In traditional Crow culture, warlike endeavors were key to becoming a chief and leader. Four acts of bravery and display were considered prerequisites for leadership; their achievement reflected divine guidance and grace. First, one had to be the first to strike or touch the enemy in battle. There could be only one first striker in a battle, and the race to attain that honor created the fury of the attack on the enemy.
Second, one had to take a weapon from the enemy in battle. With the coming of gunpowder, the taking of a rifle was a prime honor.
Third, one had to take a horse in battle, either from the enemy horse herd or, better, from the doorway of the owner’s lodge.
Fourth, one had to lead a successful war party and demonstrate leadership prowess in a demanding situation. The achievement of all these honors qualified one to be a chief, but it remained for the camp, the clan, the band, or other group to select its leader from the pool of eligible candidates. The head or principal chief was selected by a council of chiefs.
Joseph Medicine Crow joined the army, becoming a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division. Whenever he went into battle, he wore his war paint beneath his uniform and a sacred eagle feather beneath his helmet. Medicine Crow completed all four tasks required to become a war chief.
(1) He touched a living enemy soldier when he turned a corner and found himself face to face with a young German soldier.
(2) The collision knocked the German’s weapon to the ground. Mr. Medicine Crow lowered his own weapon and the two fought hand-to-hand. In the end Mr. Crow got the best of the German, grabbing him by the neck and choking him. He was going to kill the German soldier on the spot when the man screamed out “Momma.” Mr. Crow then retrieved the German’s rifle and let him go.
(3) He also led a successful war party and
(4) stole an enemy horse, (actually 50 of them), making a midnight raid to steal the horses from a battalion of German officers. As he rode off, he sang a traditional Crow honor song.
In the last days of the war, Joseph Medicine Crow helped liberate a concentration camp in Poland. He and his commanding officer drove a jeep through the front gates.
He is the last member of the Crow tribe to become a war chief.
Joseph Medicine Crow was also made a Knight in the French Legion of Honor, was the first person in his tribe to go to college and graduated with a Masters Degree in anthropology. He received three honorary PhDs, authored nearly a dozen books on native american military history, stayed married to the same woman for over 60 years, and has been the official historian of the Crow tribe for more than 60 years.
In August of 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honor awarded to American civilians – for his combined military service and all the work he has done to help improve the lives of the people of the Crow people. The 95 year-old Medicine Crow personally led the ceremonial dance after the presidential ceremony.