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Smithsonian Curator Remembers Plains Indian War Chief Joe Medicine Crow

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The nation's last living Plains Indian war chief, Joe Medicine Crow, died yesterday. In his 102 years, he served as a link between Montana's Crow Nation and a country that surrounded it. He was trained as a warrior when he was a boy and went on to fight in World War II. Joe Medicine Crow recorded an oral history for StoryCorps and the Smithsonian about the time he snuck through the night to steal the horses of sleeping Nazi soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE MEDICINE CROW: So I got on one, you know, looked around there, and I even sang a Crow victory song all by myself. You know, Crows do that when they think they're all by themselves. They do things like that, so I sang it - the victory song (laughter).

SHAPIRO: He was also an accomplished historian of his own people writing several books. Earlier, I spoke with his co-author, the Smithsonian's Herman Viola. And I asked him to start with that title, war chief.

HERMAN VIOLA: Joe Medicine Crow comes from a long line of war chiefs. And he's named for one of his grandfathers, Medicine Crow, who's a very famous war chief in the 19th century. And so a war chief is a warrior who has covered himself with glory in the traditional way on the battlefield. For the Crows, their battlefields were not against white men. They got their war deeds fighting their enemy tribes. And they were a very small tribe, and so because they were so few in number, that's one of the reasons why they became allies of the white people when they moved into their country.

SHAPIRO: Job Medicine Crow was born more than a century ago.

VIOLA: Yeah, 1913.

SHAPIRO: What was the world like that he grew up in?

VIOLA: Well, he was raised by pre-reservation Indians, Indians who hunted Buffalo for a living, who captured horses, fought the enemy. But what was amazing about him is early on, he realized that this was all changing, and it was important to record and document the life in the 19th century. And he took it upon himself to collect the stories of the elders to ensure that they were passed on for posterity.

SHAPIRO: He was an ambassador in so many ways, not only between the 19th and 20th century, but he's also been described as an ambassador between the Indian world and the white world.

VIOLA: Yes, you'll always hear that cliche walking in two worlds, but for him, it was a reality because he was so respected in the Indian world and then became very much respected in the white world. You know, he fought for the United States, but he also fought for Indian rights. He was extremely concerned about Indian education. He was the first Crow to graduate from college. And he was working on his PhD in anthropology at the University of Southern California when World War II broke out, and he went for a recruiting station and enlisted.

SHAPIRO: Joe Medicine Crow studied anthropology. He gathered the stories of his grandparents and ancestors. What do you think drove him to want to know the history of his nation?

VIOLA: He wanted to know the history of his nation because he was so proud of his people, and he wanted to make sure that when time goes on that we don't forget that the Crow people were here.

SHAPIRO: Montana Sen. Jon Tester after hearing news of Joe Medicine Crow's passing said when you spoke with him, it was impossible not to be inspired. I'm sure you agree. Talk about the impact he had on people he met.

VIOLA: Well, first of all, what I always told people when they met Joe is that when you shake hands with Joe, you're shaking hands with the 19th century because he was the window into the past. He was an inspiration. And he was really a model for all of us to emulate because we all know about all the anti-Indian things that have occurred in our country, and he didn't carry any hardships or bitterness. He just wanted to make sure that both the main culture and Indian culture would work together for a greater America.

SHAPIRO: Herman Viola, thank you so much for remembering your friend and collaborator Joe Medicine Crow with us.

VIOLA: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Herman Viola co-wrote four books with Joe Medicine Crow, the Native American war chief and historian who died yesterday at age 102. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.