By Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa)
The noted Sioux warrior, Rain-in-the-Face, whose name once carried terror to every part of the frontier, died at his home on the Standing Rock reserve in North Dakota on September 14, 1905. About two months before his death, I went to see him for the last time, where he lay upon the bed of sickness from which he never rose again and drew from him his life history.
It had been my experience that you cannot induce an Indian to tell a story, or even his own name, by asking him directly.
“Friend,” I said, “even if a man is on a hot trail, he stops for a smoke! In the good old days, before the charge, there was a smoke. At home, by the fireside, when the old men were asked to tell their brave deeds, again, the pipe was passed. So come, let us smoke now to the memory of the old days!”
He took of my tobacco and filled his long pipe, and we smoked. Then I told an old mirthful story to get him in the humor of relating his own history.
The old man lay upon an iron bedstead, covered by a red blanket, in the corner of the little log cabin. He was alone that day; only an old dog lay silent and watchful at his master’s feet.
Finally, he looked up and said with a pleasant smile:
“True, friend; it is the old custom to retrace one’s trail before leaving it forever! I know that I am at the door of the spirit home.
“I was born near the forks of the Cheyenne River about 70 years ago. My father was not a chief; my grandfather was not a chief but a good hunter and a feast-maker. I had some noted ancestors on my mother’s side, but they left me no chieftainship. I had to work for my reputation.
“When I was a boy, I loved to fight,” he continued. “In all our boyish games, I had the name of being hard to handle, and I took much pride in the fact.
“I was about ten years old when we encountered a band of Cheyenne. They were on friendly terms with us, but we boys always indulged in sham fights on such occasions, and this time I got in an honest fight with a Cheyenne boy older than I. I got the best of the boy, but he struck me in the face several times, and my face was all spattered with blood and streaked where the paint had been washed away. The Sioux boys whooped and yelled:
“‘His enemy is down, and his face is spattered as if with rain! Rain-in-the-Face! His name shall be Rain-in-the-Face!’
“Afterwards, when I was a young man, we went on a warpath against the Gros Ventre. We stole some of their horses but were overtaken and had to abandon them and fight for our lives. I had wished my face to represent the sun when partly covered with darkness, so I painted it half black, 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.
“I had been on many warpaths but was not especially successful until the Sioux began to fight with the white man. One of the most daring attacks we ever made was at Fort Totten, North Dakota, in the summer of 1866.
“Hohay, the Assiniboine captive of Sitting Bull, was the leader in this raid. Wapaypay, the Fearless Bear, who was afterward hanged at Yankton, was the bravest man among us. He dared Hohay to make the charge. Hohay accepted the challenge and in turn, dared the other to ride with him through the agency and right under the fort’s walls, which were well-garrisoned and strong.
“Wapaypay and I in those days called each other ‘brother-friend.’ It was a life-and-death vow. What one does, the other must do, which meant that I must be in the forefront of the charge, and if he is killed, I must fight until I die also!
“I prepared for death. I painted as usual like an eclipse of the sun, half black and half red.”
His eyes gleamed, and his face lighted up remarkably as he talked, pushing his black hair back from his forehead with a nervous gesture.
“Now, the signal for the charge was given! I started even with Wapaypay, but his horse was faster than mine, so he left me a little behind as we neared the fort. This was bad for me, for by that time the soldiers had somewhat recovered from the surprise and were aiming better.
“Their big gun talked very loud, but my Wapaypay was leading on, leaning forward on his fleet pony like a flying squirrel on a smooth log! He held his rawhide shield on the right side, a little to the front, and so did I. Our war-whoop was like the coyotes singing in the evening when they smell blood!
“The soldiers” guns talked fast, but few were hurt. Their big gun was like a toothless old dog, which only makes himself hotter the more noise he makes,” he remarked with some humor.
“How much harm we did, I do not know, but we made things lively for a time, and the white men acted as people do when a swarm of angry bees gets into camp. We made a successful retreat, but some of the reservation Indians followed us, yelling until Hohay told them that he did not wish to fight with the captives of the white man, for there would be no honor in that. Blood ran down my leg, and I found that my horse and I were slightly wounded.
“Some two years later, we attacked a fort west of the Black Hills [Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming]. It was there we killed one hundred soldiers.” [The military reports say eighty men, under the command of Captain Fetterman — not one left alive to tell the tale!] “Nearly every band of the Sioux Nation was represented in that fight — Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and all our great chiefs were there. Of course, such men as I were then comparatively unknown. However, many noted young warriors, including Sword, the younger Young-Man-Afraid, American Horse [afterward chief], Crow King, and others.
“This was the plan decided upon after many councils. The main war party lay in ambush, and a few of the bravest young men were appointed to attack the woodchoppers who were cutting logs to complete the building of the fort. We were told not to kill these men but to chase them into the fort and retreat slowly, defying the white men, and if the soldiers should follow, we were to lead them into the ambush. They took our bait exactly as we had hoped!
