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Published on Thursday, March 20, 2008.
Last modified on 3/20/2008 at 3:40 pm

Crow legend in line for national honor

Of The Gazette Staff

Joe Medicine Crow missed fighting the Plains Indians' wars. Born in 1913, he arrived decades after the battles his people, the Crow Indians, fought.

Medicine Crow still became a warrior and chief - honored not only by his tribe but also possibly soon as a recipient of one of America's most prestigious honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Medicine Crow was schooled in the ways of the chief by his grandfather, Yellowtail. As a child near Lodge Grass, Medicine Crow was trained by running, swimming, riding horses and walking barefoot in the snow. When he was called to be a warrior, those demanding lessons were part of Medicine Crow's nature.

"All that came in handy during World War II," the Army veteran said.

Considered a warrior chief by his tribe and the oldest living Crow Indian veteran, Medicine Crow has been nominated for the Medal of Freedom by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. The medal is the highest civil award an American can receive.

Medicine Crow, 94, is recognized as a warrior chief by his tribe for completing all four actions of counting coups while in battle as an Army soldier in World War II. The first member of the Crow Tribe to earn a master's degree, Medicine Crow is a noted tribal historian and the author of several books on Crow culture.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., joined Tester in nominating Medicine Crow. During an announcement Wednesday morning, Simpson called Medicine Crow a "renowned figure" who is included in narratives of the West in major museums around the world.

Visit exhibits about the West, Simpson said, and "it's Joe."

"It's his voice," Simpson said. "It's his face."

Simpson has known Medicine Crow and his family for more than 40 years, including decades working on the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., and its Plains Indian Museum.

"He can tell a lot of stories," Simpson joked. "Some of 'em are true. The best one is when he stole all the horses from the Nazis. Hell, I love that one."

Here are the coups that Medicine Crow counted, according to an interview with The Gazette in 2006.

• He led a war party by taking a detail of soldiers, under fire, to retrieve dynamite to use to attack German guns.

• He touched the first fallen enemy and stole his weapon when Medicine Crow and a German met on a street in France. Medicine Crow knocked down the German and kicked his rifle away, counting coups twice.

• He entered an enemy camp and stole horses at a farm where German officers were holed up for the night. Medicine Crow stealthily entered a barn and corral, mounted a horse and, with a Crow war cry, ran the horses toward the Americans.

Wednesday morning, Medicine Crow told the story of stampeding the horses and said that as he rode off "the fireworks started" behind him as soldiers began shooting. He galloped off into the hills.

"Being an old farm boy, I sure enjoyed riding a horse," Medicine Crow said. "I even sang a song."

Medicine Crow also sang at the announcement ceremony. Singing with a strong voice, and drumming his hand on the podium, Medicine Crow was joined in his chieftain's honor song by his grandson, Scott Russell, secretary of the tribe, and Darrin Old Coyote, the tribal vice secretary.

Medicine Crow shared some memories of his World War II service. He said that in one German town, residents told the Americans of a nearby concentration camp. Medicine Crow and a commander went, cautiously, to check it out. The guards fled, and they were allowed inside.

"Boy, it was a horrible place," Medicine Crow said.

Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees are selected for their contributions to the country's culture, history and security.

Tester said he believes the only other Montanans to be awarded the medal are Mike Mansfield, a longtime Montana senator and ambassador, and Martha Raye, an award-winning actress who was born in Butte.

"Joe is a remarkable Montanan," Tester said.

Crow Tribal Chairman Carl Venne said Medicine Crow sets an example for all tribal members.

"What really gets into your heart today is how proud he is to be a Crow," Venne said.

President John F. Kennedy used an executive order to re-establish the Medal of Freedom as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. The medal may be awarded by the president "to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," according to the White House.

Tester's nomination, along with a packet of support letters from various political leaders, is being delivered to the White House today, Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said.

The president decides who receives the honor, Murphy said. There's no date for a decision, but Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees are usually announced beginning in the summer.

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