A former rodeo cowboy, rancher, anthropology professor, and World War II veteran known for wearing protective feathers and war paint into battle, Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow High Bird, 96, of Montana’s Crow Indian tribe received the nation’s highest civilian honor this summer—the Presidential Medal of Freedom. U.S. Senators Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Jon Tester (D-MT) nominated the professor, who lives in Lodge Grass, and he was awarded the medal at a White House ceremony along with Senator Edward M. Kennedy (who was too ill to attend), physicist Stephen Hawking, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and several other luminaries.
We spoke with the Crow’s sole surviving War Chief for his nearly 100 years of perspective on the West and to hear why First Ladies like to kiss him.
We hear that you were quite a horseman in your prime. Can you tell us about that?
The Crow were once regarded as the finest horsemen in the West. Each man would own over 100 head of horses, so when I was a little boy I started riding. In fact, when I was still in the cradle, my grandmother would tie my bundle to a saddle horn. So horses were my babysitters.
I also used to be a racehorse jockey when I was a small boy. Later, I tried to become a calf roper, but I didn’t do very well. I was sitting in third at the end of one rodeo, but the last roper, my neighbor, knocked me out of the money by one second. (laughs)
At one end of our reservation on Pryor Mountain [in the northern Big Horns] there are a bunch of so-called “wild Indian horses”—mustangs.
I still have a horse. I quit riding, but I like looking at horses. After WWII I went into the cattle business with my uncle.
Speaking of WWII, is it true that you earned coups in Germany that earned you the designation of War Chief?
Yes, I captured German horses. You know, during the days when the best part of the West had not been taken over by whites yet, horses were very important. When a cowboy would take a horse from someone else, they’d string him up. But when an Indian gets horses in enemy country, he gets a war deed—a coup—for his bravery.
In WWII, I noticed a German camp and went over there after dark and took all their horses away from them. Just before dawn, before we attacked, I opened the gate and stampeded 50 horses out of there and left those Germans afoot. For that, Crow elders gave me a war deed. But they only gave me one. They should have given me 50! (laughs)
Some people would call me a horse thief, but my people regard this as an act of bravery, as a capture.
I achieved each of the four war deeds to become a chief: touching enemy, capturing his weapon, capturing horses, and leading a successful war party without losing a man.
What do you remember most vividly about WWII? Any anecdotes stick out in your mind?
They say war is hell. Some say it is worse than hell…I saw some sickening sights I’ll never forget, like the stacks and stacks of emaciated corpses of Jewish prisoners.
I believe that my grandfather Yellow Tail prepared and taught me to become a good and brave warrior. When I was born, the intertribal war days had been over some 30 years, and my grandfather taught me how to read tracks, to listen and see far away, and to watch the movement and activities of the animals, for they tell you what is going on out there. He taught me to be a good runner, a good swimmer, a good hunter. And he taught me winter survival. Every morning, he would tell me to run around through the deep snow naked and roll in the snow, twice and many more times. He would also take me to the river, cut a hole in the ice for the horses, and put me in the river.
My grandfather taught me to be a good soldier. I could see the Germans far away, hear them talking, and even smell them eating sauerkraut a mile away. Three years of dodging bullets, mortars, and grenades never hurt me.
Your grandfather was a scout for the U.S. Army at the Battle of Little Big Horn, but it was the Lakota and Cheyenne who defeated General Custer. What is the historic relationship between these rival tribes?
Since the early 1800s, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoes had been allies with the Lakota in their persistent attempts to conquer the Crow and take their good country. They never succeeded and generally got whipped.
What was the subject or purpose of the song you sang at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in Washington?
Senator Obama had been to the Crow reservation during his campaign, and I took him aside and said: “You are now in Crow country. And because you are on a campaign, I am going to sing you a power song to be successful.” We Crow elders sing songs like this to give people power for war deeds in enemy country. I told him “Go now, be brave, and come back in victory. When you have moved into the White House, I will come there to sing you a victory song.” After he took office, I was summoned to Washington D.C. to receive the award. At that time I sang the victory song.
I didn’t know, of course, that he would be a successful candidate, but I went ahead and predicted victory. That was my way of endorsing him. He shook our hands, and he was appreciative.
I also reminded him that Mr. and Mrs. Black Eagle had adopted him and that they had given him the Crow name Helps Everyone. We are very fortunate that the Crow have good connections with Washington.
We hear that Michelle Obama took a liking to you at the awards ceremony.
(laughs) After we met the president, after our presentation, we moved into another part of White House, sort of a reception area. The president and I had become well acquainted by now, so I reminded him that he’d been adopted into my clan. I think that made him quite pleased. And I told him that as long as he’s president, I expected that the Crow people would always be well received in Washington.
Then an interesting thing happened, after I sang the victory song. His wife came up and planted a kiss on my left check, so I didn’t wash my face for a while. (laughs) Lady Bird Johnson also kissed my left cheek. I met her on a visit to Montana. So, I have the distinction of getting kissed by two First Ladies.
What does being awarded the Medal of Freedom mean to you personally?
Last year, France awarded me the Legion of Honor. Now my own country, the United States of America, has followed suit and given me its highest honor, as well, I am quite pleased to have received this great honor.
Having seen so much in your lifetime, what do you find to be most encouraging for future generations?
Indians must keep and use their assigned reservations. Indians must preserve their cultural ways; they must exercise cultural persistence! At the same time, people must adapt the best of the white man’s ways and avoid the bad.