BILLINGS, Mont. — Tribal leaders in ceremonial headdresses and Montana officials in cowboy hats laid to rest a revered warrior and keeper of Crow Indian traditions Wednesday, 102-year-old Jim Medicine Crow.
He was the last in a long line of Crow Tribe war chiefs and later successfully assimilated into the modern world to gain widespread acclaim as a Native American historian. More than 700 mourners, including Gov. Steve Bullock and other state officials, gathered to bid Medicine Crow farewell at a service marked by military pomp and traditional regalia.
People packed into the one building on the Crow Reservation large enough to fit them all, viewing a flag-draped coffin flanked by Medicine Crow’s World War II uniform and a picture of him in a massive feathered headdress.
During a service that stretched more than two hours, those who knew Medicine Crow recounted his military exploits and his contributions to preserving his tribe’s culture.
Medicine Crow, who died Sunday, spent decades cataloging Crow history and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009.
He attained the title of war chief for a series of deeds performed during combat in World War II, including hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier whose life Medicine Crow spared. During the war, he wore an eagle feather under his helmet and war paint beneath his uniform.
He later said that Plains Indian warfare was not about killing so much as leadership, honor and intelligence.
Medicine Crow embraced the changes that came with settling the West, and he worked to bridge his people’s cultural traditions with the opportunities of modern society.
“He was a great man in two worlds, not only in mainstream society but also in the Crow way,” tribal chairman Darren Old Coyote said in a eulogy. “To try to tell his story in one day does not do him justice.”
Medicine Crow became the first person to be buried in the tribe’s Apsaalooke veterans cemetery, an event punctuated by rifle fire from an honor guard and the sobs from dozens of members of his extended family.
He was a great man in two worlds, not only in mainstream society but also in the Crow way. To try to tell his story in one day does not do him justice.”
-Crow Tribe tribal chairman Darren Old Coyote
A native of the rural town of Lodge Grass, Medicine Crow grew up hearing stories as a child from direct participants in the Battle of Little Bighorn. They included his grandfather, White Man Runs Him, a scout for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
His son, Ronald Medicine Crow, told The Associated Press that his father was a brilliant man.
“He said, ‘I never was a smart man to begin with, but I love to learn.’ He said this is the way to get somewhere in life,” the son said.
Obama released a statement after Medicine Crow’s death saying his dedication to promoting his tribe’s culture “helped shape a fuller history of America for us all.”