Dr. Joe Medicine Crow, the last of the Plains war chiefs, has died today, aged 102, according to a report from BBC. Medicine Crow, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009, fought in World War II after receiving his master’s degree in anthropology, the first member of the Crow Tribe to obtain a master’s.
According to the Billings Gazette, Medicine Crow died in a Billings, Montana hospice center, as per Big Horn County Coroner Terry Bullis.
After the war, in which Medicine Crow performed the four war deeds required to be named a war chief (including wrestling a weapon away from an enemy soldier), he returned to the Crow Reservation in Montana, where he dedicated much of his time to preserving and cataloging the history of the Crow people. When he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the White House said that “his contributions to the preservation of the culture and history of the First Americans are matched only by his importance as a role model to young Native Americans across the country.”
He also did lecture tours into his 90s, until his hearing and eyesight faded. “When you spoke with Joe Medicine Crow, it was impossible not to be inspired,” tweeted Montana senator Jon Tester in response to his death.
Medicine Crow was born on October 7, 1913, and was the official Crow Tribe historian. Part of the history that he was preserving was the Crow Tribe’s warrior tradition, citing the story of a great warrior, No Vitals, who had a vision that the Crow people would need strength to fend off other tribes and the European invasion.
“The great spirits said, ‘I am going to make you warriors, strong and cunning. Kids train to be warriors right from toddlers. We were a war-faring people.”
Belgrade artist Ben Pease, a member of the Crow Tribe (and Northern Cheyenne Nations) who had painted Medicine Crow’s portrait last year, posted a farewell to his Facebook page.
“To hear of an elder passing always takes a little more out of you. Grandpa Joe Medicine Crow: You’ve given us all so much to live by, learn from, and teach to new generations! Enjoy your journey to the Other Side Camp.”
In 1939, Medicine Crow saw a flyer advertising for extras in a movie based on Custer’s Last Stand – after he volunteered for the movie, called They Died with their Boots On, the director assigned him to the script writing department, much to his consternation – he didn’t like it, but “they were paying good money.” He was later fired for saying that Custer “jumped the gun and got 265 soldiers killed.” He told the producer that he was getting an important part of history wrong; he’d go on to write his own account of the battle, 25 years later. He also wrote the script for the reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Medicine Crow was, in fact, a prolific writer. His master’s thesis, The Effects of European Culture Contact upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians, is still one of the most cited works on Crow culture, and he has several published books to his name. Those works range from texts on Crow history and culture to children’s stories.
Joe Medicine Crow will be greatly missed; his contributions to the Crow Tribe, and the cultural and historical awareness of America at large, are beyond compare.
[AP Photo/Beck Bohrer]