Joseph Medicine Crow MA ’39, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters from USC in 2003, was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on Aug. 12.
Medicine Crow, who is 95 years old, is the tribal historian and oldest member of the Crow Indian Tribe. His master’s degree in anthropology from USC represented the first postgraduate degree earned by a male from his tribe. He stayed on at USC to pursue a doctorate and had completed all his coursework when he was called to duty in World War II.
At the ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Medicine Crow wore a traditional headdress. President Barack Obama attached the presidential medal around his neck and introduced him, calling him “a good man” in the Crow language. In English, Obama said, “Dr. Medicine Crow’s life reflects not only the warrior spirit of the Crow people, but America’s highest ideals.”
Other recipients of the medal this year were the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, physicist Stephen Hawking, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and 12 others, representing the arts, athletics, sciences, the humanities and community activism.
USC President Steven B. Sample, speaking of the award, said, “Dr. Medicine Crow is an American treasure. We in the Trojan Family take special pride in all that he has done in service to his country and in illuminating and preserving Native American history and culture.”
Medicine Crow is the tribe’s sole surviving war chief and, indeed, the only surviving authentic plains war chief. He received that honor during World War II when he accomplished four deeds that the Crow believe are required for the designation: touching a living enemy soldier, disarming an enemy, leading a successful war party and stealing an enemy horse.
During his time in the Army’s 103rd Infantry Division, Medicine Crow went into battle wearing war paint under his uniform and a sacred eagle feather under his helmet.
In his historian’s role, Medicine Crow lectured extensively on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where his grandfather served as a scout for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
His oft-cited USC thesis was on “The Effects of European Culture Upon the Economic, Social and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.” It was truly original research and contained no references or footnotes, as there was almost no prior research on the topic.
At 72, Medicine Crow wrote his first book, From the Heart of Crow Country: The Crow Indians’ Own Stories. Since then, he has written several others, including a children’s book.
Medicine Crow was nominated for the presidential medal by Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.