Rain in the Face

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Rain in the Face

Rain in the Face (c.1835–1905), also called Itonagaju, was a Hunkpapa Sioux Native American. He was a warrior, often leading the band, in several battles with the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, including the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of 1876—the battle where Sitting Bull led troops against the forces of General Armstrong Custer, where both Custer and his brother were killed.

The warrior was known as Chief Rain in the Face, and as he had no chiefs on either side of his family, it was a title he had to work for. Chief did not mean leader of a tribe; things were decided by council. Chief was an honorary title that was applied to a warrior whose deeds in battle were considered to be great, and Rain in the Face certainly fit the bill.

Acquired His Name

Rain in the Face was born around 1835 in North Dakota at the forks of the Cheyenne River. He was one of five sons, including Bear's Face, Red Thunder, Iron Horn, Little Bear, and Shave Head. There have been many debates about how Rain in the Face got his name—Native Americans put a great emphasis on their acquired names, and therefore how a person got their name was important. One story said that he received his name as a child. Purportedly he was hanging in his cradle from a tree branch when it began to rain. Some of the rain made it through the branches and hit his face, hence the name Rain in the Face. In a famous interview with Charles Eastman, however, he said he got his name from two other happenings in his life. One incident occurred when he was fighting with a Cheyenne youth and blood washed his face paint away. The second one occurred when he was a young man and was battling the Gros Ventre. Eastman quoted Rain in the Face as having said: "I had wished my face to represent the sun when half covered with darkness, so I painted it half black, the other half red. We fought all day in the rain, and my face was partly washed and streaked with red and black: so again I was christened Rain in the Face. We considered it an honorable name." However he came to earn his name, it is certain that Rain in the Face became a powerful and venerable warrior.

Battled Encroaching White Men

Rain in the Face became a warrior very young, and almost from the beginning he was fighting against the whites who were forcing their way onto Sioux land, as well as fighting with neighboring enemy tribes. At the mere age of ten Rain in the Face took part in a war against the Gros Ventres. One of his first important battles was in December of 1866 when he fought against Captain William Fetterman's troops at Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. This was one of the famous battles fought by the Native American warrior Red Cloud who was trying to gain back control of all the land along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana. Fetterman was under strict instructions not to fight or engage the Native Americans, but he went against his orders when a small band of Native Americans approached his men. The warriors ran away and the soldiers followed them into a valley where the soldiers were surrounded by a much larger delegation of warriors and were completely massacred. It became known as the Fetterman Massacre. The battle was a victory for Red Cloud and his band of warriors, and Rain in the Face gained great honor for his part in the battle.

At this same time Rain in the Face fought against other Native American tribes, including the Crow, Mandan, Gros Ventre, and Pawnee tribes. It was the custom for Native Americans to join in these battles against opposing tribes in order to gain recognition and honor as strong and mighty warriors. It was seen as just as good and honorable as fighting those white men who were crossing their land uninvited. One such opportunity to battle with opposing tribes came for Rain in the Face when he joined in raids against expeditions of white men crossing Sioux territory on their way to the gold mines in the Black Hills of South Dakota. According to Eastman, Rain in the Face said, "It was when the white men found the yellow metal in our country, and came in great numbers, driving away our game, that we took up arms against them for the last time…. We young warriors began to watch the trails of the white men into the Black Hills, and when we saw a wagon coming we would hide at the crossing and kill them all without much trouble. We did this to discourage the whites from coming into our country without our permission. It was the duty of our Great Father at Washington, by the agreement of 1868, to keep his white children away." Rain in the Face was referring to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which said that the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux. When the pioneers ignored this treaty, the Sioux would feel completely justified in fighting them.

Battled Near Tongue River

In 1873 Rain in the Face was involved in the most controversial of his battles. In the summer of 1873 General George Armstrong Custer led his troops into the Yellowstone River area to serve as protectors and escorts for the people surveying for the Northern Pacific railroad. They were attacked by a band of Native Americans near the mouth of the Tongue River and then again near the mouth of the Big Horn. One soldier and two civilians, Balliran and Honsinger were killed in the first battle. Four men were killed in the second battle. Word was brought to Custer that Rain in the Face was boasting that he had killed the two civilians. Custer sent his brother, Captain Tom Custer, and another officer Captain Yates to go to the Standing Rock Agency to put Rain in the Face under arrest. They took 100 men with them and managed to bring Rain in the Face back to Fort Abraham Lincoln where General Custer was stationed.

