BILLINGS, Mont. – Joseph Medicine Crow walked in "two worlds" — white and Native American — and made his mark on each.
Medicine Crow, who died Sunday in a Billings hospice at the age of 102, grew up in a log home on Montana's Crow Indian Reservation, hearing stories during his childhood from direct participants in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Decades later, he returned from World War II a hero in his own right for performing a series of daring deeds that made him his tribe's last surviving war chief.
Medicine Crow went on to become a Native American historian who gained recognition in scholarly circles, even as he sought to live according to Crow tradition.
"I always told people, when you meet Joe Medicine Crow, you're shaking hands with the 19th Century," said Herman Viola, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Indians. "He really wanted to walk in both worlds, the white world and the Indian world, and he knew education was a key to success."
Services are planned for Wednesday in Crow Agency, a town on the Crow Reservation. Medicine Crow will be buried at the Apsaalooke Veterans Cemetery, according to Bullis Mortuary funeral home.
A member of the Crow Tribe's Whistling Water clan, Medicine Crow was raised by his grandparents near Lodge Grass, Montana, where Medicine Crow continued to live in the years leading to his death.
His Crow name was "High Bird." He recalled listening as a child to stories about the Battle of the Little Bighorn from those who were there, including his grandmother's brother, White Man Runs Him, a scout for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
His grandfather, Yellowtail, raised Medicine Crow to be a warrior. The training began when Medicine Crow was just 6 or 7, with a grueling physical regimen that included running barefoot in the snow to toughen the boy's feet and spirit.
"Warfare was our highest art, but Plains Indian warfare was not about killing. It was about intelligence, leadership, and honor," Medicine Crow wrote in his 2006 book "Counting Coup."
During World War II, Medicine Crow completed the deeds necessary to earn the title of war chief, including stealing horses from an enemy encampment and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier whose life Medicine Crow ultimately spared.
Prior to leaving for the European front, Medicine Crow in 1939 became the first of his tribe to receive a master's degree, in anthropology. Upon his return from the war, Medicine Crow was designated tribal historian by the Crow Tribal Council, a position he filled for decades — all the while cataloging his people's nomadic history by collecting firsthand accounts of pre-reservation life from fellow tribal members.
With his prodigious memory, Medicine Crow could accurately recall decades later the names, dates and exploits from the oral history he was exposed to as a child, Viola said. Those included tales told by four of the six Crow scouts who were at Custer's side at Little Bighorn and who Medicine Crow knew personally.
Yet Medicine Crow also embraced the changes that came with the settling of the West, and he worked to bridge his people's cultural traditions with the opportunities of modern society, said Viola, who first met Medicine Crow in 1972 and collaborated with him on several books.
Even after his hearing and eyesight faded, Medicine Crow continued to lecture into his 90s on the Battle of Little Bighorn and other major events in Crow history.
His voice became familiar to many outside the region as the narrator for American Indian exhibits in major museums across the country.
President Barack Obama awarded Medicine Crow the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
During the White House ceremony, Obama referred to Medicine Crow as "a good man, a 'bacheitche' in Crow."
"(His) life reflects not only the warrior spirit of the Crow people, but America's highest ideals," Obama said.
He was nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal and was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Southern California and Montana's Rocky Mountain College.
Associated Press writer Steven K. Paulson contributed to this report.
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