Some 14 years ago I sat in the back of a van along with a group of Little Big Horn College students on their way to pick up Joe Medicine Crow before going across the border to Ucross, Wyo., home of the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery and temporary display area of the Barstow Collection of ledger art.
The art was mostly done by Crow (Apsaalooke) and Hidatsa warriors who lived on or passed through the Crow Reservation agency from 1879 to 1897. It depicted intense battle scenes and also dances, gatherings and bison hunts. Bureau of Indian Affairs clerk William H. Barstow noticed that Natives liked to draw and encouraged them to re-create scenes of their lives by giving out ledger paper and colored pencils to do so.
With the bison nearly extinct and the nomadic way of life near its end, the art was created during a time that Crow Chief Plenty Coups later described this way: “When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground … . After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”
When Barstow died in 1908, his collection wound up in an obscure trunk in Roundup before it was rediscovered in 1930. Most of the collection was purchased by Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University Billings) where it remained in vaults for decades before research by Professor Adrian Heidenreich brought the work’s importance to light at a 1985 Yellowstone Art Center showing.
The collection was to be shown publicly for only the second time in its existence since 1985 at Ucross, and when we picked up Medicine Crow you could tell he was feeling spry and excited about the event as he joked with everyone he came into contact with.
Passing on history and tradition is what he lived for. On top of that, much of the work in the collection had been done by Joe’s own grandfather Medicine Crow, as shown by Barstow’s notes and the crow drawn above Medicine Crow’s head that depicted him in the autobiographical works.
In the van Medicine Crow and I sat on the same seat. We soon passed by the tiny town of Wyola, and as he began to speak the students respectfully quieted down. He told us the town was named Wyola because there used to be a main train station there, and that’s where people waited for loved ones to arrive. Hence, its name was translated into English as “The Place We Wait.”
Since he sat near me, he of course asked me my name and wanted to know who my relatives were, as is typical of tribal people. They always seem to know someone related to you, or they might even be somehow related to you.
I told him my name but also said I wasn’t Crow but Northern Cheyenne. Our tribes were bitter enemies back in the day. As an old school Apsaalooke, he said, “Ah, Isashboosha, then!” using the Crow word for Cheyenne. He shook my hand, smiled warmly and told me a quick tale about my people.
Later, during his Ucross speech, he made a wisecrack about the Cheyenne and drew a big laugh—at least among the Natives present. Some whites looked uncomfortable, wondering whether it was polite to laugh since a few students were of course Cheyenne. He looked toward me with a knowing grin and glint in his eye. I nodded and smiled. Good one, I thought.
Although he probably would have told the joke anyway, since it was a Crow-inspired event, Indians generally will only tease people they like or are comfortable around.
After his speech I followed him closely as he spoke about the drawings. The art told numerous tales of battles between Indians not always recorded by white historians, but passed along from grandfathers to fathers to sons like Joe Medicine Crow.
Until the 1870s, Crow casualties in war parties had numbered just a few at most in small skirmishes. But casualties sometimes turned to dozens as every hill, mountain and river valley was fiercely fought over in attempts to control the last prime hunting areas of Crow land alongside the Rocky Mountains and Northern Plains in Montana and Wyoming.
Between the onslaught of rival tribes and smallpox epidemics, veteran mountain men predicted the Crow could very well become extinct.
Medicine Crow would observe and talk about the drawings as if he were reading the pages of a history book. Among many details, he noted that you could tell Crow by the way their hair was swept up in the front, the Cheyenne by their two braids, the Sioux by the feathers, and so forth.
He told an anecdote about some really excited white guys who had once contacted him about a cave they had seen in Bighorn Canyon. The cave was thought to contain ancient pictographs that were in really good shape. They asked him to visit the cave and give his insight. He agreed.
When they finally reached the high, hard-to-reach cave, they asked if he knew what it was. “Oh yeah, I know what this is,” Medicine Crow said.
“Really, what is it then?” they asked.
“Well, it’s Mickey Mouse,” he said. Apparently, some kids had recently painted a picture of Mickey Mouse in that cave, Medicine Crow recalled with a hoot of laughter.
After that encounter, while living on and off the Crow Reservation throughout the years, I’d sporadically see Medicine Crow when veterans were being honored or at some other social function.
He was known as the Last Plains Indian War Chief because in Europe during World War II he’d completed all four tasks needed to become a Crow war chief. He led scouting parties deep behind enemy lines, stole German horses, disarmed an enemy and touched one without killing him (counted coup).
The last two deeds were accomplished simultaneously, as Medicine Crow recalled in Ken Burns’ 2007 documentary, “The War.” In a narrow alley he saw a protruding German rifle. Medicine Crow knocked it out of the German’s hands and beat him until he had his hands on the man’s throat. The German was able to gasp, “Mama,” before Medicine Crow felt sorry for him and let him live.
While World War II was known as a mechanized war, the Germans and Soviets still relied heavily on horses, deploying more than 6 million for transport during the war. While scouting, Medicine Crow spotted a small patrol of Germans with about 50 horses. As a man who loved horses, Medicine Crow knew the Americans had better take the horses before the area was to be bombarded at dawn.
Right before the explosions started, they had the group of horses, and Medicine Crow rode fast while singing a Crow victory song. “It was a beautiful horse,” he said of the mount, which happened to have a braid in its mane.
A staunch advocate for higher education, Medicine Crow had been studying for an advanced degree in anthropology before volunteering to fight in Europe. He later earned a doctorate, became tribal historian, had a Billings school named after him and was even awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Obama.
The Crow Tribe honored him at his 100th birthday celebration in October 2013 as the community came together to recognize his life and achievements. As he entered the building, the crowd erupted into heavy applause to show the appreciation they had for the respected chief.
As we feasted in his honor, people told stories of their good times and laughter with him, how “Grandpa” Medicine Crow inspired them to achieve a higher education.
It was the last time I’d see him.
A tribute poem by writer Craig Johnson, the creator of the Walt Longmire novels, was read aloud. At the time it perhaps best conveyed the sentiments to all those at Medicine Crow’s centennial birthday, and to those who never had the honor of seeing or meeting him.
Now the poem speaks dually as he walks on to another life:
“Stand, my friends, Joe Medicine Crow is walking past.
To see the things that those walnut eyes have seen.
To hear the things that those leathery ears have heard.
To feel the things that the still-beating heart has felt.
Stand, my friends, Joe Medicine Crow is walking past.
Stand, my friends, history is walking past.”
Aho! (thank you), Joe Medicine Crow. Aif neho to a great and inspiring life lived.
Adrian L. Jawort is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who grew up in Lockwood. A Northern Cheyenne, he’s lived on various Indian reservations and is the founder of Off the Pass Press LLC, which “aims to find true beauty in literature off the beaten path.”