TNB Night Owl – Joseph Medicine Crow

Warriors on horseback.
Warriors on horseback. Image captured by the News Blender.

Joseph Medicine Crow was born in 1913 on the Crow Reservation in Montana, near the town of Lodge Grass. He personally knew four of the six Crow indian scouts who had served in the 7th Cavalry under General George Custer, and was considered the last living person to have heard first-hand oral accounts of the battle of Little Big Horn (1876) between the famed cavalry regiment and a Native American alliance of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. (The Crow had sided with the United States because larger tribes, particularly the Lakota, had been invading and taking Crow land for decades).

His paternal grandfather was a greatly respected Crow war chief, who trained Joe in the ways of Crow warriors. He learned to ride horses bareback, to hunt, to fight, and to endure harsh conditions. He was also taught honor, and about ‘counting coup’. Counting coup was a tradition among Plains indian tribes, the act of which earned a warrior prestige. It required the warrior to touch his enemy but not kill him. He could make contact with a hand or a stick (a ‘counting stick’) but he had to escape the encounter uninjured. Counting coup was the first of four feats a Crow warrior had to achieve in order to become a ‘war chief’. The four acts of bravery were:

Touch an enemy without killing him
Take an enemy’s weapon
Lead a successful war party
Steal an enemy’s horse

Joe learned all of his tribe’s traditions and skills before he began high school in 1929, when he enrolled in a college preparatory school in Oklahoma. After high school he went on to become the first member of his tribe to go to college and the first to earn a graduate degree. Joe studied sociology and psychology at Linfield College in Oregon, graduating in 1938. He then earned a Masters degree in Anthropology from the University of Southern California in 1939, and then did much of the work required for a doctorate degree before being interrupted by the United States’ entry into the Second World War.

Joe enlisted in the US Army and became a scout assigned to the 103rd Infantry ‘Cactus Division’. A sacred eagle feather to wear inside his helmet was given to him by a “sundance” medicine man. The feather held a spirutual significance to Crow warriors. Whenever he went into combat, he had red stripes – war paint – on his arms underneath his uniform, also of special significance to a Crow warrior.

The 103rd ID arrived in France in October, 1944, and saw its first action in early November. In December and January the division was up against the Siegfried Line, Germany’s last line of defense. At some point during this time, Joe’s commanding officer directed him to lead a squad of seven men to attack a heavily fortified position and destroy it with explosives. Joe and his squad fought their way to the enemy position, evading heavy machine guns and artillery, planted the explosives and blew up their objective. Incredibly, no member of the squad was injured. The entire effort was witnessed, earning Joe the Bronze Star medal. (After the war, he was also awarded the French Légion d’Honneur). Better than the medals, the courageous act also counted as leading a successful war party.

Once the 103rd had pierced the Siegfried Line, the division was fighting inside German territory. In one town, Joe was ordered to go down an alley to get around and behind some German defenders. Running down the alley, he saw an open gate that looked like it would put him where he’d been told to go. As Joe ran through the opening, a young German soldier was running out. They collided hard, slamming helmets one into the other. Joe, toughened by his warrior training, reacted by knocking the German’s weapon from his hands. He then pointed his rifle at the unarmed German intending to shoot him dead. Perhaps at that moment his sense of honor dissuaded him from killing the young man. Instead, he put down his own rifle and hand to hand combat ensued. At one point the German had him down, but Joe turned the tables and began choking his enemy with his bare hands. The young German cried out for his mother, and Joe’s sense of honor, it seems, once again kicked in. He let the young man go, but he had touched an enemy without killing him and taken an enemy’s weapon. That left only one more act of bravery outstanding.

As a scout, Joe was usually out in front of his unit acting as the eyes and ears of the division. One day, he saw horses and riders in the distance. Using binoculars he identifed them as Germans, and decided to follow and see where they went. The men stopped at a farmhouse where they corralled the horses, about 50 of them, and went inside. Joe reported this to his superiors. Intelligence determined the Germans were SS officers, a valuable target. After night fell, the farmhouse was surrounded. At dawn the farmhouse would be attacked and destroyed. Coming from a horse culture, Joe didn’t want harm to come to the animals, so he asked his captain permission to sneak in and stampede the horses out of harm’s way. Permission granted, that’s what he did, bareback and with a warrior’s shout. Joe had stolen an enemy’s horses.

After the war, Joe was surprised when the Crow elders learned of his accomplishments in the war and he was named Crow War Chief.

He became the Crow tribe historian and anthropologist. Among his many accomplishments he wrote several acclaimed books. He remained married to his wife of sixty years until her death in 2009.

War Chief Joseph Medicine Crow passed away in 2016 at the age of 102.

This video appears to be an excerpt from Ken Burns’ documentary “The War”. “Medicine Crow War Chief Story” (8:43):

Question of the Night: Have you ever visited a reservation, or known/befriended a Native American?

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About Richard Doud 117 Articles
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