Medaling in Education: Elder of the Year Teaches TCU Students to Walk on Both Sides

Volume 21, No. 3 - Spring 2010
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The heart of Little Big Horn College is wrapped in the passion of Joseph Medicine Crow. Medicine Crow, 96, a nationally renowned tribal elder and historian, has been influencing education on the Crow Reservation in Montana for decades. As one of the founding members of the Crow Education Commission, he helped start Little Big Horn College (LBHC, Crow Agency, MT) in 1980.

In August 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Joseph Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Medicine Crow deeply influences the administrators, faculty, and students at the tribal college. “His vision to provide education for Crow people continues to live through the other leaders of the college,” Little Big Horn College President Dr. David Yarlott, Jr. says. “Those who know him or have been in contact with him are better for it.”

Not only has Medicine Crow contributed vision to the college, he has contributed his time and his archives. As a long-time tribal historian, Medicine Crow has been collecting oral histories, first-hand accounts, academic papers, photographs, and other historic gems. “His stories and memories will continue long after he is gone,” Yarlott notes.

Medicine Crow still spends time on campus as a guest lecturer and attends basketball games and other social functions, Yarlott adds. “He wants a presence on campus. He’s always willing to come in as a guest; he’s at every groundbreaking; and he always offers to sing an honor song for graduation.”

Yarlott wants the students at the college to emulate Medicine Crow’s fine academic qualities. “I want them to have consistency, to be innovative, and to have the dedication and willingness as well as the ability to try something new,” Yarlott says.

Those qualities, Yarlott added, have served Medicine Crow well. “He has made an impact in Indian Country and across the nation,” he notes. “He is well-respected and has influenced Indian education.” In recognition of that, the National Indian Education Association honored him as Elder of the Year in 2009.

Medicine Crow received his bachelor’s degree from Linfield College in Oregon in 1938. He was the first of his tribe to earn a master’s degree, which he received from the University of Southern California in 1939. The title of his thesis was “The Effects of European Culture Contacts upon the Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.”

He finished the master’s program in one year, taking 26 credits one semester, Medicine Crow says. He wanted to finish his doctorate in a year and would have, but he says he received a letter in the mail from his uncle – Uncle Sam.

After being drafted and serving in World War II, Medicine Crow returned to USC to complete his doctorate degree, but the university cut back during the war and was only admitting freshmen. “I was done with school, finished, retired,” Medicine Crow says.

Medicine Crow was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2003 from USC for the work he had already completed. He previously received an honorary doctorate from Rocky Mountain College in Montana in 1999.


AT HOME. Joe Speaks about the Crow past and the future from the bedroom of his Lodge Grass, MT, home in 2006. Photo by James Woodcock, Billings Gazette.

Yarlott admires Medicine Crow’s longevity and his ability to stay focused on his goals even as he nears his 100th birthday. On Aug. 12, 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s top civilian honor. In 2008 the U.S. Army awarded the Bronze Star for his war service and the government of France made him a knight of the French Legion of Honor.

For all of his medals and national recognition, education is the issue at the forefront of Medicine Crow’s mind, specifically education in Crow Country. His eyes, nearly a century old, light up as he speaks of his childhood, especially his grandfather, Yellowtail. “My grandfather was a pre-reservation Crow, and he realized the value of education.” Medicine Crow attended a church-affiliated day school for three years and didn’t progress. Yellowtail decided to send his grandson to the public school. The boy ran out of the door three times, and each time his grandfather caught him and forced him back in the building.

The Crow people have always valued education, Medicine Crow explained. “We’ve been exposed to the white man’s three R’s for a long time, and we’ve received good education all along. We’ve had graduates go off to colleges in Montana and even far away. I’m proud of our people.”

Little Big Horn College has developed a 10-year expansion plan, and Medicine Crow couldn’t be any more thrilled with it. Having a college right in the heart of the reservation is good because, as Medicine Crow realizes, going off to school can be difficult for students who have never left the reservation. “We have to encourage our young people to go on to college,” he says.

Although Medicine Crow has generations of experience written in his face, his spirit is that of a young man. His passion for education remains just as strong now as when he was a working on his first degree.

LBHC Dean of Administration David Small wants his students to look to Medicine Crow for inspiration. “Joe goes beyond the term ‘leader,’” Small says. “He went from young impetuous youth, to soldier, to leader, and now he is a wise man. To me, wise people are the ones you listen to regardless of whether they are telling you something you don’t like or they are telling you something you do like. You listen to them regardless.”

At the college, Small teaches a leadership class that actively recruits the brightest students from surrounding high schools in order to increase the intellectual capacity on campus. He sees the same qualities in those students as he sees in the tribal elder.

“They have the characteristics of what it takes to be a good leader,” Small concludes. “The leadership kids have that spark that Joe has; they are the kids who are going to be successful. Joe and these kids… I can’t put a finger on it. It’s like they made it a priority to be better, to push themselves.”

CROW HISTORIAN. WWII veteran and Bronze Star recipient Joe Medicine Crow told Barack Obama to "take veterans to the top when you move into the White House." Photo by James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

Medicine Crow has made a few appearances in Small’s class as a guest lecturer. “Being able to tap into him makes our institution stronger,” says Small, who was influenced by Medicine Crow to further his own education. “He was one of the first Crows to become educated, and he did it back in the 1920s and ‘30s when we were still considered second-class citizens.”

Small believes the students in his leadership class and those Crows educated in the early days have a common thread. “It is their desire,” Small says. “Where did that persistence come from? If we could tap into that, we would have more students graduating.”

The renowned elder may grow tired easily, but Medicine Crow continues to tell his story as long as people are willing to listen. His commitment to education transcends all else. “It’s a challenge for Crow kids. There is the Indian way, and there is the white way,” he explains. “Our students are walking that fine line with their feet on both sides, taking the good from both sides and trying to avoid the bad on both sides.”

“Do a good job straddling the two worlds, and you will not only become well-educated; you will be enlightened, and wise, and maybe even wealthy later on,” he added. “Just like Chief Plenty Coups said, ‘Education is your best weapon. With education you are the white man’s equal; without education you are his victim.’”

Luella Brien (Crow) is currently working on her Master of Science Degree in Public Relations at Montana State University Billings. She attended Little Big Horn College, and in 2006 graduated from the University of Montana in Missoula with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism. She has worked as a reporter in Billings, Missoula, Great Falls, and Hamilton, MT, as well as Seattle, WA. She has also worked as an editor and columnist for, an American Indian news site based in Missoula.

Joseph Medicine Crow has published a number of books, including Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond, his autobiography. His donated archives can be seen at the Little Big Horn College Library. For more information call LBHC (406) 638-3100, or visit the college on the web at

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