President Barack Obama had to poke his head around the feathers of Joe Medicine Crow's warrior headdress to hang the nation's highest civilian honor on the Crow Indian elder's chest.
The white eagle feathers on the headdress and the gold eagles that surround the white star in the medal are symbolic of the esteem that Medicine Crow has earned in service to his tribe and the nation.
The headdress represents Medicine Crow's status as a warrior chief of the Crow Tribe, earned by war deeds he performed in World War II. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed in a White House ceremony Wednesday, represents his role as a living legend in America.
After taking the medal from a military aide, Obama turned and waved Medicine Crow forward to receive the honor, which credits the 96-year-old's efforts to preserve the tribe's culture and history.
The men briefly hugged after Obama placed the medal on Medicine Crow, hanging it on his beaded vest.
Medicine Crow was nominated for the honor last year by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. In a written statement after the ceremony, Tester lauded Medicine Crow as someone who is a lifelong role model.
"Joe's incredible life is chock-full of historic occasions. Today is no different," Tester said. "Montanans will be talking about Joe and the stories of his heroism for generations. He earned the Medal of Freedom a long time ago as an American warrior, as a teacher, as a lifelong student of history and culture, and as a role model for his tribe. Today Joe is honored as a role model for all of America."
The ceremony marked Medicine Crow's third meeting with Obama, who is Medicine Crow's clan nephew after the president was adopted into the tribe during a campaign stump in Crow Agency last summer. They also had an exchange last August when Obama held a meeting with veterans in Billings.
On Wednesday, the citation read as Obama presented the medal to Medicine Crow praised him as a "symbol of strength and survival" who is a warrior and a living legend.
Raised in Lodge Grass by traditional grandparents, Medicine Crow in 1939 became the first of his tribe to receive a master's degree, in anthropology. He is the oldest member of the Crow and the tribe's sole surviving war chief - an honor bestowed for a series of accomplishments during World War II, including hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier whose life Medicine Crow spared, and stealing horses from the enemy.
After the war, he became tribal historian for the Crow and lectured extensively on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He also worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
During Wednesday's ceremony, Obama said that while in battle Medicine Crow kept a sacred feather under his helmet and wore war paint under his uniform.
Medicine Crow joined 15 other recipients in receiving the Medal of Freedom.
"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," Obama said. "Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.
"Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive. It is my great honor to award them the Medal of Freedom."