! Aho! Watch over us. Give us many good things.’”

In the early 1900s, Lodge Grass was home to Crow chiefs, including Medicine Crow’s grandfather Chief Medicine Crow, who took up homesteads in the valley after the days of intertribal warfare and moving camp to follow game across the region had passed and reservation boundaries were set — then set again, diminishing tribal land bases.

Despite the storied setting, Medicine Crow’s hometown, where he attended Baptist day school as a boy, remains one of the most disenfranchised in the state. This fall, residents of an already hardscrabble neighborhood of federally developed housing went without running water for weeks amid a jurisdictional dispute between tribal and municipal governments, and when floods overtook the community in 2011, more than a year passed before the post office reopened, pointing to weak civic infrastructure and a dearth of resources. 

Walking two worlds

In Medicine Crow’s most prominent boyhood memories, there are the “good Baptist people” who helped him get an education and spared him from the abuses of Indian boarding schools that affected so many. And then there are his maternal grandparents — the Yellowtails — who raised him to know and share his tribe’s traditions, despite having been forbidden in their lifetime to practice Native American culture.

Today the Yellowtails’ descendants still live on tracts adjacent to Medicine Crow’s home.

There are phrases in the Crow language that the chiefs are said to have embraced as defining values: “Dia-goshee,” roughly translating to “try your hardest,” and “bod-chod-duh,” meaning “be strong be brave.”

Joseph Medicine Crow in another family photo. In hindsight, he now believes that his grandfather raised him by the standards of pre-reservation generations.
Gary Fabiano / UPI / Landov

Often Medicine Crow will say, in hindsight, that he believes his grandfather Yellowtail raised him by the standards of previous generations, preparing him to be a warrior, even as the world of the Crows shifted drastically. The two jumped into ice-cold rivers, and the boy ran laps barefoot around the Yellowtail home in the snow, day after day in the winter.

 “He was raised by pre-reservation family members, and he became a walking encyclopedia of Crow history during the 20th century,” said Herman Viola, curator emeritus for the Smithsonian Institution, who met Medicine Crow during the 1970s when he was mining historic Crow photographs in the Smithsonian archives.

“He walked two worlds and was happy to work with the white community to provide a better understanding of Native life and problems,” Viola said.  

Medicine Crow is also a man of two religions, embracing the place of the Baptist church in his small town and speaking of the significance of Crow ceremonies. He introduces himself by both his Crow and English names.

And at the trading post, where a framed photograph of him in headdress hangs behind the cash register, he easily shifted from Crow to English in the course of conversation.   

“What’s your Crow name?” he asked the trading post owner in English, after finishing his lunch there several weeks ago. “Who gave it to you?”

And then to a woman of his son’s generation in Crow: “Are you Apsaalooke? What are your parents’ names?”

Apsaalooke is the tribe’s name for itself in Crow, and it is embroidered on a vest he’s wearing that also declares his veteran status.

“There are two roads coming together like this,” Medicine Crow said, bringing his hands together and pointing forward. “One good road is the Indian way, the other one is, say, the white man’s way. So as we go along, I take what’s good from the Indian world and reject what’s bad. Same way, I accept, adopt the white man’s good ways and leave the bad ways.

“So that’s one reason why I’m in good health and good shape at 101 years of age.”

Related News

Indian Country

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Indian Country

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter