Last Crow tribe war chief and Linfield grad dies

Elizabeth Stoeger, Staff Writer

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Chief Joseph Medicine Crow, a 1938 Linfield graduate and revered Native American historian and anthropologist, died April 3 at a hospice center in Billings, Montana. He was 102.

Not only did Medicine Crow receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2009, he was also the first member of the Crow tribe to receive a Master’s degree.

Medicine Crow, or “High Bird” in the Crow language, was born Oct. 27, 1913, on the Crow reservation.

He completed his undergraduate studies in sociology at Linfield in 1938 and his master’s in anthropology from the University of Southern California a year later. His studies focused on the impact of European culture on Native Americans.

Medicine Crow spoke fondly of his time at Linfield though times were tough and he had to scrub pots and pans for the dining hall as well as work as a janitor in Pioneer Hall.

While at school, he lived off campus with several friends including Jerald R. Nicholson, whom the library was named after. Their friendship lasted a lifetime.

Medicine Crow was awarded an honorary doctorate from USC in 2003. Along the way, he collected numerous honorary degrees from a variety of universities and, in 2015, had a middle school named after him.

He began work on a dissertation in the early 1940s, but felt compelled to serve in the Army in Europe during the war.

While serving, he accomplished four of the traditional deeds that earn Crow members “war chief” status, making him the last to do so.

After the war, he was named the official tribal historian by the Crow Tribal Council and worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 32 years.

Medicine Crow worked as a Crow historian for over 50 years and wrote some of the seminal works on Native American history and culture.

Crow was the last surviving connection to the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

“He is the last person alive to have received direct oral testimony from a participant in the Battle of the Little Bighorn: his grandfather was a scout for General George Armstrong Custer,” said the White House in a statement when he won the Medal of Freedom.

He gathered first hand accounts of the battle from four of Custer’s six Crow guides.

Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said, “I always told people, when you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you’re shaking hands with the 19th century.”

An irrepressible story-teller and advocate for Native American history, Medicine Crow inspired not only Crow tribe members to be proud of their heritage but taught the American public its moving history.

“Dr. Medicine Crow dedicated much of his life to sharing the stories of his culture and people. And in doing so, he helped shape a fuller history of America for us all,” said President Obama in a statement.

Nina Sanders, a member of the Crow tribe, for the online publication of the Smithsonian said, “Through all of the phases of our lives, he encouraged us to be brave, to be better, to get educated, stand for what is right, and live a life of honor.”

His wife of over 60 years, Gloria Medicine Crow, passed away in 2009.

He is survived by his son Ronald Medicine Crow. Ronald said, according to the Billings Gazette, “He was my everything. I don’t think I will be able to fill his boots because he was able to accomplish so much in his history.”

In his 2009 interview with Linfield communications director Mardi Mileham for the Linfield Magazine Medicine Crow said, “There is a middle line that joins two worlds together. I walk that line and take the best from each and avoid the worst. I’ve lived a good, well-balanced way of life.”