Side portrait of Rain-in-the-Face with headdress.
(LIBI Archives/Library)

A Hunkpapa Lakota, Rain-in-the-Face was born about 1835 near the forks of the Cheyenne River. He did not inherit a chieftainship from his family but had to earn his standing among his people. Rain-in-the-Face had a reputation for belligerence from early boyhood. At the age of ten, he got into a fight with a "friendly" Cheyenne, the result of which his face was bloodied and streaked with blood, thus giving him his name. Later, as a young man, in an all-day fight with the Gros Ventres, his face paint was streaked with rain, reinforcing his name.

A chain of events began during the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873. During the expedition two civilians, Sutler Augustus Baliran and Dr. John Honsinger, after leaving the soldier column to obtain water along the river bank, were attacked and killed by Indians. Sixteen months later, at Standing Rock Agency, guide Charlie Reynolds observed Rain-in-the-Face, at a ceremonial dance, acting out the killing of at least one of the civilians. Reynolds reported what he had learned to George Armstrong Custer back at Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Custer dispatched Captain Tom Custer and Captain George Yates with two companies of 7th Cavalry to arrest Rain-in-the-Face. Tom, Charley Reynolds, and four other troopers entered the agency store at Standing Rock and placed themselves strategically within. After waiting for hours, Reynolds recognized Rain-in-the-Face at the counter of the store. As Tom moved closer to the warrior, Rain-in-the-Face sensed the closeness of the soldier, and began to uncover the rifle in his hands. Tom lunged forward and threw his arms around the warrior. With the help of another soldier, they disarmed Rain-in-the-Face, secured his arms behind his back, and hustled him out of the building to the taunts and threats of numerous warriors. Custer and Yates succeeded in returning their prisoner to the guardhouse at Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Rain-in-the-Face deeply resented Tom Custer for his part in his arrest. He threatened to kill Tom and eat his heart. Three months later Rain-in-the-Face made his escape from the guardhouse. Before he left he repeated his threat to Tom Custer.

Rain-in-the-Face was over forty at the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but remained an active warrior. On the day of the battle he was invited to a warrior society's lodge to discuss a raid on the Crows. While eating, he was surprised by firing from the south as Reno's troopers approached the village. By the time Rain-in-the-Face prepared for battle and gathered his weapons, Custer's troops appeared on the ridge across the river. Warriors in large numbers moved downstream and crossed the river at the ford. Some warriors rode both into and through the troops, and others circled around them at a distance. Rain-in-the-Face said that after being surrounded some soldiers moved south as a group and most fought together until they were overrun. When interviewed later, Rain-in-the-Face claimed to have shot Tom Custer, but that he did not eat his heart.

Tom Custer's body was found close to that of his brother, George Armstrong Custer, after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Tom was badly mutilated and disemboweled but there was no evidence that his heart had been cut out. Whether Rain-in-the-Face recognized Tom Custer in the battle is uncertain, but he denied cutting his heart out and eating it.

Rain-in-the-Face retreated to Canada with Sitting Bull in early 1877. He remained in Canada until the fall of 1880 when he returned with a band of followers to Fort Keogh in Montana Territory. He was then transferred down to Fort Yates at the Standing Rock Agency. From 1888 to 1890, Rain-in-the-Face supported Sitting Bull in resisting Lakota land sessions in western South Dakota. He was so crippled from old wounds that he could only walk with crutches. His concern that he would be excluded from any benefits, resulted in his signing the land agreement that reduced Lakota lands by more than half and resulted in the five Lakota reservation boundaries of today.

Rain-in-the-Face died in 1905 where he made his home at the Standing Rock Agency, North Dakota.

Last updated: January 7, 2023

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