Thursday 19 July 2018

Obituary: Joe Medicine Crow, Indian war chief

Indian war chief decorated for bravery who regaled Custer's 'Last Stand'

Honour: US President Barack Obama awards Joe Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009
Honour: US President Barack Obama awards Joe Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 Newsdesk Newsdesk

Joe Medicine Crow, who has died aged 102, was a descendant of Lt-Col George Custer's favourite scout; a war chief and historian of the Crow nation of American Indians; and one of the last links with those who fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn of July 1876, when Custer and 263 of his men died in a "Last Stand" against the Plains Indians.

Inspired by his ancestors' martial spirit, Medicine Crow enlisted for active service in the US army during World War II. Under traditional tribal rules, to qualify as a 'pipe carrier' (war chief), a Crow warrior must accomplish four acts of bravery in battle: touch an enemy without hurting him; take an enemy's weapon; lead a successful war party without losing any followers; and capture an enemy's horse. As a scout with the US 103rd Infantry in Europe, wearing war paint under his army uniform, Medicine Crow achieved all four, including setting off a stampede of 50 horses from a stable run by the Nazi SS.

His bravery earned him the US Bronze Star and the French Legion d'honneur. More importantly, he became the only living member of his tribe whose wartime exploits qualified him to be a war chief - with the name of High Bird.

Crow country once sprawled over 30 million acres of Wyoming and Montana. Today, the reservation has been reduced to 2.3 million acres. Yet while the perils of unemployment, alcoholism and illiteracy have taken their toll on other American Indians, the Crow tribe has proved resilient. Tribal elders argue that is because the Crows were never conquered. In his best-known book, From the Heart of Crow Country (1992), Medicine Crow highlighted the tribe's decision to establish friendly ties with white settlers, based on a 100-year-old prophecy that resistance would lead to disaster, and an 1825 treaty with Washington that was consummated by the ritual touching of a knife blade to tongues.

The alliance with the white man also had something to do with the old enmity between the Crow and the Sioux and Cheyenne, which led the tribe to side with the US authorities in the so-called Great Sioux War of 1876-7. Medicine Crow maintained that during that conflict, the Crow saw themselves as using, rather than being used by, the whites.

The cause of the conflict, of which the Battle of Little Bighorn was one of many skirmishes, was the desire of the US government to obtain ownership of the Black Hills of South Dakota, where gold had been discovered, but which had been confirmed as belonging to the Sioux under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. As white settlers began to encroach, the Sioux and Cheyenne, under the leadership of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his warrior, Crazy Horse, refused to cede ownership. One government official complained that they "set at defiance all law and authority" and the US army, the report went on, would need to "whip them into subjection".

George Custer became a mythic figure, glorified in highly fictionalised accounts of the Last Stand. Six Crow scouts served in his ranks and witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn, when Custer led a force of some 700 men in an attack on several thousand encamped Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho warriors. Four of the scouts, including Joe Medicine Crow's great-uncle, White Man Runs Him, rode with Custer's column while two others rode with Major Marcus Reno.

As they prepared for the battle, the scouts were said to have warned Custer that the enemy was too numerous, but were ignored. When the scouts changed out of their blue uniforms and donned tribal regalia, "to die as Indians," an angry Custer released them from duty. Medicine Crow recalled White Man Runs Him telling him, "we looked back and saw Custer still fighting" on a distant slope to the north.

All of Custer's Crow scouts survived the war, which ended in 1877 in victory for the US, and all except one lived into the 1930s. So Joe Medicine Crow, born on the reservation at Lodge Grass, Montana, on October 27, 1913, knew them well, listened to their stories, and walked the battlefield with them.

He was brought up by maternal grandparents in the Crow warrior tradition at a time when life for the Crow people was extremely tough. The tribe was down to about 2,000 members, devastated by disease, hunger and government attempts to suppress their traditional way of life.

Told by a tribal chief that only education would make him the equal of the white man, he became the first male member of his tribe to go to college, taking a degree in Sociology and Psychology from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, in 1938, followed by a master's degree in Anthropology from the University of Southern California in 1939.

After the war, he returned to the reservation where he worked as a land appraiser with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although designated tribal historian by the Crow tribal council soon after returning from the war, it was only after his retirement that he began writing in earnest, transforming the stories he had been told as a child into nearly a dozen books on the Crow tribe's pre-reservation way of life and history.

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