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Chief Medicine Crow

By Joe Medicine Crow

From: Graetz, Rick, and Graetz, Susie. Crow Country: Montana’s Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000.

Medicine Crow was a warrior from the time he first went on the warpath at the age of fifteen until his last battle in 1877. He attained chieftaincy about 1870 at the age of twenty-two, and from then on he set the pace for aspiring young warriors of his people. Until his death in 1920, at the age of seventy-two, he was a "reservation chief," concerned with helping the Crow tribe "learn to live in the ways of the white man" as soon and as efficiently as possible. He went to see the Great Father in Washington many times on behalf of his people.

Medicine Crow, whose name is more accurately translated as Sacred Raven, was born somewhere in the Musselshell country in 1848. His father, also a great chief, was Jointed Together, and his mother was One Buffalo Calf. This was a time of trial for the Absarokee, for the population of the tribe had been reduced from more than 8,000 to fewer than 1,000 by the smallpox epidemic of the mid-1840's. Now the tribe had to be made strong again, lest surrounding hostile tribes succeed in finishing the job the deadly pox had begun—annihilating the Crows. Boys had to become men quickly. The youth of the Absarokee accepted the challenge. Some died on the warpath, but those who survived, the boyhood friends of Medicine Crow, became great warriors and wise chieftains. Among these were Plenty Coups and Two Leggings, well known to the white man, and others such as Two Belly, Pretty Eagle, Old Crow, Bellrock, and many more.

Medicine Crow lived his first fifteen years much as his father and forefathers had. As a small boy, he heard the children’s tales. Then came the recitals of warriors’ deeds. He was trained to run, swim, wrestle, hunt, and ride. He learned the secrets of nature. He dreamed of becoming first a warrior and then, perhaps, a chief. Before that could happen, though, by the customs and religion of his people, he had to fast, seek a vision, and find his "medicine," those spirit helpers who protected and aided the fighting men of the Plains. It is believed that Medicine Crow sought his dream at least three times.

Throughout his life, Medicine Crow seemed able to see into the future, often into the very distant future. It was because of his dreams, and the fact that his people saw his seemingly impossible visions come to pass, that he was revered as a visionary medicine man. (He did not attempt to heal wounds or sickness.) On one occasion, the young seeker "saw" something black with round legs puffing smoke and pulling boxlike objects behind it coming down the Valley of Chieftains (the Little Bighorn River). Some thirty years later, in 1895, the Big Horn Southern Railroad was completed. In another vision, a white man came up from the east and said, "I come from the land of the rising sun, where many, many white men live. They are coming and will in time take possession of your land. At that time you will be a great chief of your tribe. Do not oppose these but deal with them wisely and all will turn out all right." A third vision revealed to Medicine Crow his future home. He saw a white-man’s type of house with a large corral nearby, situated on the top of a hill overlooking the junction of the Little Bighorn River and Lodge Grass Creek. About 1910 he built this house where he "saw" it so many years before. It was during his dreams that Medicine Crow gained his spirit helpers, the eagle and the large hawk that the Absarokee called the "Striped Tail."

As a youth of fifteen, Medicine Crow went on his first war party. He earned no honors but gained valuable experience. In the next nineteen years, he led the vigorous and often dangerous life of a Plains Indian warrior. For twelve of those years he was a war chief noted for his agility in hand-to-hand combat, his courage, and his dependability as a war party commander who usually brought his men back home not only safely but victoriously.

He was still a young man when he completed the Crow military requirements for attaining chieftaincy. All involved risking one’s life. These tests were as follows:

  1. To touch or strike the first enemy fallen, whether alive or dead.
  2. To wrestle a weapon away from an enemy warrior.
  3. To enter an enemy camp at night and steal a horse.
  4. To command a war party successfully.

Medicine Crow’s exploits are still spoken of by the old men of the Absarokee. He earned the right to be a chief many times over. He saw the nomadic life of the Plains change to the confinement of the reservation. In the fading winters of his life, he was beginning to discern the ultimate meaning of his boyhood vision: "If you deal wisely with these White Eyes, all will turn out all right and good for your people."