Saturday 10 December 2016

Last surviving war chief Joe Medicine Crow dies aged 102

Published 04/04/2016 | 02:06

President Barack Obama leans away to avoid the headdress as he presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Joseph Medicine Crow (AP)
President Barack Obama leans away to avoid the headdress as he presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Joseph Medicine Crow (AP)

Joe Medicine Crow, the last surviving war chief of Montana's Crow Tribe, has died aged 102.

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The acclaimed Native American historian died on Sunday, Bullis Mortuary funeral home director Terry Bullis said.

A member of the Crow Tribe's Whistling Water clan, Medicine Crow was raised by his grandparents in a log house in a rural area of the Crow Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana.

His Crow name was "High Bird," and he recalled listening as a child to stories about the Battle of Little Bighorn from those who were there, including his grandmother's brother, White Man Runs Him, a scout for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

His grandfather, Yellowtail, raised Medicine Crow to be a warrior. The training began when Medicine Crow was just six or seven, with a punishing physical regime that included running barefoot in the snow to toughen the boy's feet and spirit.

Medicine Crow in 1939 became the first of his tribe to receive a master's degree, in anthropology.

He served for decades as a Crow historian, cataloguing his people's nomadic history by collecting first-hand accounts of pre-reservation life from fellow tribal members.

"I always told people, when you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you're shaking hands with the 19th century," said Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Indians.

During the Second World War, Medicine Crow earned the title of war chief after performing a series of daring deeds, including stealing horses from an enemy encampment and hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier whose life Medicine Crow ultimately spared.

"Warfare was our highest art, but Plains Indian warfare was not about killing. It was about intelligence, leadership, and honour," Medicine Crow wrote in his 2006 book Counting Coup.

Soon after returning from the European front, Medicine Crow was designated tribal historian by the Crow Tribal Council.

With his prodigious memory, Medicine Crow could accurately recall decades later the names, dates and exploits from the oral history he was exposed to as a child, Mr Viola said.

Those included tales told by four of the six Crow scouts who were at Custer's side at Little Bighorn and who Medicine Crow knew personally.

President Barack Obama awarded Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

During the White House ceremony, Mr Obama referred to Medicine Crow as "a good man, a 'bacheitche' in Crow".

The president said: "(His) life reflects not only the warrior spirit of the Crow people, but America's highest ideals."

In the years leading to his death, Medicine Crow continued to live with his family in Lodge Grass. His wife died in 2009. Even after his hearing and eyesight faded, Medicine Crow continued to lecture into his 90s on the Battle of Little Bighorn and other major events in Crow history.

Press Association

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