Native American Historian

We mostly measure history in terms of years, or perhaps in generations, but memories can be closer than this system suggests. My grandfather was born about a century ago, and he could tell us tales of the gold rushes in Victoria in the 1860s. The last of the soldiers of the Great War have only just died out, and those of the Second World War are about to follow them.

This is from yesterday’s i, an obituary for Joe Medicine Crow, a great historian for native Americans.

Joe Medicine Crow, who has died at the age of 102, was an acclaimed Native American historian and the last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow Tribe. “I always told people, when you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you’re shaking hands with the 19th century,” said Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Indians.  A member of the Crow Tribe’s Whistling Water clan, Medicine Crow was raised by his grandparents in a log house in a rural area of the Crow Reservation car Lodge Grass, Montana. His Crow name was “high Bird”, and he recalls listening as a child to stories about the Battle of Little Bighorn from those who were there, including his grandmother’s brother, White Man Runs Him, a scout for Lt Col George Armstrong Custer.

His grandfather Yellowtail, raised Medicine Crow to be a warrior. The training began when he was around 6 years ld, with a punishing physical regime that included running barefoot in the snow to toughen up his feet and his spirit. In 1939 Medicine Crow became the first of his tribe to receive a master’s degree in anthropology and seven for decades as a Crow historian, cataloguing his people’s nomadic history by collecting first-hand accounts of pre-reservation life from fellow tribal members.

During the Second World War, Medicine Crow earned the title of war chief after a series of daring deeds, including stealing horses from an enemy encampment and hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier whose life he ultimately spared. “Warfare was out  highest art, butPlains Indian warfare was not about killing,” he wrote. “It was about intelligence, leadership and honour.”

Soon after returning from Europe, Medicine Crow was designed tribal historian by the Crow Tribal council. With his prodigious memory, he could recall decades later rate names, dates and exploits from the oral history he was exposed to as a child, including tales told by 4 of the 6 Crow scouts who were at Custer’s side at Little Big Horn and who Medicine Crow knew personally.

Yet he also embraced the changed that came with the settling of he West and worked to bridge his people’s cultural traditions with the opportunities of modern society. His voice became familiar as the narrator for American Indian exhibits across the country. “He really waned to walk in both worlds, the white world and Indian world, an the knew education was a key to success.” said Viola. President Obama award Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

“[His] life reflect not only the warrior spirit of the Crow people, but America’s highest ideals,” Obama said. Even after his hearing and eyesight faded, Medicine Crow, whose wife died in 2009, continued to lecture on the Battle of Little Bighorn and other events in Crow history.


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