Someday soon, I'm going to have to go through the thousands of books I've accumlated throughout my life and toss out a ton. My professional life has been all about books, so I've likely got more than your ordinary old retiree. Across the room from me here in the basement is a library full of Native American stuff, shelves full I accumulated since the time I was writing Touches the Sky, stacks I still replenish.
Those books would be hard to get rid of because I'm closer to them than I am to the Norton Anthologys and their counterparts in my school office, books that have been there for more than 30 years, as long as I have. I'm not sure how it happened, but it did: the books I value most are down here with me. Most of the finest white 19th century American novelists--Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Frank Norris--are there, but it won't hurt to give them away. The Native books will be tough, and a lot of them, I'm afraid, will come with, wherever we go.
I'm deeply invested in that whole world for some reasons, and have been now for years. Why? I don't know how that happened exactly, but all I need to do is look at this old Edward Curtis portrait of a Crow, from Montana, to know that it has. This man is the grandfather of Joseph Medicine Crow, the man who raised him, in fact. That's Joseph in the WW II army shirt above.
Joseph Medicine Crow was the first man from his people to attend college, the first to earn a masters degree. He's an anthropologist, and a war hero. During the war, he led a raid on a German camp and--listen to this--stole 50 horses. I'm not making this up. Once in hand-to-hand street fighting in France, he allowed a German soldier he'd been fighting to live. For numerous acts of selflessness during WWII, Joseph Medicine Crow was awarded the Bronze Star, and made, by his people, the last traditional chief.
I think it's virtually impossible to look at the great picture of his grandfather and not see immense dignity and pride, dignity and pride that white folks, some of them (not all) well-intentioned, wanted to take from Native Americans who once roamed freely from Massachusetts Bay to the Puget Sound. Across America, the story is always the same. Look at this man. Honestly, white folks, lots of them, wanted him dead. Others, fewer, simply wanted him white. In either case, there had to be a funeral. And there has been.
The story of Native America has often been told, and among the finest tellers is this man's own grandson, Joseph Medicine Crow. For his efforts he's been given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama in 2009. This little film clip, a wonder, shows him getting that medal. If you don't think that little clip is a wonder, you don't understand what I'm saying.
But all the storytelling in America doesn't mean that white America hears. I'm convinced we'd rather not listen, quite frankly. If you're Anglo, it's not a nice story. Little about it earns us any pride.
All of this arises because today is Joseph Medicine Crow's 98th birthday, the oldest living member of the Crow tribe. He is a real live human being, a wonderful man, a leader of his people, a teacher extraordinaire; but he's also a symbol of what we white folks need to remember, even though we would so much rather forget.
This morning's thanks are for Joseph Medicine Crow--what he is, what he has been, and what he's taught us all to remember. Those who have ears need to hear.