The last Plains Indian war chief still fights for his home, his people and their way of life
Lodge Grass, Mont., is situated in a beautiful river valley created by the Little Bighorn River. Cottonwood trees, which are partially green, partially yellow in early October — and may have shaded Crow hunting parties 200 years ago — grow along the river. The river valley is a flat bed in a region of rolling hills, buttes and rock outcroppings.
Lodge Grass is at the heart of the Crow Reservation, and walking through town in October 2012 one still sees evidence of the old ways. Fresh-cut lodge pole pines — which next summer will form the lattice for tepees — lean against barns while they cure in the autumn air. Several small herds of horses, whose ancestors may have carried war chiefs into battle, graze on the golden October grass. And Lodge Grass, Mont., is the home of Joe Medicine Crow, the last Plains Indian war chief. And in his 99 years he has fought many, many battles: one for his country and many for his tribe.
The Crows' traditional homeland was the Yellowstone River Valley and a generous swath of land surrounding it. They were bordered on their west and north by the Blackfeet, on their south by the Cheyenne, and their east by the Sioux, all of whom were very territorial and warlike peoples. Wars between the tribes were common. And as they became more common, they evolved into something sophisticated and formal, something almost game-like, with their own rules and reward system.
The mid-1600s to the late 1800s was an era of warriors and war chiefs. A warrior’s greatest honor, and thus his greatest aspiration, was to become a war chief. But this was no easy task. To become a war chief a Crow warrior had to complete four different war deeds. One, be the first warrior to touch an enemy during a battle. Two, take away an enemy’s weapon. The third war deed was particularly tricky — steal an enemy’s horse. The fourth war deed was to lead a successful war party. These were the Crows' four war deeds, and the other Plains Indian tribes had the same, or similar, rules for becoming a war chief.
A tribe would have had one main leader, also called a chief, but this was different than being a war chief. A tribe could have — and often did have — many war chiefs — all the men in the tribe who had completed the four war deeds.
Medicine Crow is the last Plains Indian warrior to complete all four war deeds, something he did as an Army scout in World War II.
Medicine Crow was inducted into the army at Fort Douglas, Utah, in 1942. “Naturally, I thought about the famous warriors when I went to Germany,” says Medicine Crow. “I had a legacy to live up to. My goal was to be a good soldier and to perform honorably in combat. But I did not think in terms of (attaining war deeds). Those days were gone, I believed.”
Medicine Crow, an Army scout in Company K, 411th Infantry, 103rd Division, earned his first war deed — leading a successful raid against the enemy — when he led a group of seven men across no-man’s land to retrieve dynamite that would later be used to blow up guns and pillboxes when the Americans pushed the Germans off the Siegfried Line.
Crossing the open ground was treacherous. For one thing, the ground was covered with land mines, some of which the engineers had marked, but there were plenty more that they hadn’t. Second, they’d be crossing open ground, exposed to German gunfire.
Medicine Crow led his men to the threshold of no man’s land, and the Americans threw smoke screen shells onto it to give them cover. Medicine Crow led his men into the smoke. “The Germans realized something was happening, so they began lobbing mortar rounds in our direction,” says Medicine Crow. They ran crouched low to the ground so they could see the small flags marking the land mines, says Medicine Crow.
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