One of the most revered Native American chiefs in history has died — here’s his incredible life story

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US President Barack Obama presenting the Medal of Freedom to Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, the last Crow war chief.
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Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

Joseph Medicine Crow, a renowned Native American chief and historian, died Sunday at 102.

Medicine Crow was the last living war chief of Montana’s Crow tribe, a distinction he earned by accomplishing four traditional war tasks while serving in the US Army during World War II.

With his death, the US loses an invaluable historical resource – Medicine Crow was the last living link to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2009, and he continued to speak on Crow history until his death.

Here’s Medicine Crow’s unbelievable story:


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A delegation of Crow chiefs, 1880.
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Wikimedia Commons

Joe Medicine Crow was born on the Crow Indian reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana, in 1913.


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Charles Marrion Russell’s “The Custer Fight,” 1903.
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Wikimedia Commons

Medicine Crow’s stepgrandfather, White Man Runs Him, was one of six scouts for George Armstrong Custer during the general’s 1876 expedition against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne.

The expedition culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876.


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Crow scouts visiting Custer battlefield about 1913. From left: White Man Runs Him, Hairy Moccasin, Curley, Goes Ahead
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Wikimedia Commons

The connection, and his long life, made Medicine Crow the last living person to have heard direct oral testimony from someone involved in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.


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Joe Medicine Crow as a young man.
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Wikimedia Commons

Medicine Crow was raised in the Crow warrior tradition.

Older relatives would challenge him to grueling physical tasks from the time he was 6 years old, such as running barefoot through snow to toughen his feet and bathing in frozen rivers.


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Chief Medicine Crow, grandfather of Joe Medicine Crow.
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Wikimedia Commons

Medicine Crow described his tribe as a “war-faring people,” and he looked up to his paternal grandfather, Chief Medicine Crow.

“He was considered the bravest warrior of all time. So he was also my inspiration to follow in his footsteps. He kept training me to become a warrior,” Joe Medicine Crow said in Ken Burns’ 2007 documentary “The War.”


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Wikimedia Commons

Medicine Crow became the first of his tribe to attain a college degree when he graduated from Oregon’s Linfield College in 1938.

The next year he earned a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California. His master’s thesis was titled “The Effects of European Culture Contacts Upon The Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.”

“I wanted to prove to people, not only to Indian people, but people in general, that an Indian is capable of becoming a good college student,” Medicine Crow told Linfield Magazine in 2009.

“People said that Indians are just too dumb, they are not capable of getting a college education. I wanted to disprove that.”


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Screenshot/The War

Medicine Crow joined the US Army in 1943 and became a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division, which fought in Europe.

Whenever he entered battle, he wore his war paint under his uniform and a sacred yellow eagle feather beneath his helmet to shield him from harm.


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Crow men giving a symbolic oath with a bison meat offering on an arrow.
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Wikimedia Commons

During his service, Medicine Crow completed the four tasks required to become a Crow war chief:

– Touch a living enemy soldier

– Take an enemy’s weapon

– Lead a victorious war party

– Steal an enemy’s horse


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Screenshot/The War

He accomplished two of the tasks in a tense one-on-one standoff against a German soldier during a village raid.

“I swung my rifle to knock his rifle off his hands,” Medicine Crow said in “The War.”

He said he then dropped his rifle and started to strangle the German.

“I was ready to kill him,” he said. “Then his last words were, ‘mama, mama.’ When he said that word ‘mama’ it opened my ears. I let him go.”


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Screenshot/The War

He completed his final task by stealing 50 horses from a battalion of German SS soldiers who had taken over a farm, singing a traditional Crow honor song as he rode off.


After returning to the US, Medicine Crow was appointed the Crow tribal historian and anthropologist. He served on the Crow Central Education Commission, and he frequently gave talks about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and other events in Crow history.


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President Barack Obama presenting the Medal of Freedom to Medicine Crow.
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Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

In 2009, President Barack Obama presented Medicine Crow with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US.


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White House/Pete souza

“His bravery in battle earned him the Bronze Star from America, the Legion d’honneur from France, and in 2009, I was proud to honor him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Obama said in a statement on Monday, according to The Washington Post.

“Yet I suspect his greatest honor was one he earned from his people: the title of war chief – the last Crow to hold that distinction.”