Episode 41 - The Last War Chief

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Joseph Medicine Crow was born near Lodge Grass, Montana on October 27, 1913 as a member of the Crow nation Whistling Water Clan to his parents Leo Medicine Crow and Amy Yellowtail. His Crow name was Winter Man. Joe’s father died in 1915, but Joe had a large family that helped raise him and he would take turns staying with different relatives. Sometimes he would stay with his father’s parents, Chief Medicine Crow and Medicine Sheep. Chief Medicine Crow was both a war chief and a medicine man who taught Joes that to become a war chief in the Crow nation, you had to complete four coups or tasks: lead a successful war party, steal an enemy’s weapon, perform a counting coup or touch your enemy non-fatally and then escaping unharmed yourself, and steal an enemy’s horse. Joe also grew up listening to war stories from his grandmother’s brother, White Man Runs Him, who was a scout for George Armstrong Custer before the Battle of Little Bighorn.

When he was around six or seven years old, Joe’s maternal grandfather Yellowtail started to train Joe to become a warrior. During the winter, he was made to go outside and run around the snow-covered plains without any shoes on. He would also make Joe take a cold bath every single morning. During the winter that meant that Joe’s grandfather would cut holes in the ice that covered the Little Horn River to let his horses drink and then Joe would have to jump in the ice hole after the horses were done drinking.

Joe would spend his summers catching wild colts and breaking them and then racing his horses against other Crow kids. When he was eight years old, Joe’s grandfather entered him into a horserace without a saddle or reins. Joe lost, but after that Joe got a saddle, reins and won every race that he entered.

When he was not training to become a young Crow warrior, Joe was also attending traditional American school. Before 1904, Crow children were sent to United States government boarding schools that were often extremely far from their homes. There they would be punished for speaking their language or practicing Crow traditions and many children became sick and died. In 1904, the Crow elders of Lodge Grass asked the Baptist Indian Mission Board in Sheridan, Wyoming to build a school in Lodge Grass so that the children could attend school and stay with their families. The Mission Board agreed to build a school, but they would build a Baptist church in Lodge Grass as well. Joe was raised by attending a Christian school and church while also being able to practice Crow traditions and religion.

After attending the Christian tribal school for a few years, Joe’s family was upset that he wasn’t receiving an effective education and enrolled him in the public school in Lodge Grass. There he learned English, math, and writing.

In the evenings, elders of the tribes would come over to grandfather Yellowtail’s home and tell stories for hours. Some were war chiefs that came to tell Joe about old war stories of Crow heroes, and some were women that would tell stories about the tribe’s history. Joe lived to sit and listen for hours at night, soaking in the history of his people.

Because of racism, many Crow students went to boarding schools instead of attending the public high school in Lodge Grass. So instead of attending public high school, Joe attended Bacone in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1929. There he received his high school diploma in 1934 and then attended the junior college there and received his associates of arts degree in 1936. While there he took part in several extracurricular activities including several sports including boxing and track. He made the honor roll and one of his professors convinced him to enroll in a four year college for his bachelors degree.

Joe enrolled Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon and graduated in 1938, which made Joe the first male Crow member to receive a bachelor’s degree. The first female Crow to receive a bachelor’s degree was Joy Yellowtail who had graduated from a school in California a year earlier. Joe had graduated with a bachelors in sociology and psychology. Joe then enrolled in a master’s program for anthropology at the University of Southern California. Joe graduated from USC with his master’s degree in 1939 and his thesis was “The Effects of European Culture Contact Upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.” Earning his masters degree meant that Joe was the first Crow tribe member to ever receive a graduate degree.

That same year, Joe was auditioned for a part in Errol Flynn’s movie about General Custer titled “They Died with their Boots On.” Instead, Joe was asked to be on the writing crew for the movie. When asked by the director if Joe knew anything about Custer’s Last Stand, Joe told him all about the stories his great Uncle would tell him as a boy. When Joe mentioned that his great uncle thought that Custer was foolish for attacking before reinforcements showed up, the director became upset with Joe and told him that he was fired and to leave immediately. The movie was supposed to build up the public’s confidence in US troops as World War II loomed on the horizon for America.

Joe then started on his Ph.D. program at USC, but that was cut short when the United States entered World War II. Joe later said, “My Uncle had other plans for me… Uncle Sam that is.” Joe went to enlist in the army in 1941. While signing up, Joe was told that he could follow a path to become an officer because of his education. He told the recruiting officer that he would rather follow his grandfather’s footsteps by starting as a young soldier and then working his way up through the ranks to a war chief. Joe later said that was the biggest mistake he ever made since the US Army had very different rules to military promotions than the Crow tribe.

Joe’s first job was as a clerk for the first couple years. Then when America needed more foot soldiers to invade Germany, Joe was moved to the front lines. Joe made sure to bring a yellow-painted eagle feather that had belonged to a Shoshone Sun Dance Chief and had been passed to him from his Uncle. Before going into battle, Joe would place the feather inside of his helmet. He would also paint red war paint on his arms under his shirt. When he could not find red paint, he would use a red pencil. Joe credited his spiritual medicine in protecting him when an artillery shell exploded right next to him, killing about half a dozen of soldiers that were right next to Joe and knocked Joe off the cliff he was standing on. When he came to, he found that he was not injured except for a couple of bruises.