It was a matter of a few minutes, for every soldier lay dead in a shorter time than it takes to annihilate a small herd of buffalo.
“This attack was hastened because most of the Sioux on the Missouri River and eastward had begun to talk of suing for peace. But even this did not stop the peace movement. The very next year, a treaty was signed at Fort Rice, Dakota Territory, by nearly all the Sioux chiefs, in which it was agreed on the part of the Great Father in Washington that all the country north of the Republican River in Nebraska, including the Black Hills and the Big Horn Mountains, was to be always Sioux country. No white man should intrude upon it without our permission. Even with this agreement Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were unsatisfied and would not sign.
“Up to this time, I had fought in some important battles but had achieved no great deed. I was ambitious to make a name for myself. I joined war parties against the Crow, Mandan, Gros Ventre, and Pawnee and gained little distinction.
“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. I must say here that the loudest chiefs for war were among the first to submit and accept reservation life. Spotted Tail was a great warrior, yet he was among the first to yield because the Chief soldiers promised to make him chief of all the Sioux. Ugh! he would have stayed with Sitting Bull to the last had it not been for his ambition.
“About this 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.
“There was excitement among the people, and a great council was held. Many spoke. I was asked about the condition of those Indians who had gone to the reservation, and I told them that they were nothing more than prisoners. It was decided to go out and meet Three Stars “General Crook” at a safe distance from our camp.
“We met him on the Little Rosebud. If we had waited and allowed him to make the attack, he would have fared no better than Custer. He was too strongly fortified where he was, and I think, too, that he was saved partly by his Indian allies, for the scouts discovered us first and fought us first, thus giving him time to make his preparations. I think he was more wise than brave! After we had left that neighborhood, he might have pushed on and connected with the Long-Haired Chief. That would have saved Custer and perhaps won the day.
“When we crossed from Tongue River to the Little Big Horn, on account of the scarcity of game, we did not anticipate any more trouble. Our runners had discovered that Crook had retraced his trail to Goose Creek, and we did not suppose that the white men would care to follow us farther into the rough country.
“Suddenly, the Long-Haired Chief appeared with his men! It was a surprise.”
“During the troublesome time after this treaty, which no one seemed to respect, either white or Indian [but the whites broke it first], I was like many other young men — much on the warpath, but with little honor. I had not yet become noted for any great deed.
Finally, Wapaypay and I waylaid and killed a white soldier on his way from the fort to his home in the east.
“There were a few Indians who were liars and never on the warpath, playing ‘good Indian’ with the Indian agents and the war chiefs at the forts. Some of this faithless set betrayed me and told more than I ever did.
“I was seized and taken to the fort near Bismarck, North Dakota [Fort Abraham Lincoln], by a brother [Tom Custer] of the Long-Haired War Chief and imprisoned there. These same lying Indians, who were selling their services as scouts to the white man, told me I was to be shot to death or be hanged upon a tree. I answered that I was not afraid to die.
“However, there was an old soldier who used to bring my food and stand guard over me — he was a white man, it is true, but he had an Indian heart! He came to me one day and unfastened the iron chain and ball with which they had locked my leg, saying by signs and what little Sioux he could muster:
“‘Go, friend! take the chain and ball with you. I shall shoot, but the voice of the gun will lie.’
“When he made me understand, you may guess I ran my best! I was almost over the bank when he fired his piece at me several times, but I had already gained cover and was safe. I have never told this before and would not, lest it should injure him, but he was an old man then, and I am sure he must be dead long since. That old soldier taught me that some white people have hearts,” he added seriously.
“I went back to Standing Rock in the night, and I had to hide for several days in the woods, where food was brought to me by my relatives. The Indian police were ordered to retake me and pretended to hunt for me, but they did not, for if they had found me, I would have died with one or two of them, and they knew it! In a few days, I departed with several others, and we rejoined the hostile camp on the Powder River and made some trouble for the men building the great iron track north of us [Northern Pacific].
“The hostile Sioux reunited again in the spring upon the Tongue River. It was one of the greatest camps of the Sioux that I ever saw. There were some Northern Cheyenne with us, under Two Moon, and a few Santee Sioux renegades from Canada, under Inkpaduta, who had previously killed white people in Iowa. We had decided to fight the white soldiers until no warrior should be left.”
At this point, Rain-in-the-Face took up his tobacco pouch and began again to fill his pipe.
“Of course, the younger warriors were delighted with the prospect of a great fight! Our scouts had discovered piles of oats for horses and other supplies near the Missouri River. The white man’s fireboats had brought them. They reported a great army about a day’s travel to the south with Shoshone and Crow scouts.
“What part of the camp were you in when the soldiers attacked the lower end?” I asked.
“I had been invited to a feast at one of the young men’s lodges [a sort of club.] There was a certain warrior who was making preparations to go against the Crow, and I had decided to go also,” he said.
