The last Plains Indian war chief still fights for his home, his people and their way of life

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 9:51 a.m. MDT

Joe Medicine Crow stands outside his home in Lodge Grass, Mont., in October 2012. (Steven Law) Joe Medicine Crow stands outside his home in Lodge Grass, Mont., in October 2012. (Steven Law)

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.

President Barack Obama awards Joe Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in August 2009. (Courtesy Custer Battlefield Museum) President Barack Obama awards Joe Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in August 2009. (Courtesy Custer Battlefield Museum)

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.

Joe Medicine Crow plays a traditional Crow war song on his drum for President Barack Obama and the first lady after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2009. (Courtesy Custer Battlefield Museum) Joe Medicine Crow plays a traditional Crow war song on his drum for President Barack Obama and the first lady after being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2009. (Courtesy Custer Battlefield Museum)

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.

Somehow Medicine Crow and all six men safely crossed no man’s land and reached the French Maginot Line, where they procured seven boxes of dynamite from the French. Medicine Crow then led his men back through the same no man’s land, this time each one carried a 50-pound box of dynamite. Again the Americans threw smoke shells to provide cover, and again the Germans, suspecting something was happening in there, lobbed mortars into it. All seven men made it back safely.

Medicine Crow didn’t realize it at the time, but he had just accomplished his first war deed: leading a successful war party and bringing back everyone safely. The dynamite was later used to blow up German pillboxes and guns after the Americans seized the Siegfried Line.

Medicine Crow accomplished his second and third war deeds two months later, in March 1944, when he played an integral role in capturing a German village.

While the main American force attacked the German-occupied village from the front, Medicine Crow’s assignment as scout was to sneak into the town from the rear and assess the position of the German troops and artillery. Medicine Crow entered the rear of the village without being noticed, he wrote later.

While sneaking through the village, Medicine Crow came face to face with a German soldier. The German soldier started to raise his rifle, but, says Medicine Crow, “my reactions were a bit quicker than his. I hit him under the chin with the butt of my rifle and knocked him down, sending his rifle flying. He reached for his rifle but I kicked it out of the way.”

The disarmed German soldier was at Medicine Crow’s mercy. “All I had to do was pull the trigger,” says Medicine Crow. But in order to maintain his secret presence in the rear of the village, Medicine Crow laid down his rifle and “tore into him.”

The German soldier, who was quite a bit larger than Medicine Crow, soon had him down on the ground, but Medicine Crow, who had been in dozens of playground fights during his public school days, knew just what to do. Medicine Crow rolled him over and grabbed him by the throat. “I was ready to kill him,” he later wrote.

“Then his last words were ‘Mama! Mama,’ ” says Medicine Crow. “That word, ‘Mama’ opened my ears, and I let him go.”

Medicine Crow and the German soldier had kicked up quite a ruckus during their fight, and Medicine Crow escaped through the rear of the village before more Germans came to investigate the noise.

Fighting the German soldier counted for two Crow war deeds. The first was knocking down an enemy, the second was disarming an enemy, which he did when he knocked the rifle out of his hands.

And still, Medicine Crow didn’t think of his accomplishments as war deeds. The war deed days were too long past, Medicine Crow says. “It didn’t even cross my mind that what I had done had been a war deed.” But he did view it as a brave deed that would have made his war chief grandfathers proud.

Medicine Crow didn’t accomplish his fourth war deed — capturing an enemy’s horse — until near the end of the war. Among the Crow this was the most respected of the four war deeds. “Even though I wasn’t thinking about counting coup, I had been looking for a chance to capture a horse,” Medicine Crow says. “To me that was the best thing I could do to prove I was worthy of my ancestors.”

Toward the end of the war, Medicine Crow’s unit started following a group of about 50 of Hitler’s SS officers who were on horseback. About midnight, Medicine Crow recalls, the SS officers took over a farmhouse and left their horses in a pasture outside. “We surrounded the small village, and the farmhouse, and we were going to attack early in the morning,” says Medicine Crow. “I was sitting there with the C.O. and finally towards morning I said, ‘Captain, I have an idea. If you give me five minutes, before jump-off, I’ll stampede their horses.’ ” His commanding officer agreed that it was a good idea.

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.

Many of the Crow tribe saw the preservation of their way of life as a battle and they were honored to have a legitimate war chief, a man proven on the battlefield, as the leader of this fight.

Medicine Crow, having grown up with one foot on the reservation and one foot in the white man’s world, and having succeeded there, was uniquely positioned to help his people move forward, says Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian, who has worked closely with Medicine Crow preserving Crow history. “Many Crow Indians didn’t want their children to be educated because they were afraid they would lose their traditional Crow values. Much of what Medicine Crow did for his people was just being a good role model.”

As tribal spokesman he gave hundreds of speeches and lectures — some of them to U.S. government officials championing the needs of his people. Other speeches were to his own people describing to them their glorious past as something to be proud of.

Medicine Crow was the Crow tribal historian for more than 50 years, writing what Viola calls “some of the most influential works about Indian history and culture. He realized early on he needed to preserve and pass on this information.” He has written six books documenting, and preserving, a large section of Crow history.

He has also gathered numerous oral histories from older generations, single handedly preserving a large section of Crow history and stories that otherwise would have been lost forever.

Later in his life, Medicine Crow began being officially recognized for his many life contributions. President Barack Obama awarded Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom — America’s highest civilian award — for his contributions as historian, author, anthropologist, veteran and the last living Plains Indian war chief. He also was awarded the Bronze Star for his acts of heroism on the battlefield during World War II. In 2008, France awarded him the Legion d’honneur, in recognition of the time he traversed the mine field while under enemy fire to retrieve the explosives needed to blow up the German bunkers on the Siegfried Line.

Throughout his long, illustrious life, Medicine Crow has taken many forays into the white man’s world, but he has always returned to his home at the heart of the Crow Reservation in Lodge Grass, where, like the soldier and war chief that he is, he continues his fight to protect his home, his people and their way of life.

Steven Law most often writes science stories for KSL.com. If you'd like to see some of them go to www.curiosity101.com.

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