The Last Crow War Chief

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This episode is the story of a man, who if you don’t know his name, you probably should: Joe Medicine Crow. 

Joe Medicine Crow was a scholar, an author, a historian, a spokesperson, and a warrior. In fact, he was the last person to have earned the title of War Chief in the Crow Nation, and he earned that title in a way you probably wouldn’t imagine.

Hear his fascinating and inspirational story on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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Joseph Medicine Crow was born on October 27, 1913, on the Crow Indian Reservation in southcentral Montana. He was born into a prestigious family in the Crow Nation.

His father was Leo Medicine Crow, a chief in the Crow Tribe and who became a war chief himself at the age of 22. His grandfather was White Man Runs Him who served as a scout for General Custer and was witness to the Battle of Little Big Horn. 

Prior to World War II, he became the first member of the Crow nation to earn a post-graduate degree when he earned his Masters Degree from the University of Southern California in 1939. His thesis was The Effects of European Culture Contact upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians, which became one of the go-to documents on the culture of the Crow Tribe.

He had completed his course work for his Ph.D. by 1941, but the start of the war put his plans on hold. 

He took a job as a teacher and then worked in a shipyard before joining the Army in 1943.

In the military, he was assigned as a scout to the 103rd Infantry Division in the 6th Army Group. As a scout, his job was not to engage in direct combat with the enemy. Scouts are reconnaissance units. Their job is to go ahead of the main unit and get information about the enemy. While they have mostly the same equipment as standard troops, their job is to get information, not necessarily to fight. 

At this point, it is necessary to explain what is required to become a Crow War Chief. War chief is an honor that is earned, not given. To become a war chief, you have to accomplish four acts of bravery in the course of combat. All four must be completed to be granted the title of War Chief.

The four things are:

1) You must touch an enemy during battle, without killing them. This is also known as counting coup. 

2) You must take an enemy’s weapon. 

3) You must successfully lead a war party and must return alive after the completion of the mission.

4) You must steal an enemy’s horse.

Achieving all four of these things are difficult to do even if you engaged in battle on the Great Plains, but most people would have thought it to be especially hard, if not impossible, to achieve in a mechanized war in Europe. 

While fighting in the war, Joe kept his heritage and traditions with him the entire time. Before going into combat, he would apply red war paint to his arms, beneath his uniform, and he would keep a sacred yellow-painted eagle feather in his helmet, which was given to him by a “sundance” medicine man before he left for Europe.

Joe completed the first of the four tests when his unit was advancing on the Siegfried Line. The Siegfried Line was the German Defensive fortification which lined the German border from Switzerland to the North Sea. It was heavily fortified with concrete bunkers all along the border. 

His unit was facing entrenched German forces. His commanding officer gave him instructions to lead a small group of seven soldiers to assault the bunker, blow it up with TNT, and then go through the opening to allow the rest of his unit to advance through. It might have been a suicide mission, but Joe’s commander thought he was the only person who could do the job.

Joe advanced with his men under fire and managed to take out the bunker with the explosives. 

There is a legend that when Joe rushed through the opening they created, he became the first American in World War II to set foot on German soil, but that is a tale impossible to confirm. 

With this mission, Joe completed the first of the four requirements in becoming a war chief. Despite being a scout, he managed to successfully lead a war party and return alive.

He was awarded a Bronze Star gallantry for his actions in clearing the German Bunker. 

The next step occurred as his unit was advancing through Germany. As they were moving through a German village, Joe became separated from his unit. He was rounding a corner when at the exact same time a German solider was rounding the same corner. 

They unexpectedly collided with each other, bumping helmets. Thinking fast, Joe grabbed the German’s rifle and threw it to the ground. Dropping his own weapon, he began a hand-to-hand fight with the solider. Joe eventually gained the upper hand, choking the soldier. As life was leaving the German soldier, he began to call out for his mother. 

This act of the German soldier calling out for his mother caused Joe to break his chokehold, and he allowed the solder to run away. 

…However, he still had the German’s rifle which he took from him at the start of the fight. 

Joe had completed two more of the War Chief requirements. He touched an enemy without killing them, and the took an enemy’s weapon. 

The fourth and final requirement of stealing a horse seemed impossible. 

There just weren’t that many horses on the western front. Contrary to popular belief, the Germans actually did use a large number of horses in World War II, but it was mostly on the Eastern Front. Maybe that will be a topic for another episode someday.

As they moved through Germany, Joe’s unit happened upon a farm where senior German SS officers were holed up. The camp had 50 thoroughbred racehorses in a corral. The unit was going to attack the camp in the morning, but that evening Joe made a request to his commanding officer to sneak in before the attack to get the horses out before the shooting started. 

That morning before the attack commenced, Joe snuck into the camp armed with nothing but a rope and his Colt 1911 pistol. As the guards were inside one of the buildings, he went up to what he thought was the best horse, used the rope as a bridle, and mounted it barback.

He then managed to stampede all 50 horses out of the open gate of the corral. As soon as he was clear, his unit opened fire. As he rode away, he began singing a Crow song of praise. 


Against all odds, he managed to achieve the fourth and final requirement to become a Crow War Chief. 

When he returned back to his tribe in Montana, he was given a hero’s welcome. The elders wanted to hear about his war stories, and as he was telling them the story of stealing the horses, the elders realized that he had complete the requirements to become a War Chief. Joe hadn’t even realized he had done it until then. 

Joe’s exploits in the war were only the beginning of a remarkable life.

Joe became a spokesperson for the Crow Nation and a noted historian. He was given the title of Keeper of Memories for this tribe. He was an author of many books about Crow history and culture. He was also a popular speaker on the subject of the Battle of Little Bighorn, passing on the oral stories told to him by his grandfather. 

He was granted three honorary doctorates. In 1999 he was invited to speak in front of the United Nationa. In 2008 he was granted the Legion of Honor in France for his actions in World War II, and in 2009 he was granted the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States

Joe Medicine Crow passed away in 2016 at the age of 102. He was the last plains Indian ever to earn the title of War Chief. 

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Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Makkyla. 

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