“While I was eating my meat, we heard the war cry! We all rushed out and saw a warrior riding at top speed from the lower camp, giving the warning as he came. Then we heard the reports of the soldiers’ guns, which sounded different from those fired by our people in battle.
“I ran to my teepee and seized my gun, a bow, and a quiver full of arrows. I already had my stone war club, for we usually carry those by way of ornament. Just as I was about to meet Reno, a body of soldiers appeared nearly opposite us at the edge of a long line of cliffs across the river.
“All who were mounted and ready immediately started down the stream toward the ford. There were Oglala, Minneconjou, Cheyenne, and some Unkpapa; those around me seemed to be nearly all very young men.
“‘Behold, there is among us a young woman!’ I shouted. ‘Let no young man hide behind her garment!’ I knew that would make those young men brave.
“The woman was Tashenamani, or Moving Robe, whose brother had just been killed in the fight with Three Stars. Holding her brother’s war staff over her head and leaning forward upon her charger, she looked as pretty as a bird. Always when a woman is in the charge, it causes the warriors to vie with one another in displaying their valor,” he added.
“The foremost warriors had almost surrounded the white men, and more were continually crossing the stream. The soldiers had dismounted and were firing into the camp from the top of the cliff.”
“My friend, was Sitting Bull in this fight?” I inquired.
“I did not see him there, but I learned afterward that he was among those who met Reno, three or four of the white man’s miles from Custer’s position. Later he joined the attack upon Custer but was not among the foremost.
“When the troops were surrounded on two sides, with the river on the third, the order came to charge! Many very young men, some of whom had only a war staff or a stone war club in hand, plunged into the column, knocking the men over and stampeding their horses.
“The soldiers had mounted and started back, but when the onset came, they dismounted again and separated into several divisions, facing different ways. They fired as fast as they could load their guns while we chiefly used arrows and war clubs. There seemed to be two distinct movements among the Indians. One body moved continually in a circle while the other rode directly into and through the troops.
“Presently, some of the soldiers remounted and fled along the ridge toward Reno’s position; but they were followed by our warriors, like hundreds of blackbirds after a hawk. A larger body remained together at the upper end of a little ravine and fought bravely until they were cut to pieces. I had always thought that white men were cowards, but I greatly respected them after this day.
“It is generally said that a young man with nothing but a war staff in his hand broke through the column and knocked down the leader very early in the fight. We supposed him to be the leader because he stood in full view, swinging his big knife [sword] over his head and talking loudly. Someone unknown afterward shot the chief, and he was probably killed also; if not, he would have told of the deed and called others to witness it. So it is that no one knows who killed the Long-Haired Chief [General Custer].
“After the first rush was over, coups were counted as usual on the bodies of the slain. You know four coups [or blows] can be counted on an enemy’s body, and whoever counts the first one [touches it for the first time] is entitled to the ‘first feather.’
“There was an Indian here called Appearing Elk, who died a short time ago. He was slightly wounded in the charge. He had some of the weapons of the Long-Haired Chief, and the Indians used to say jokingly after we came upon the reservation that Appearing Elk must have killed the Chief because he had his sword! However, the scramble for plunder did not begin until all were dead. I do not think he killed Custer, and if he had, the time to claim the honor was immediately after the fight.
“Many lies have been told of me. Some say that I killed the Chief, and others that I cut out the heart of his brother [Tom Custer], because he had caused me to be imprisoned. The excitement was so great in that fight that we scarcely recognized our dearest friends! Everything was done like lightning. After the battle, we young men were chasing horses all over the prairie while the old men and women plundered the bodies, and if any mutilating was done, it was by the old men.
“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.]”
By Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa), 1918. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.
Follow-up to Eastman’s Tale:
The noted War Chief, Rain-in-the-Face, first fought against whites in the summer of 1866 when he participated in a raid against Fort Totten in what is now North Dakota. In 1868, he again fought the U.S. Army in the Fetterman Massacre near Fort Phil Kearny in present-day Wyoming. He again was on the warpath during the Great Sioux War, leading a raid near the Tongue River where two white civilians accompanying Custer’s cavalry were killed. Afterward, he returned to the Standing Rock Reservation, where he was captured by Tom Custer and taken to Fort Abraham Lincoln, and imprisoned. However, he was soon freed by a sympathetic soldier and fled to the Powder River. In the spring of 1876, he joined Sitting Bull and traveled with him to the Little Big Horn River in early June, where it is said that Rain-in-the-Face was the tactical engineer behind the ambush at the Little Big Horn.
Rain-in-the-Face died at his home on September 14, 1905, at the Bullhead Station on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota after a lengthy illness.
About the Author: Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains by Charles A. Eastman, 1918. (now in the public domain) Charles A. Eastman earned a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890 and then began working for the Office of Indian Affairs later that year. He worked at the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota, and was an eyewitness to both events leading up to and following the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890. He himself part-Sioux and knew many of the people he wrote about.
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