Medicine Crow, one of the last links to Battle of Little Bighorn, dies at 102

An encounter with Crow, who as small children heard firsthand stories of Custers Last Stand from his great-uncle, was like shaking hands with the 19 th century

Joseph Medicine Crow, the acclaimed Native American historian, second world war veteran and last subsisting conflict chief of Montanas Crow tribe, has died aged 102.

Medicine Crow, who was raised by his grandparents in a log house in a rural area of the Crow Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana, wore his war paint beneath his second world war uniform.

As a child, Medicine Crow listened to stories about the Battle of Little Bighorn the conflict that pitted federal troops led by Lt Col George Armstrong Custer against native Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. He translated for his great uncle, White Man Runs Him, when white reporters came to interview him about the combat, and would go on to become a lifelong emissary between the Crow community and white Americans.

His grandfather, Yellowtail, developed Medicine Crow to be a warrior. The education began when Medicine Crow was just six or seven, with a penalise physical regimen that included running barefoot in the snow to toughen the boys paws and spirit.

As Crow tradition had it, in order to become a chief a male had to command a conflict party, enter an enemy camp at night and steal a horse, wrestle a weapon away from his enemy and touch the first enemy fallen, without killing him.

Thousands of miles from where the code was conceived, on the battlefields of Europe, Medicine Crow became the last person to meet the conditions. Wearing a yellowish eagle plumage tucked inside his helmet, he contended hand-to-hand fighting with a German soldier, whose life was spared, and set off a stampede of 50 horses from a Nazi stable, while singing a traditional Crow chant as he went away.

I never got a scratch, he recalled about 60 years later.

Warfare was our highest art, but Plains Indian warfare was not about killing. It was about intelligence, leadership and commendation, Medicine Crow wrote in his 2006 volume, Counting Coup.

He was my everything, his son Ronald Medicine Crow told Billings Gazette, a Montana and Northern Wyoming website. I dont belief I will be able to fill his boots because he was able to accomplish so much in his history.

Joe was a true-life American hero, replied Darren Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow tribe. He was a great male in two worlds.

Medicine Crow was awarded the presidential award of freedom, the highest commendation awarded to a civilian in the US, by Barack Obama in 2009.

[ His] life shows is not simply the warrior heart of the Crow people, but Americas highest principles, Obama said during the ceremony.

In 1939, Medicine Crow became the first of his tribe to receive a masters degree, in anthropology. He provided for decades as a Crow historian, cataloguing his folks nomadic record by compiling firsthand accounts of pre-reservation life from fellow tribal members.

I always told people: when you convene Joe Medicine Crow, youre shaking hands with the 19 th century, replied Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of American Indians.

With his prodigious remembrance, Medicine Crow could accurately remember decades later the epithets, dates and exploits from the oral record he was exposed to as small children, Viola replied. Those included narrations told by four of the six Crow scouts who were at Custers side at Little Bighorn and whom Medicine Crow knew personally.

Yet Medicine Crow likewise embraced the changes that went with the settling of the west and to continue efforts to bridge his folks cultural traditions with the potential of modern society.

He was designated tribal historian by the Crow tribal committee soon after returning from the European front, with his voice becoming familiar to many outside the region as the narrator for Native American exhibits in museums across the country.

He really wanted to walk in both world-wides, the white world and Indian world, and he knew education was a key to success, replied Viola, who first fulfilled Medicine Crow in 1972 and collaborated with him on several books.

Montanas governor, Steve Bullock, replied Medicine Crow was an inspiration to his tribe and others.

Joe was a Crow war chief, veteran, elder, historian, author and lecturer. His legacy will forever serve as an inspiration for all Native Americans and all Montanans, he said.

Barack Obama awarding director Joseph Medicine Crow 2009 presidential award of freedom. Photograph: REX/ Shutterstock

Medicine Crow was nominated for the congressional gold award and was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California and Rocky Mountain College in Montana.

In its first year leading up to his death, he lived with their own families in Lodge Grass. His spouse died in 2009. Even after his hearing and eyesight faded, Medicine Crow continues to lecture into his 90 s on the Battle of Little Bighorn and other key events in Crow history.

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