Alumni Profile

As the Crow Flies

The pristine plains
of rural Montana and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles sit on extreme ends of the geographical spectrum, but in 1937 they shared a resident. That year, Joe Medicine Crow MA ’39 arrived at USC to pursue his master’s degree in anthropology, the first male from the Crow Indian tribe ever to seek a postgraduate degree.

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Linfield College in Oregon, Crow came to USC wanting to investigate the white man’s impact on his tribe’s customs and beliefs. His thesis on “The Effects of European Culture Upon the Economic, Social and Religious Life of the Crow Indians” contained no references or footnotes, as there was almost no prior research on the topic. But he still had a wealth of sources to draw from: the tales of his people he’d heard from a very young age. “It was all in my head. In my description of cultural transition, I drew upon the experiences of my grandparents, my parents and my own,” he says.

After completing his master’s, Crow stayed on at USC, intent on earning his doctorate. By 1941, he had finished all the necessary coursework when he was called to duty during World War II. Crow was actual
Joe Medicine Crow MA ’39, speaking at the dedication of the Battle of Little Big Horn Monument at the Custer Museum in Garryowen, Mont., in June 2001.
ly offered a commission, but as the direct descendant of several war chiefs, he refused to shirk his responsibility.

Though the war prevented Crow from earning his Ph.D., his experience overseas bestowed upon him another, far rarer honor. There are four deeds in the Crow beliefs that earn one the status of war chief; Crow managed to carry out all four during battle in Europe, despite the fact that stealing an enemy’s horse (one required deed) did not translate easily to the realities of modern warfare. “Now I’m the only authentic plains war chief left,” he says.

After the war, Crow married and settled back at the reservation. In 1948 he was elected the Crow Indian tribal historian, which reopened the academic research of his USC days. Though still concerned with issues of cultural transition, his overarching goal now was to ascertain Crow history as accurately as possible. “I wanted to express and convey as much as possible the true story of the Crow Indians and other Indians as they themselves tried to relate it,” he says. He interviewed more than 100 pre-reservation tribal elders who were alive at the time, cross-referencing his research against outside written materials. Crow supplemented his investigation by working as an appraiser at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

After 40-plus years of research, Crow settled in to write his first book – at the age of 72. In the Heart of Crow Country, The Crow Indian’s Own Stories is a collection of historical fact and anecdotes that gives a definitive and intimate account of the Crow people. The book received numerous accolades for its thorough recounting of Crow history.

Now 88 years old, Crow still assumes a heavy workload. He guest lectures at Little Big Horn College and speaks at high schools and colleges around the country. In 1999, he spoke at the United Nations. “Ted Turner and his moneyed friends got together 3,000 spiritual leaders throughout the world to give our statesmen moral support in finding peace,” Crow says. The proceedings got a bit tedious for Crow, however, so he grabbed a piece of paper and wrote “a poetic speech about peace,” which he proceeded to deliver. He received a standing ovation.
Crow is currently compiling his life story, and also plans three more books about the Crow Indians. He laments the “boxes and boxes of stories that have accumulated over the years” that he has yet to go through. Yet Crow allows himself a modicum of credit for his life’s work. “As a member of the Crow tribe and as a professional researcher,

I think I am doing quite a nice job of telling the Crow Indian story in the proper way,” he says.

– Meaghan Agnew

Alumni by Year




Alumni Profiles

Joe Crow '39

Alice Gast '80

Mark Monro '83

Matt Vasgersian ’90

In Memoriam

Julie Kohl

Edward Zapanta