Joseph Medicine Crow, 1913-2016

April 6, 2016 • 9:15 am

by Greg Mayer

This past Sunday, Joseph Medicine Crow, the last war chief of the Crow Nation, died at the age of 102 in Billings, Montana. His passing has been widely noted in the media, and one of the tributes I heard on Monday noted that his life and exploits ‘spanned centuries’. This might seem something obvious to say of a centenarian, but in fact he linked not just the 20th and 21st centuries, but also the 19th: raised in the traditional manner by Crow elders, he grew up steeped in the ways of the warrior culture of the second half of the 19th century, and may well have been the last living person whose knowledge of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (aka Custer’s Last Stand) came from intimate contact with participants in the battle.

Joseph Medicine Crow, last war chief of the Crow Nation, 1913-2016.
Joseph Medicine Crow, last war chief of the Crow Nation, 1913-2016.

His grandfather was a Crow war chief, and his step-grandfather was the famed Crow warrior White Man Runs Him, who fought with Custer at the Little Bighorn. (This might at first seem paradoxical, but the Crow were traditional enemies of the Sioux, and generally fought with the U.S. Army against the Sioux.) He became a war chief because, while serving in the U.S. Army in Europe in World War II, he achieved all the deeds required for a Crow to be esteemed a war chief: he led a war party, he touched a living enemy in combat, disarmed an enemy in combat, and stole enemy horses. The last deed is a very improbable event in modern warfare, and, unless Crow rules change, why it is unlikely there will be another war chief. The stories are best told by Medicine Crow himself, in the following clip from Ken Burns’ film series, The War; but I must mention the most moving part. Having vanquished a German soldier in hand to hand combat, Medicine Crow was about to kill him by choking, when the German uttered what would have been his last words, “mama, mama”. “That word, ‘mama’,” said Medicine Crow, “opened my ears”; he let the German go.

But Medicine Crow was not just a warrior. He was an historian and anthropologist of academic note, studying at Linville College and the University of Southern California. He became the tribal historian, participating in many activities associated with the historic interpretation and commemoration of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009.

Being interested in American history, and having read several books on the Battle of the Little Bighorn last winter, I am somewhat chagrined to admit that I did not know of Joseph Medicine Crow until his passing. In addition to White Man Runs Him, who was family, he also knew the Custer scout Hairy Moccasin, and the most famous of the Indians who accompanied Custer, Curley (Ashishishe). The scouts with Custer, while enlisted in the Army, were not required to participate in the fighting (although they often, by choice or force of circumstances, did so). As they approached what would become the battlefield, Custer’s Crow scouts were released by Mitch Boyer, his half French, half Sioux, guide and interpreter. Curley, however, stayed longer with the soldiers, and witnessed the opening of the fighting on the Custer battlefield. White Man Runs Him and the others headed back along the trail, and soon joined into fighting alongside the remainder of the 7th Cavalry (the group commanded by Marcus Reno that survived).

Mitch Boyer. Attached to the 7th Cavalry, he died with Custer at the Little Bighorn.
Mitch Boyer. Attached to the 7th Cavalry, he died with Custer at the Little Bighorn.

Curley had long been lauded as the only survivor of that part of the 7th Cavalry that rode with Custer, but later was discredited, even by other Crows. John Gray, in his masterful Custer’s Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed, has through careful analysis been able to make sense of the varying accounts, and has shown that Curley’s account was truthful and consistent– he was not in the battle, but stayed with Custer long enough to see its early stages and Custer’s opening disposition of his men. (Most of Curley’s reports have been gathered together by Graham [1953]).

Gray’s book, half of which is a fascinating biography of Mitch Boyer, is also a marvel of historical detective work, finding an unlikely number of contemporaneous documents, and also showing how difficult the history of that time and place can be to unravel. Up until at least the early part of the 20th century, few Indian warriors spoke English, even fewer soldiers spoke an Indian language, and translated accounts often passed through interpreters with a point of view. Careful historical analysis can help pierce the fog of incomprehension; and so, too, could fluently bilingual historians like Joseph Medicine Crow.

Graham, W.A. 1953. The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custeriana. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa.

Gray, J.S. 1993. Custer’s Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Philbrick, N. 2010. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Viking Penguin, New York.

Scott, D.D. 2013. Uncovering History: Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Utley, R.S. 2001. Custer: Cavalier in Buckskin. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

26 thoughts on “Joseph Medicine Crow, 1913-2016

  1. I remember that episode of Burns’ documentary. Thanks for reprising it and adding more material.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks, Greg.

    I can’t help chuckling over the names Hairy Moccasin and Curly, though. Sound like 2 of the three Stooges.

  3. The stealing horses part of being a war chief would be quite late in Crow history – horses did not reach the central plains until the period ca. 1720-50, & many of those tribes that exploited the plains with the horse were pushed west by the knock on of European expansion, so if the ‘tradition’ was only 150 years old at most, surely it could change again?

    Haines, Francis
    American Anthropologist, 1938, Vol.40(3), pp.429-437

    Anything more recent on that?

    1. Unless of course the tradition dated back to when their ancestors wiped out the horses several thousand years before.

      1. The US Army still has units of the Seventh Cavalry. They are part of the First Cavalry Division. Maybe the Crow could steal their helicopters? Might not count though, nicking rides from your allies.

        — I’m assuming the Seventh Cavalry still have helicopters. They used hueys back when my dad used to occasionally bump into them during his time in Vietnam.

    1. Horse is probably a metaphor now, or should be seen as such. Healthy traditions should change with the times. Great post, nonetheless.

  4. If you are interested in the Crow, a really good book (available for as little as a penny + postage at Amazon)is “Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior.” Two Leggings lived most of his life at the end of the 19th century and told his story to an anthropologist early in the 20th. Peter Nabokov (University of Wisconsin) took the manuscript and turned it into a very readable biography.

  5. Thank you! I wish my husband had been here to read this. He had read much about Custer’s Last Stand and we had visited the battlefield
    a number of times. The hubris of Custer becomes even more obvious when seen from battlefield sites. When you see some of the cul-de-sac locations where dozens of soldiers died without being able to get away, it is very sad. People with metal detectors have gone all over the battlefield and have detected shell casings that can be identified as army issue or from native weapons. The progress of the battle can be followed by this evidence. The U.S. treatment of the Indians was shameful.

  6. We can add country and western singer Merle Haggard to the list. He passed away today on his 79th birthday.

  7. As a kid and well into my teens the North American Indian was alway the antagonist killing and scalping, how did this happen. Hollywood cowboy movies, thats how. It still gauls me now how misrepresented these proud people were portrayed but ironicly it was a movie The Little Big Horn with Dustin Hoffman and the book Centennial by James Mitchener that I felt a semblance of truth was being writen and shown for mainstream consumption. This was well before the internet and in NZ to which I am refering to, so it was with sadness I read your post.

    1. I can recommend:

      Indian Country by Peter Mathiessen
      The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick
      Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt
      Winter Count by Barry Lopez
      Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer (of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe)

  8. I loved Philbrick’s The Last Stand an entirely unsentimental analysis and history of the battle of the Little Bighorn, and what led up to it.

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