Rain in the Face confessed to the murders and was imprisoned. Not long after, however, a guard who felt badly for the Native American let him escape, and he was never recaptured. The case went to court several years later, and Rain in the Face was tried for murder, but it was decided by the judge that the two men were killed during a battle and therefore the killings were not murder, but the natural happenings of war. Rain in the Face was cleared of all charges. It later came out that Rain in the Face never really understood what he had been imprisoned for, as he did not speak English. He thought he was in prison because of killing a lone soldier, a different man than any from the battle he was arrested for. The battle he had considered himself arrested for was one he fought because he had not yet become noted for any great deed. Another Sioux, Wapaypay, and Rain in the Face seized and killed a soldier who was traveling from his fort to his home back East. It had been an ambush, clear and simple, and it was this murder that Rain in the Face was admitting to. It was supposed then that Rain in the Face was confused by all the events in his case, and never actually learned what he was charged with when he was captured and exonerated. Since he was exonerated, the confusion never mattered.

Fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn

The stories around Rain in the Face are many and varied, and it will probably never be known which ones are true and which ones were made up—to strike fear or revenge in the hearts of his enemies. One of the most pervasive said that Rain in the Face swore to get revenge on Tom Custer for his arrest, threatening to tear out his heart as recompense. Whatever the truth of the matter, not long after Rain in the Face was arrested and released he was one of the leading warriors in the most famous of battles: Sitting Bull's fight against General Custer's troops when those troops were defeated at the Battle of Little Bighorn in southern Montana. The fight was started because Sitting Bull, tired of all the white men intruding onto their lands illegally, had put together a band of warriors, including Rain in the Face, to push back the white soldiers. General Custer, tired of the killing of his men, gathered and led a troop to stop the Native Americans before the situation got worse. The general came upon a small group of the Native Americans and put together a plan to attack them, going against orders. It ended up that there were three times the amount of Native Americans hidden in the area than the General had troops, and the entire fighting delegation was wiped out. It was a move that was not well thought out because the General did not know the terrain very well, and Rain in the Face and his fellow warriors did. Rumors ran throughout the country that Rain in the Face at the battle got his revenge on Tom Custer by taking his heart. Many people wrote about the incident, some writing on the side of Rain in the Face and some on Custer's. Each, however, seemed to write with a particular political design in mind, and therefore it was very difficult to make out the truth of the matter. In any case, Tom Custer's body was found mutilated after the battle, but his chest cavity was intact.

After the battle, when the Sioux Native Americans were displaced from their home, Rain in the Face moved to Canada with a group of warriors, including Sitting Bull. By the winter of 1880 to 1881 Rain in the Face had returned to the United States and surrendered with others at Fort Keogh in Montana. He spent the rest of his life on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Rain in the Face was quoted in the interview with Eastman as having said, "I have lived peaceably ever since we came upon the reservation. No one can say that Rain in the Face has broken the rules of the Great Father. I fought for my people and my country. When we were conquered I remained silent, as a warrior should. Rain in the Face was killed when he put down his weapons before the Great Father. His spirit was gone then; only his poor body lived on, but now it is almost ready to lie down for the last time. Ho, hechetu! [It is well.]" Rain in the Face died on September 14, 1905, in North Dakota at his home on the Standing Rock reservation. He was buried near Aberdeen, South Dakota.


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Notable Native Americans, Gale Research, 1995.


"Excerpt from Interview with Charles A. Eastman," Carved Eggs, http://www.carved-eggs.com/rain_in_the_face's_story.htm (January 6, 2006).

"Rain in the Face," Custer's Last Stand Reenactment, http://www.custerslaststand.org/source/rainface.html (January 6, 2006).

"Rain-in-the-Face/Itonagaju," Indigenous People, http://www.indigenouspeople.net/rainface.htm (January 6, 2006).

"Rain in the Face," Spartacus Educational, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Wwrain.htm (January 6, 2006).

"Rain-in-the-Face," World Wide School, http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/hst/northamerican/IndianHeroesGreatChieftains/chap8.html (January 6, 2006).

"Who Was Rain-in-the-Face," Canku Ota, http://www.turtletrack.org/Issues00/Co06172000/CO_06172000_Who.htm (January 6, 2006).