Being a poor boy from an oppressed minority during World War Two is hardly a good start. Yet the life of Joseph Medicine Crow, the Crow Indian leader who was such a boy and who died two weeks ago at the age of 102, turned out to be one of the most inspiring stories you will ever hear.
Keep this story in store for rainy days. Turning calamity into opportunity is the core message of motivation, but sometime in the future you will feel that your case is different. That this time only, there is no way to put a positive spin on your hardship. There is. Let’s learn from the late Crow Chief.
I first stumbled upon his legend while I was researching for a speech at Toastmasters in 2009. At that time, he had just been honoured the Medal of Freedom by President Obama. As I listened to his obituary on The Economist the other day, I wondered whether my greatest admiration should go to his youthful deeds or the fact that he never wasted a day even as he approached 100.
medicinecrowThe adopted grandson of a Crow Chief who scouted for General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn, Joe saw his life split between conflicting identities, and consistently turned himself into an instrument of union.
Growing up in an illiterate community of native Americans, he turned his unprivileged heritage into Doctoral studies about the situation of the Crow Indians, which was interrupted by his being enlisted in the US Army in 1943.
As it turned out, the war presented him with an opportunity. Becoming a chief by overpowering a hostile with bare hands, seizing his weapons and riding off with his horse was a dying art in America at that time, and Joe’s adopted grandfather could have been the last Crow to achieve it. In Nazi Germany, however, there were plenty of hostiles riding around to revive this tradition. It was there that he became next in the line of bona fide Crow chiefs. Killing the enemy wasn’t a necessary condition according to Indian lore, so he didn’t.
Reading the the story of his remaining 71 years of life is an overwhelming exercise which, nevertheless, I encourage you to do. As a Chief, researcher, tour guide, human rights activist and storyteller, Joseph Medicine Crow went about his business with the same resilience and humanity as he walked the war path.