Born in 1913 on the Crow Reservation in Montana, Joseph Medicine Crow was raised in the warrior tradition of his people — which he put to good use while serving in France and Germany.
When Joe Medicine Crow died in 2016, he was the last living Plains Indian war chief, ending a tradition that stretched back hundreds of years.
Becoming a war chief was not easy — and even less so after the U.S. government had all but eradicated the Indigenous way of life on the Great Plains. The feat required passing four tests, including touching a living enemy, stealing an enemy’s weapon, and successfully leading a war party. Finally, a person had to sneak into an enemy camp to steal a horse.
Generations of men passed this test and became war chiefs. But the last feat became all but impossible as Native Americans were forced onto reservations and horses slowly disappeared from the battlefield in the 20th century.
And yet Joe Medicine Crow managed to accomplish all four tasks almost by accident, and in a place few members of the Crow Nation had ever visited. He earned the honor fighting Nazis in Germany with the U.S. Army.
Joe Medicine Crow’s Warrior Upbringing
Born on the Crow Reservation in Montana in 1913, Joe Medicine Crow learned the traditions of the Crow Nation from an early age. His grandfather, White Man Runs Him, had been a scout for General Custer prior to the Battle of Little Bighorn. His other grandfather, Chief Medicine Crow, was a revered war hero.
Joe grew up hearing stories about Crow warriors. He learned to ride horses bareback, survive the harsh Montana winters, and hunt game. Joe also heard how his ancestors had become celebrated warriors and war chiefs.
As he grew older, his tribe’s history inspired Medicine Crow to study history and anthropology in college. And in 1939, he became the first member of the Crow Nation to earn a master’s degree. But on his way to a doctorate, Medicine Crow left the University of Southern California to volunteer for the Army.
Joe Medicine Crow came from a long line of Crow scouts. The Army recognized his skills and assigned Joe to scout for the 103rd Infantry Division in 1943. And by the end of 1944, he was in France, pushing the Nazis back to Germany.
Joe Medicine Crow In World War II
Before battles, Joe Medicine Crow painted two red war stripes on his arms in the Crow tradition, hidden under his uniform. He also carried a yellow eagle feather into battle. The sacred feather came from a Sun Dance medicine man.
Fighting across France, it seemed unlikely that Joe Medicine Crow could pass every test to become a war chief. But somehow, he did.
During a raid in a small French town, Joe found himself alone in an alley with a German soldier. Medicine Crow used his rifle to knock the German’s gun to the ground, thus taking a weapon from an enemy. He was also able to take the German as a prisoner of war, touching a living enemy.
As an infantry soldier, Joe rarely led missions. But during a dangerous moment when German soldiers surrounded Joe’s company, his commanding officer put Joe in charge. He had to brave land mines, enemy fire, and overwhelming numbers of enemy soldiers to bring ammunition back to his company.
Joe Medicine Crow took on the challenge and successfully led seven men in the mission, saving the company.
At that point, Joe had completed three of the steps to become a war chief. But how was he going to steal horses from the Nazis?
The Nazi Horse Raid
Horses and modern warfare seem incompatible. The rules for becoming a Plains war chief had been created for a different type of battle than American troops faced on the front lines of World War II.
But even modern armies relied on horses to transport artillery and in cavalry units. And although the Nazi army was famously mechanized, some companies still relied on horses because of their limited access to oil.
During the chaotic German retreat in the war’s final days, Medicine Crow tracked Nazi SS troops fleeing on horseback. The loud clopping on the road made it easy for Joe to follow the men.
“We followed their trail in the moonlight and arrived at a villa,” Joe recalled. “We came there and found a little pasture with a barn.”
Joe’s company surrounded the barn in the early morning hours, ready to attack — until Joe came up with an idea for the horses.
He told his commanding officer, “Maybe I should get those horses out of the corral before you attack, because some of those SS guys might be able to escape on them.”
With his commanding officer’s consent, Joe snuck toward the corral. He quickly created a bridle from a short rope, the same way Crow warriors had done for centuries. And then Joe leaped on a horse and rode away, creating a stampede of 50 more horses and causing chaos in the Nazi ranks. And just as Joe made it out of firing range, his Army division started launching artillery shells.
As Joe Medicine Crow rode back to his camp, he began singing a Crow praise song.
“I sang this song a little bit and rode around the horses,” Joe said. “The horses looked at me. Finally, I left them in the woods.”
By the time Joe returned to the farmhouse, the Germans had surrendered. Used to covering long miles on his feet, Joe decided to stay on his horse a while. “It was good, better to ride than walk.” But a mile down the road, his commander said, “You better get off. You make too good a target.”
When Joe Medicine Crow returned home after the war, the elders named him a war chief.
Joe Medicine Crow’s Medal Of Freedom
Joe Medicine Crow became a war chief for the Crow. He also earned a Bronze Star and the French Legion of Honor for his service.
In 1948, Joe became the official Crow Nation historian and anthropologist. He taught younger generations about the Battle of Little Bighorn and Crow traditions. He even wrote the script for reenactments of the Battle of Little Bighorn that is still used today. And it’s based on oral histories he was told as a child.
And in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom. Then 95 years old, Joe Medicine Crow performed a ceremonial dance after receiving the medal. Joe died in 2016 at the age of 102.
To this day, the only other Crow soldier who has come close to achieving the four feats of valor necessary to become a war chief is Joe Medicine Crow’s nephew. During the Vietnam War, Carson Walks Over Ice served as a Green Beret and managed three requirements. But he was unable to snag a horse.
“I did get two elephants, and that should have counted for something,” Carson Walks Over Ice said. “But the elders did not see it my way.”