By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on November 8, 2023.
When Joe Crow Chief enlisted he didn’t know what he was signing on for, says his son.
“He thought it was just going to be local,” Elder Charlie Crow Chief said of his father who served in the First World War and was recently honoured in a mountain naming ceremony that saw the Vimy Ridge mountain in Waterton receive a Blackfoot name.
Joe and his brother, Nick King, had only recently left residential school when they enlisted with the 191 Battalion in Fort Macleod. Their grandfather fought in the Battle of the Belly River in 1870, and though, as Indigenous men, they were exempt from conscription they came from a legacy of warriors.
Joe and Nick were not the only Indigenous men to enlist, with over 4,000 Indigenous people serving in uniform from 1914 to 1918, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
“They fight for our treaty,” says Charlie, explaining the perspectives of those who did choose to enlist. “If the Germans take over, we’re finished with our treaty, peace treaty. So that’s the reason most of these natives went. To fight for our treaty.”
Whether Joe saw his service as in defence of the treaty or continuing a legacy, he was an asset to his platoon. “He was a messenger, and he could run,” says Charlie “He was fast like a weasel, sneaking around. And these are the things I heard from others, but from him he wouldn’t tell me.”
Now 91, Charlie says his father, Joe, didn’t speak often of his experiences in the war. Stories from other sources, however, describe the harrowing battles the senior Crow Chief faced. One such story tells of Joe making it behind enemy defence lines while in the thick of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. As German soldiers fired at the Allies, Joe let out a war cry so loud the enemies dropped their weapons, thinking they had been surrounded.
But despite his undeniable contributions to the victory of the Allied forces, Charlie says his father thought more of the harm he had caused.
“Just before he passed away, the night before, he says ‘bullets go back and forth. All my life, sometimes, I think about the people I hurt.'”
Joe’s remorse was not just something that developed in his later years.
Upon his return to Canada, his group made a stop in Medicine Hat before reaching Fort Macleod. When they arrived at the train station in Fort Macleod, it was discovered Joe had stayed behind.
“He didn’t want to be honoured for his deeds, because there had been too much bloodshed,” explained Charlie’s wife, Betty Crow Chief.
Despite his father’s experiences, Charlie tried to enlist during the Korean war. “I went to Calgary to join in ’49, in the army, and I was underage,” says Charlie, explaining he was told he would need a parental signature on his forms. “I brought it home, my dad looked at it, rolled it, and put it in the fire. He says, ‘you’re not ready’.”
Charlie tried twice more to enlist, however an accident had left him without a right thumb and on both occasions he was turned away. The line of serving Crow Chiefs continued though, with Charlie’s grandson, Preston, serving for 16 years with the Canadian military, including tours in Afghanistan.
In June of 2023, members of the Crow Chief family, including Preston, gathered to gift Vimy Ridge mountain in Waterton with the name MaisstooinastÃ¡ko, meaning ‘Crow Chief Mountain.’ As part of the naming ceremony, the mountain had to be captured, a ceremonial practice that must be completed by a veteran and involves circling the captee four times before presenting them – or in this case, it – to be named. A now retired sergeant, Preston Crow Chief did the honours for his great-grandfather.
The last words Joe Crow Chief said to his son, Charlie, were a reminder to pour rum on his grave after his death. Now, 47 years after his passing, the family gathers at the burial site of their former patriarch to honour his service and share in a ceremonial drink every year on Remembrance Day.
This year, they will do the same, however now, Joe Crow Chief will not only be remembered as a veteran, a father, and grandfather, but as a man whose impact has been such, it captured even a mountain.