During the Allies big push into Germany from France, Joe was part of the 103rd Infantry Division as a scout. Now the German/French border was heavily-fortified with gun bunkers, trenches, moats, and artillery that was known as the Siegfried Line and the Allies had to break through that to get into Germany. During one battle, Joe’s commanding officer told him to get a team of seven other soldiers to run up a hill covered in snow and barbed wire that was constantly being bombarded with artillery fire. Joe was to lead the other soldiers to an American held position that had several boxes of dynamite. Once they got the dynamite back to the rest of the group, they would take that dynamite to the Germany’s pill boxes and blow them up. Before Joe left, his commanding officer said Chief “if anyone can do this, it’s probably you.” The soldiers staying back started throwing smoke screen shells into the field so that Joe and his guys could have cover.

The Germans figured that something was happening behind all that smoke and started lobbing mortar shells into the field. Joe and all his guys safely made it to the dynamite. Each box of dynamite weighed about fifty pounds, so Joe and the other soldiers each got a box of dynamite and then sat on it and started sledding down the snow-covered hill. The Germans were still lobbing mortar shells and hand grenades at the hill, but they all made it back with the dynamite. The men then used the dynamite to blow a hole in the Siegfried Line that allowed the infantry to advance through. Joe received a Bronze star for his bravery and completed his first coup of becoming a war chief: leading a successful war party on a raid. I read that somewhere there’s a photograph of Joe leading the charge and jumping through the breach in the wall, which would have made him the first American soldier on German soil, but I couldn’t find any other sources to back that up or the photograph.

Joe was able to go back to France for a couple months after that and rest. He was then ordered to back to Germany and the crossed over the border into a small German village. They were supposed to approach the town from the rear while other soldiers were approaching from the other side of town. Joe and his platoon started to make their way through a dark alley to get behind German fortifications. As Joe was running through the alley, he saw a gate that led to the main street. He decided to go to the gate to get a peek of the fighting that was going on in the main street. All of a sudden, Joe ran head on into a German soldier that was coming from the other direction. The two crashing together made the German fall to the ground. When the German went to reach for his rifle, Joe kicked it out of his reach. Joe then jumped on top of the German and started choking him out. The German started yelling “Hitler Kaput” and calling out for his mother while crying. This tugged at Joe’s heart strings and he decided to take him as a prisoner of war instead of killing him.

Joe had just completed two more coups: capturing an enemy’s weapon and touching an enemy without killing him. There was just one more coup left before Joe could become a war chief: steal an enemy’s horse.

In early 1945, Joe and other men from his company were on a scouting mission behind enemy lines when they cam upon a small farm that had about 50 SS officers staying there. There was also about 50 horses staying in a small pasture right next to the barn that the SS officers had ridden in on. When Joe’s commanding officer met with platoon leaders to discuss their plan for attacking the farm the next morning at daybreak, Joe said “Sir, I think I should I get those horses out of the corrals before we attack, because some of those SS guys might try to escape on them. It would only take me about five minutes.” The commanding officer said “Ok Chief. You’re on.” Joe and another soldier snuck into the corral roped one of the horses. He then mounted a horse and had the other guy open the gate. Joe then let out a Crow war cry and all of the horses started running out of the corral. Joe led the horses to some woods nearby and then he heard gun shots going off back at the farmhouse. Joe rode back to help take the SS officers as prisoners while singing a Crow praise song. After leaving the farmhouse, his commanding officer let him ride the horse for about a mile before he told him that he better get down because he made too good of a target.

Near the end of the war, Joe was sent to Poland. While there, locals told him and his unit about a concentration camp nearby. Joe hopped in a jeep with his commanding officer and drove to the camp. As soon as the German guard saw them coming, he opened the gates of the camp to them and they just drove in. They were met by a Jewish inmate wearing a green and white pajamalike outfit. SS officer began to run away, but they were caught and the camp was liberated.

Joe was discharged from the army on January 10th, 1946. Along with his bronze star, Joe also earned the French Legion of Honor. When Joe returned to Montana, a huge reception was held for him. Drummers sang the War Honor song of Joe’s grandfather Chief Medicine Crow and Joe danced. Joe was then asked to recite his war deeds. After telling his stories, Joe was declared a Crow war chief. Joe received a new name from his tribe, High Bird and also received his own war honor song. The words of the song go “High Bird, you are a great soldier. High Bird, you fought the mighty Germans. High Bird, you counted coup on them. High Bird, you are a great soldier.”

In 1948, Chief Medicine Crow became the tribe’s historian and anthropologist which made him responsible for keeping the tribe’s stories alive. He began to write down stories and collect photographs of people from his tribe. Chief Medicine Crow wrote several books including “Crow Migration Stories”, “From the Heart of Crow Country”, and a children’s book titled “Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.”

In 1951, Chief Medicine Crow started working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He became a founding member of Little Bighorn College and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Chief Medicine Crow wrote a script that is used to perform a reenactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn held every summer in Hardin, Montana. Chief Medicine Crow traveled to lecture at several universities and also the United Nations in 1999.

Chief Medicine Crow received honorary doctorates from Rocky Mountain College in 1999, University of Southern California in 2003, and Bacone College in 2010. On August 12, 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Chief Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor awarded in the United States. He received the award for the combination of his military service and all the public work he accomplished to improve the lives of the Crow people. Chief Medicine Crow led a ceremonial Crow dance after the ceremony.

Joseph died on April 3, 2016 in Billings, Montana at the age of 102. That made him the last surviving person to have heard first person oral accounts of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn and more than likely the last ever Crow war chief.


“Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond” by Joseph Medicine Crow

“The War: Joseph Medicine Crow” a Ken Burns film

“Badass of the Week: Joe Medicine Crow” by Ben Thompson

“Medicine Crow Honored for WWII Service” by Becky Shay

“The Last War Chief” by Robin A. Ladue

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