Medicine Crow was a mighty war chief amongst his people, the Crow.
The Apsáalooke. The Children of the large beak bird.
They’re a people who came down out of the great lake’s region of what we now call Ohio, ages ago, pushing west onto the great plains as they lay claim to some of the most beautiful land on God’s green earth. The Yellowstone river valley, extending up from Northern Wyoming into Montana, and east to where the mouth of the Yellowstone meets the great Missouri river.
This was a land that provided the Crow with all they needed to flourish. Buffalo, antelope, game of all kind. Mountains, and streams and valleys, and ample grass for their massive herd of horses. A herd that, by some accounts, was greater than that any other plains tribe.
This was also a land that provided the Crow with all the enemies anyone could ever hope for. They were virtually surrounded by their enemies.
The Sioux and Cheyenne, the Blackfeet, the Pawnee, the Ute, and the Arapaho all tested their young men by sending them against the great Crow Nation. And in doing so tempered the Apsáalooke into a fighting force to be reckoned with.
A nation that grew warriors. But not every warrior held the coveted title of War Chief, as did the man we’re discussing today, Medicine Crow.
As the great poet Meek Mill once said, “there’s levels to this shit” and to become a War Chief meant meeting certain requirements. Four requirements, to be precise.
You have to have led a successful war party, for one. Demonstrating your leadership abilities.
You have to have stolen an enemy horse, demonstrating your cunning and resourcefulness.
You have to have disarmed an enemy in battle, which I can only assume demonstrates your combat prowess.
And finally, you had to count coup on an enemy.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, counting coup means - at least my understanding of it - to strike or touch your enemy.
One could count coup simply by rushing in and touching the dead body of the first opponent to fall in battle. Physically striking a living combatant is also considered counting coup.
Striking, not killing.
You count coup with your coup stick, a club, a rifle, your bow, even your bare hands. The tool doesn’t matter so much as the act.
It’s a feat of courage.
I guess the idea is any damn body can pick off someone at a distance with a rifle or an arrow. But it takes balls to rush in and touch your enemy. Like playing tag with a grizzly bear. That’s counting coup.
Shows you’re not afraid to die. Or To put your life at risk for the sake of honor.
This warrior we’re discussing today, this Medicine Crow, once met two of these requirements in one fight. He came face to face with a white man on the field of battle, forcibly disarming the man and then laying his own weapons down as he proceeded to strike out and count coup.
But he didn’t kill the man, he left him alive to tell the tale.
Medicine Crow also led men into combat. Once leading seven other warriors on a successful raid behind enemy lines.
And, just like many Crow warriors before him, he did steal an enemy’s horse.
Not just one, mind you. But a whole herd of ‘em. Came upon his sleeping enemy, walked silently amongst the horses, made a sort of bridle out of a rope - Indian style - tying it into a double half hitch as he quietly mounted a good looking sorrel and proceeded to stampede the rest of the herd - some fifty odd head - singing a Crow song as he rode away.
Pretty cool, I think. Hearing about these old warriors and the things they did while on the warpath. But what makes this warrior Medicine Crow’s story really interesting isn’t just his actions, at least not just in and of themselves. The counting coup or the stealing of horses or leading successful raids or disarming his enemies. Nah, while impressive, these were things that warriors of the Crow Nation had been doing for generations.
What sets Medicine Crow apart is the fact that while he wasn’t the first of his people to do these things and earn the title of War Chief, he was the last.
His feats of daring and courage didn’t take place on the wind-swept prairies of Dakota territory or at the foot of the Big Horn mountains 200 years ago. They took place in Europe, during World War 2, when Joseph Medicine Crow was serving as a member of the 103rd infantry division. And the enemy he faced weren’t the ancestral enemies the Lakota or Blackfoot. It was a Nazi that Joe counted coup on. And it was a herd of SS horses that he made off with, going into battle with war paint under his fatigues and a sacred yellow painted eagle feather under his helmet, gifted to him by a Sun Dance Medicine Man.
Born in Lodge Grass, Montana in 1913, Joe Medicine Crow was taught the traditional ways of a Crow Warrior by the old breed, men like his grandfather Yellow Tail. Or his step Grandfather White Man Runs Him. Themselves war chiefs, they taught Joe to fast and seek visions, had him run in snow and bath in frozen rivers. Exercises in endurance. Both physical and spiritual endurance. And most of all they educated Joe, told him stories of the warriors who went before him, of men who fought and died for their people.
It was with such training, such tradition, that Joe Medicine Crow deployed to Europe during the second world war.
“We were a warfaring people” he said, speaking of the Crow. "Naturally, I thought about the famous warriors when I went to Germany. I had a legacy to live up to.”
And live up to it he did, earning the title of war chief just a little over 70 years ago, helping to liberate the world of Nazi.
But you’d be wrong to think that Joe’s only accomplishments in life stemmed from war or that his legacy was summed up in just a few short years in the European theatre. Far from it.
You see, not only was Joe Medicine Crow the last of the war chiefs, but he was also a first. The first of his people to earn a graduate’s degree, obtaining his masters in anthropology from the University of Southern California in 1939.
Not too bad for a kid who grew up on a reservation. He would later say of his education “that, to me, was a personal challenge. I wanted to prove to people, not only to Indian people but people in general, that an Indian is capable of becoming a good college student. People said that Indians are just too dumb, they are not capable of getting a college education. I wanted to disprove that.”
Joe was the last of his breed, that bridge that connects the past to the present day. A walking talking living history book. So, it was only fitting that he was appointed tribal historian and anthropologist. As a strong proponent of education, Joe also served continuously as a board member and officer of the Crow Central Education Commission.
Joe was also a founding member of the Little Bighorn College and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
He held three honorary doctorates and was as a frequent speaker at universities and even spoke before the United Nations in 1999. And in August of 2009 Joe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the highest civilian honor awared in the United States Of America - by President Obama.
Joe may have proved his courage during the second world war, but he spent the rest of his life proving that the most powerful weapon a man can possess is the mind. "With education", he once said, "you’re the white man’s equal. Without an education, you’re the white man’s victim."
Powerful quote from a powerful man. And Joe Medicine Crow certainly wasn’t anyone’s victim. Not the white man nor the Nazi’s.
Sadly, we lost Joe about 4 and a half years ago. He passed away in Billings, Montana on April 3rd, 2016 at the age of 102.
Rest in Peace, Sir.