History is not made simply by passages of entry and exit into this world. History is an accumulation of one’s life experiences and interplay of all types of beings―humans, animals and otherwise―along with elements of the natural world and forces that we cannot control. Sunday April 3, 2016 marked the passage of Joe Medicine Crow, who made history not by leaving this earth at the age of 102, but by creating history through the amazing deeds, thoughts and words over his lifetime. Joe had experiences that most of us cannot imagine or grasp as reality. Often when elders pass we say, “Oh, the changes he must have seen…” Joe was not just seeing these changes, he was making these changes. This was his life. Whether it was completing four unbelievably courageous war deeds during World War II to earn the honor of war chief, achieving advanced degrees, accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and sharing his amazing talent for scholarship and oral histories of the Crow Tribe, his accomplishments more than filled one lifetime. The news coverage has eloquently and accurately portrayed Joe’s accolades, but there are details of his contributions to the Plains Indian Museum of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West that aren’t as well known, but nonetheless significant.
Joe was one of the founding members of the Plains Indian Museum Advisory Board, which was formed on June 18, 1976 at a Trustees meeting of the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association in Cody, Wyoming. The Plains Indian Museum was one of the first museums (if not the first) in the nation to include American Indian members for board membership in order to represent their respective cultures in the formation of a museum. Joe and other Advisors worked with the Board’s building committee, architects, educators, and consultants to design the physical building of the Plains Indian wing as well as the creating the intellectual and cultural contents of the exhibitions. The Plains Indian Museum opened in 1979.
Over twenty years passed, which is when I met Joe as he was still actively participating in Plains Indian Museum Advisory Board meetings as well as our annual Powwow. In 1996 discussion began about updating the Plains Indian Museum wing. Technologies had changed, audiences were growing, and it was time to draw upon the knowledge of our Advisors and others to reinstall, or “reinterpret” the museum to best use the extensive and precious collections. We still have files overflowing with notes from meetings, conference calls and lengthy discussion about direction and presentation. Looking back on this time of planning, there were so many voices – and not all were in agreement or support of our efforts to re-awaken what we knew was still a treasure of a museum. Joe had certain clarity; he often gave the opening blessing at our Advisory Board meetings and always reminded us of the history of the museum, as well as the need to focus on our future direction. During a conceptual design meeting, shortly after a lunch of soup and sandwiches, Joe provided one such moment of clarity for those privileged enough to hear his overview of “the big picture.” He flipped over his empty soup bowl and explained not only how we could look at the circular physical layout of the Plains Indian Museum, but told us a lot about life. In his words, illustrated by the inverted bowl, he shared “The circle is actually a dome. Within it is a rich mixture of human experience. It represents holistic harmony.” A later illustration of Joe’s explanation in the design plans showed Spirituality, Beliefs, and Values at the apex of the dome, with linked spheres of “human experience” contained within. The human experiences were a circular composite of elements. Language, environment, change, seasons, origins, and others co-existing in a space defined only by its contents. Joe helped us to slow down so that we might listen and think about what we really needed to consider.
Although his hearing began to fail as he approached the 100th year of his life, his mind was sharp and his heart and voice strong. He sang an honor song for Prince Albert II of Monaco during his 2013 visit to the Center, clear and unwavering. Joe was awarded the Spirit of the American West Award from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, an honor which may have paled in comparison to a Presidential Medal of Honor, but one that he graciously accepted and added to a cache of accolades. He rarely missed a Powwow here in June and served as the honored elder to perform the pipe invocation. Once he was done in the arena, he would rest for a bit in the shade of the stage and have some coffee (cream and sugar always) and until his most recent years, would dance in the Golden Age Category with the younger participants who were aged 55 and older. He would sit and watch, quietly taking in generations of dancers who were carrying on traditions that he had helped perpetuate. One of his final visits to Cody was to serve as the Grand Marshall for the 2015 Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede 4th of July Parade. Riding in style, he perched upon the back seat of a cherry red convertible in his eagle feather bonnet and beaded Crow regalia.
Although Joe retired and became an Emeritus member of the Advisory Board and Honorary Trustee of the Center, he still came to meetings to offer a blessing, a great story, and a reminder to all of us that we must cherish our elders and all that comes with them. Thank you Joe. As you travel to your next lifetime you have left us with so much to treasure.