Photo: Joseph Medicine Crow
Joseph Medicine Crow, Counting Coup, in traditional dress.

Photograph by Glen Swanson

Catherine Clarke Fox

Born on an Indian reservation but raised by grandparents who lived free, Joseph Medicine Crow has walked in both the Indian world and the white man’s world for 93 years.

One freezing winter day when Joseph Medicine Crow was just five or six years old, his grandfather woke him up and told him to run around the outside of the house without his shoes on. During a Montana winter, that meant deep snow and temperatures 40 degrees below zero (-40°C).

“The next day he said, ‘Run around twice,’” says Medicine Crow, chuckling. It might sound crazy, but there was a reason. “He was training me to be a warrior!”

Every day his grandfather asked him to run farther. And pretty soon Medicine Crow became tough enough to withstand the cold like warriors from the old days.

That training helped him become chief of the Crow tribe when he grew up. To qualify, a warrior must have the strength and know-how to carry out four dangerous, death-defying actions, a process called “counting coup” (pronounced “koo”).  During World War II, while serving in the United States Army, Medicine Crow completed those acts of bravery—including stealing horses from the enemy.

He tells that exciting tale along with many others in the new National Geographic book, Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond. His stories are unusual because he grew up at a time of great change for the Crow people.

Medicine Crow’s grandparents taught him how Crow Indians lived before the U.S. government sent them to a reservation in 1884. Yet he lived on the reservation and learned about the modern white man’s world as well.

Want to read about what it was like living on the reservation, knowing famous Crow scouts, racing on horseback, and going to school with white kids for the first time? Visit your local library or ask your parents to visit our online bookstore.

Text by Catherine Clarke Fox