The last Plains Indian war chief still fights for his home, his people and their way of life
Medicine Crow was no stranger to horses, and his horsemanship was excellent. He had grown up riding horses. “During the summer we all rode horses,” he writes in "Counting Coup," a memoir of his World War II days. “We’d spend a lot of time out in the hills catching colts and yearlings and breaking them. We also raced our horses. We’d race each other all summer on the straightaway benches, the areas of flat land out in the hills.”
Early the next morning, before sunup, Medicine Crow left to capture the SS officers' horses. He brought one other soldier with him, to open the gate. There were guards stationed outside the farmhouse. It was a dangerous thing to do, he says. “If they would have spotted me, they could have easily shot me.”
Medicine Crow crept past the guards in the darkness, crawled up to the horses and found one that he liked. “I told him, ‘Whoa whoa,’ ” says Medicine Crow. He made an Indian bridle from a rope he had brought with him for that purpose.
“I got on it, rounded up the other horses and I stampeded them out of there,” Medicine Crow recounts with a laugh.
The job of the soldier that Medicine Crow had brought with him was to open the gate when he heard Medicine Crow whistle. As Medicine Crow stampeded the horses in the direction of the gate, he gave the signal and the soldier opened the gate. “Then I gave a Crow war cry, and those horses took off,” Medicine Crow says.
Medicine Crow says it was the proudest moment of his life. “When we reached the woods and the horses started to mill around, I did something spontaneous,” says Medicine Crow. “I sang a Crow praise song and rode around the horses. I felt good. I was a Crow warrior. My grandfathers would have been proud of me.”
Germany surrendered in May 1945, and Medicine Crow was discharged from the Army the following January and returned to his home in Lodge Grass, Mont.
When Crow soldiers returned home after serving in World War II, their relatives would host a grand reception in their honor a week or two later, says Medicine Crow.
“When I stepped into the hall, the drummers sang the war honor song of my grandfather Chief Medicine Crow,” Medicine Crow later wrote. “I danced around the floor with my relatives dancing behind me. Then several elders who were still familiar with intertribal military traditions requested my recital of my war deeds. This request took me unawares as I had never thought about my activities on the battlefield as ‘war deeds,’ except when I captured the horses.”
With his tribe gathered in his honor, Medicine Crow recited his experiences as a soldier in Germany. He told them about his hand-to-hand fight with the German soldier, about his mission on the Siegfried Line to retrieve the boxes of dynamite, and he told them about capturing 50 horses from German SS officers.
When he finished telling his war deeds, the elders declared, “You have done it! You have done the four deeds! You are a war chief!” says Medicine Crow.
Prior to the war, Medicine Crow had graduated from Linfield College with a degree in sociology, and he had started his master’s degree in anthropology from USC. After the war, Medicine Crow returned to USC and completed his master’s degree. After receiving his master’s degree, the Crow nation offered him a position as their spokesman and historian.
Medicine Crow returned home to Lodge Grass and began his new career as Crow spokesman and historian. Medicine Crow’s youth growing up on the Crow Reservation was a turbulent time of forced transition for his people as the U.S. government tried to abolish their way of life. They were encouraged to attend Christian churches and white men’s schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native language. Their festivals, traditional gatherings and powwows were also forbidden. But, says Medicine Crow, the Crow did them anyway, in secret.
Medicine Crow saw his people’s efforts to preserve their traditions, their language and their way of life as a good thing, certainly not something to be outlawed and abolished, and now he was in a position to say so and do something about it. He used his influence as spokesman and as the last war chief to champion the rights of his Crow people.
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