Michael Simms: The Four Coups of Joe Medicine Crow
Joseph Medicine Crow (1913 – 2016) was a writer, historian, and war chief of the Crow Nation. His writings on Native American history and reservation culture are considered seminal works, but he is best known for his writings and lectures concerning the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876. Medicine Crow was a World War II veteran, serving as a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division of the US Army, receiving the Bronze Star Medal and the Légion d’honneur. In 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. Medicine Crow was the last war chief of the Crow Nation and the last Plains Indian war chief.
Joseph Medicine Crow (his Crow name means High Bird) was born on the Crow Indian Reservation near Lodge Grass, Montana, to Amy Yellowtail and Leo Medicine Crow. As a boy, Joe heard about the Battle of the Little Bighorn from his step-grandfather, White Man Runs Him, who had been a scout for General George Armstrong Custer. A diligent student, Medicine Crow earned a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1939. His thesis, The Effects of European Culture Contact upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians, has become a well-respected work about Crow culture. He began work toward a doctorate, and by 1941 had completed the required coursework, but he did not complete his Ph.D., due to the United States’ entry into World War II.
Although the young man hadn’t planned on entering the military, he was always aware of his family history, and he grew up steeped in Crow warrior traditions. When Joe was a boy, his grandfather Yellowtail put him through traditionally rigorous physical training meant to toughen him up. This included running in the snow barefoot and swimming in freezing rivers. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was inspired to enlist in the army in 1943. “We were a war-faring people,” he later told the Billings Gazette. “Naturally, I thought about the famous warriors when I went to Germany. I had a legacy to live up to.” But Medicine Crow had to keep his legacy to himself. Throughout the war, he wore his war paint under his uniform, and he tucked a sacred yellow eagle feather under his helmet.
When Medicine Crow enlisted in 1943, his people hadn’t honored a warrior with the title “war chief” for generations. According to the Crow tradition of counting coups, a warrior can earn the title by completing four coups (or deeds) in battle. The four coups are: lead a war party into battle, sneak into an enemy camp at night and steal a horse, take away an enemy’s weapon, and touch an enemy without being harmed.
Becoming a war chief in the middle of the 20th century would have seemed highly unlikely, and earning the title wasn’t Medicine Crow’s goal when he enlisted. But Medicine Crow would accomplish all four coups while fighting against Germany – the first two on different occasions, and the third and fourth simultaneously. As Medicine Crow told filmmaker Ken Burns in his documentary The War, he didn’t even realize he had done it until he returned home from the war and related his experiences to his elders.
As a scout, Medicine Crow wasn’t typically a frontline combatant, but his unit did accompany an assault on the Siegfried line. During the battle, an American unit was wiped out while carrying explosives that would punch a hole in the defenses. Medicine Crow and seven others were ordered to finish the job. They crossed heavy enemy machine gun fire to retrieve the explosives blasted through the line. Medicine Crow was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroics. But successfully leading troops on a combat operation also satisfied the requirement for his first coup — to lead a war party into battle.
WWII was the first war in which motor vehicles were used on a wide scale, but horses were also an integral part of the German military, which used them both in transportation and in cavalry units. This gave Joe Medicine Crow an opportunity to count his second coup. On a night mission, Medicine Crow’s unit found a farm where horses belonging to the SS were being stabled. Medicine Crow decided to steal them, so he crept past the guards, mounted one horse, and led around 50 more to the Allied lines while whooping out a war cry. By sneaking into an enemy position at night and stealing not one but 50 enemy horses, this counted as another coup.
Joe Medicine Crow’s third and fourth coups came during a mission to scout a French village. While checking an alley, Medicine Crow came face to face with a German soldier. Medicine Crow immediately knocked his rifle away and began choking him. When the enemy soldier cried out “Mama,” he showed mercy and took the soldier prisoner. By disarming the enemy and then taking him captive without slaying him, he had unknowingly completed the third and fourth requirements. “So I guess you’re looking at the last Plains Indian war chief,” Medicine Crow said in Ken Burns’s The War.
Joe Medicine Crow had been preserving Crow history since the 1930s, but in 1948, the Crow Nation named him the tribal historian and anthropologist. He would spend the rest of his life working to preserve Crow history, collecting documents, recording oral histories, and writing many of his own books, including A Handbook of Crow Indian Laws and Treaties, and From the Heart of Crow Country: The Crow Indians’ Own Stories.
Chief Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama(photo: Native Son News)
Chief Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow shortly before his death at the age of 102 (photo: CBS)
Joe Medicine Crow circa 1940 (photo: We are the mighty)
This article was written and compiled by Michael Simms. Copyright 2021.