Dr. Joe Medicine Crow
Published August 11, 2015
CROW AGENCY—As the Crow Nation prepares for the 97th Annual Crow Fair Celebration, the tribe’s centenarian and “living history,” Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, wants those about to transform Crow Agency into the “Teepee Capital of the World” to remember a brother of the Crow people who is in need.
“Grizzly bears, we call them our brothers,” says Dr. Medicine Crow. “They play an important part in our culture and we’d like to keep it that way.”
Dr. Medicine Crow’s comments are in response to the Obama Administration’s US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that is expected to announce a new rule this fall to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Delisting the grizzly will enable the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to open trophy-hunting seasons on the bear, a being many tribes consider sacred.
The Crow’s tribal historian since 1948, Dr. Medicine Crow’s history with the President began in 2008 when then Senator Obama was seeking the Democratic nomination and made a campaign stop in Crow Agency. Since then, the President has given him a nationally televised “shout out,” and in 2009 bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor upon him, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“A warrior and a living legend,” President Obama called Dr. Medicine Crow, and now the warrior in the living legend is fighting for the grizzly and Crow culture, and wants the President to protect the Crow’s threatened brother.
“The Crows, like other Indians, respect grizzly bears. On vision quests we will sing to them to try and make contact with them, to be one with them, to receive their power,” Dr. Medicine Crow explains.
Known to some as the last Plains Indian War Chief and considered to be the last traditional Crow chief, Dr. Medicine Crow’s remarkable story began on October 27, 1913. As a boy he acted as translator for Custer’s Crow scouts, most often for one of his grandfathers, White Man Runs Him, when authors would travel to the Little Bighorn to learn of Custer’s fall.
His paternal grandfather was Chief Medicine Crow, another veteran of the so-called 1876 Great Sioux War, but it was his mother’s father, Yellowtail, who raised him in the warrior tradition. Yellowtail’s tutelage served Medicine Crow well in World War II when, as a private in the 411th Infantry, 103rd Division, he achieved the four war deeds required to become a Crow war chief: leading a war party, counting coup on an enemy, capturing an enemy’s weapon, and taking an enemy’s horse.
When Dr. Medicine Crow was a boy, grizzlies still roamed his beloved Crow Country. “There used to be a lot of them in the Wolf Mountains on the reservation, and in the Bighorns,” he recalls, “but they killed them all. The white man did that. Grizzly bears are alright; it’s the white man we’ve got to warn everyone about! They’ve killed a lot of grizzly bears. They did the same thing to the wolf, too.”
The Crow Tribe was among the first tribal nations to issue a declaration opposing the federal government’s intent to delist the grizzly bear from the ESA. To date, 39 tribes have done the same, citing infringements of spiritual rights, sovereignty and treaty violations.
“The white man is doing that,” says Dr. Medicine Crow of the states’ push to trophy hunt the grizzly. “Indians don’t do that! It is mean and wasteful,” he says of trophy hunting. “Of all the animals around here, the most dangerous is man himself. He goes around killing all wildlife, and of course he wants to kill grizzly bears again.”
The Crow Tribe’s declaration reflects Dr. Medicine Crow’s perspective. “Due to the cultural significance of the grizzly bear, the Crow people will be detrimentally impacted if the grizzly is delisted and subsequently trophy hunted,” warns Chairman Old Coyote.
“The Crows have always got along with the grizzly bear in a special way. The white man doesn’t do that. The Crows have grizzly bear songs. We have grizzly bear dances. We name our kids with grizzly bear names. Grizzly bears play an important part in the culture of the Crow Indian,” imparts Dr. Medicine Crow.
The Crow viewpoint is in stark contrast to international headlines such as “Killer Grizzly on the Loose” that appeared after the body of 63-year old Lance Crosby, a seasonal worker in Yellowstone National Park, was found Friday, August 7, a half-mile off the park’s popular Elephant Back Loop Trail. A National Park Service statement described Mr. Crosby as “an experienced hiker,” although he was alone and without bear spray in an area generally posted with bear activity warning signs.
“Hikers are advised to stay on designated trails, travel in groups of three or more, carry bear spray, be alert for bears, and make noise to help avoid surprise encounters,” continued the statement that first revealed Mr. Crosby had been attacked by “an adult female grizzly and at least one cub.” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk immediately informed the media that the bears would be “euthanized” even if the NPS could not “conclusively determine the circumstances of this bear attack.” Wenk would not categorize the attack as predatory.
“The most combustible situation a hiker can encounter in grizzly country is surprising a female with cubs, which initial reports seem to indicate led to this tragedy. Any mother in the circle of life will defend her offspring if she perceives they are in imminent danger,” commented GOAL co-founder, R. Bear Stands Last, at a showing of the groups short film, An Act of Cultural Genocide.
Since its foundation in 1872, grizzlies have been responsible for eight deaths in Yellowstone, the seventeenth ranked cause of human mortality in the park.
“Despite the sensational and insensitive headlines that surely add to the pain of the bereaved, we must not lose sight of the fact that you are more likely to be killed by a bee sting, struck by lightning, or killed by a domestic dog than a grizzly,” added GOAL Chairman David Bearshield.
Both GOAL principals stressed how “all life is sacred” and hoped that people would not seek to blame Mr. Crosby or the bear for “reacting as a sow grizzly with cubs typically does” if threatened.
“It may be too much to ask, but we would appeal to those bent on delisting and trophy hunting grizzlies not to exploit this tragedy and politicize it for their own agenda,” expressed Bearshield.
In 2012, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead highlighted “four human deaths” in Greater Yellowstone to press then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to expedite delisting. In his letter, the governor described grizzlies as “a threat to people” and the bears’ ESA status as “a public safety concern.”
Dr. Medicine Crow holds a contrary opinion, one supported by many experts in the field. “By nature grizzly bears are not mean, it’s man who agitates them and gets them mad and that’s when they might come after you. They are powerful and fast. They can run over a horse, a buffalo. You must respect that in their territory,” he cautions.
Joe Medicine Crow’s grandfather Chief Medicine Crow
The Crow’s oldest tribal member is unconvinced by the government’s claim that grizzly populations of approximately 700 in both Greater Yellowstone and the Blackfoot Confederacy country of Glacier amounts to a recovery that justifies delisting, and cites estimates of 100,000 grizzlies on tribal lands at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“At one time bears were all over here. After killing all these grizzlies everywhere, in Crow Country they only survived in Yellowstone. Grizzly bears are starting to thrive in Yellowstone and the government needs to keep protecting them,” he insists.
“It’s not grizzly bears that are problematic, it’s man. The way he reacts and the way he treats grizzly bears and other animals. So I repeat, we have to control man himself and keep grizzly bears alive,” declares this “warrior and living legend” in his 102nd winter.