Joseph Medicine Crow, a renowned Native American chief and historian, died on Sunday at the age of 102.
Medicine Crow was the last living war chief of Montana’s Crow tribe, a distinction he earned by accomplishing four traditional war tasks while serving in the US Army during World War II.
With his death, the US loses an invaluable historical resource — Medicine Crow was the last link to the famous Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
In 2009, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, and continued to speak on Crow history until his death.
Here’s Medicine Crow’s unbelievable story:
Joe Medicine Crow was born on the Crow Indian reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana, in 1913.
Medicine Crow's step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, was one of six scouts for George Armstrong Custer during the general's 1876 expedition against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne.
The expedition culminated in the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of 1876.
The connection made Medicine Crow the last living person to have heard direct oral testimony from someone involved in the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Medicine Crow was raised in the Crow warrior tradition.
Starting when he was 6 years old, older relatives would challenge him to gruelling physical tasks, such as running barefoot through snow to toughen his feet and bathing in frozen rivers.
Medicine Crow described his tribe as a 'war-faring people,' and looked up to his paternal grandfather, Chief Medicine Crow.
'He was considered the bravest warrior of all time. So he was also my inspiration to follow in his footsteps. He kept training me to become a warrior,' Joe Medicine Crow said in Ken Burns' 2007 documentary 'The War.'
Medicine Crow became the first of his tribe to attain a college degree when he graduated from Oregon's Linfield College in 1938.
The next year he earned a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California. His master's thesis was titled 'The Effects of European Culture Contacts Upon The Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.'
'I wanted to prove to people, not only to Indian people, but people in general, that an Indian is capable of becoming a good college student,' Medicine Crow told Linfield Magazine in 2009.
'People said that Indians are just too dumb, they are not capable of getting a college education. I wanted to disprove that.'
Medicine Crow joined the US Army in 1943 and became a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division that fought in Europe.
Whenever he entered battle, he wore his war paint under his uniform and a sacred yellow eagle feather beneath his helmet to shield him from harm.
During his service, Medicine Crow completed the four tasks required to become a Crow war chief:
- Touch a living enemy soldier
- Take an enemy's weapon
- Lead a victorious war party
- Steal an enemy's horse
He accomplished two of the tasks in a tense one-on-one standoff against a German soldier during a village raid.
'I swung my rifle to knock his rifle off his hands,' Medicine Crow said in 'The War.'
He then said he dropped his rifle and started to strangle the German.
'I was ready to kill him,' he said. 'Then his last words were 'mama, mama.' When he said that word 'mama' it opened my ears. I let him go.'
He completed his final task by stealing 50 horses from a battalion of German SS soldiers who had taken over a farm, singing a traditional Crow honour song as he rode off.
In 2009, President Barack Obama presented Medicine Crow with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the country.
'His bravery in battle earned him the Bronze Star from America, the Legion d'honneur from France, and in 2009, I was proud to honour him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom,' Obama said in a statement on Monday, according to the Washington Post.
'Yet I suspect his greatest honour was one he earned from his people: the title of war chief -- the last Crow to hold that distinction.'
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