The Coup-Counting Centenarian

Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow made an indelible mark on the West.
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Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow made an indelible mark on the West.
Credit: AP Images Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow became the tribal historian and anthropologist, authoring a number of books about the Crow tribe.

Credit: AP Images Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow became the tribal historian and anthropologist, authoring a number of books about the Crow tribe.

Born in the fall of 1913 on the Crow reservation near Grass Lodge, Mont., Joseph Medicine Crow was raised to be a warrior. Before he could walk, his grandmother would tie Joseph, in his bundle, to the saddle horn of her horse, ensuring that Joseph’s life would continue in the tradition of exceptional Crow horsemen. Then, as a young boy, Joseph began training as a warrior, under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather, Yellowtail. The training was year-round and, even during Montana’s freezing winter months, Joseph would be seen running barefoot through the snow and being dipped into fishing holes cut in the ice on the Little Horn River. 

When reporters came to interview his paternal grandfather, Chief Medicine Crow, about his days scouting for Gen. Custer, Joseph was their interpreter, making him, in his later years, the last living person to have directly received the oral history of the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Growing up and hearing the stories of Custer’s scouts and the Crow relations with other plains tribes and the U.S. government caused Joseph to develop a deep appreciation for education, and he went on to become the first Crow not only to graduate from college, but to earn his master’s degree in 1939. 

The start of World War II soon followed and Joseph volunteered for the 103rd Infantry Division, and was stationed in France. It was there, of all places, that he was able to count coup—or, complete the four traditional war deeds—as required to become a Crow war chief. Donning red war paint and a sacred, yellow-painted eagle feather under his uniform, Joseph managed to steal a weapon from the enemy; lead a successful war party; touch the enemy; and, perhaps his most unlikely endeavor, steal a horse from the enemy. While scouting, Joseph saw Nazi troops riding a ridge and followed them to their barn. Just before dawn, he fashioned a war bridle from a piece of rope using a double half-hitch, and drove the enemy’s herd out, singing a war song as he rode.

Upon returning to the reservation, the elders recognized Joseph’s deeds and named him a war chief. He soon became the tribal historian and anthropologist and authored a number of books about the Crow tribe and its history and culture, as well as speaking throughout the country—from local schools to the United Nations and the White House. He received honorary doctorates, and in 2008 was awarded the Bronze Star and the French Legion of Honor. Later that year Joseph Medicine Crow was nominated for the Gold Congressional Medal of Honor, and in 2009 he traveled to the Washington D.C., to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the country—at a ceremony in which the president called him a bacheitche, or, in Crow, a good man. 

Joseph Medicine Crow died in the spring of 2016, at the age of 102