Rain-in-the-Face, known also as Ito-na-gaju, was a war chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux within the Lakota nation, and was one of the Sioux’s greatest and most respected war heroes. As a war chief he was among the Indian leaders who vanquished George A. Custer and his U.S. Army 7th Cavalry regiment at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
He did not inherit the title of “Chief," because his lineage on either side contained no chiefs. That meant he had to earn his title, which he did by displaying his leadership and courage during the Lakota wars of the 1860s.
The early years
Rain-in-the Face was born around 1835 in the Dakota Territory, along the Sheyenne River, in present-day central North Dakota.
He received his name when he was still a young boy, when he became known as a tough fighter for his age, by his fierce passion for battle, and by repeatedly winning games and mock battles in which he participated.
Once, at about the age of 10, during one of the battles with some Cheyenne boys, he was matched up against a boy who was a good deal larger and older than he. During the course of the battle, both boys struck several blows, and, despite the disadvantage in size and age, he emerged from the fight victoriously. His face was sprinkled with blood and his face paint had streaked looking much like it had been hit by rain, hence his name, Rain-in-the-Face.
He first fought against white men, when he involved himself in the raid against Fort Totten near Devils Lake in eastern North Dakota, in the summer of 1866, at the age of 31. Trying to gain respect as a warrior, he joined several war parties and fought against the Crow, Mandan, Gros Ventre, and Pawnee.
In December of that year, he took part in the Fetterman raid near Fort Phil Kearny, in northeast Wyoming. This battle was one of the Sioux victories in Red Cloud's war to gain back control of the land along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana.
In 1873, Rain-in-the-Face led a raid near the Tongue River in northeast North Dakota, in which two white civilian surveyors died while accompanying Custer's cavalry. He returned to the Standing Rock Reservation after being betrayed by reservation Indians. Custer sent out his brother, Captain Tom Custer, and Captain Yates, to the Standing Rock Agency to arrest him.
Accompanied by 100 men, Captain Custer detained Rain-in-the-Face and returned him to Fort Abraham Lincoln, just south of Mandan (near Bismarck), on the Missouri River where Rain-in-the-Face confessed to the murders. He was imprisoned at the fort before being freed by a sympathetic soldier. He returned to the reservation, then fled to the Powder River Country on the high plains east of the Bighorn Mountains in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming.
Some years later, charged with the murder of the two men, Rain-in-the-Face was arraigned in a federal court. His defense attorney effectively argued that it was in an act of war that the men died, and therefore not murder. The judge agreed, and closed the case.
In December 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs directed all Sioux bands to enter reservations by the end of January 1876. Rain-in-the-Face and Chief Crazy Horse agreed with Chief Sitting Bull in refusing to leave their hunting grounds.
Rain-in-the-Face led his warriors north to join up with Sitting Bull in the spring of 1876. This would mark the beginning of the largest gathering of tribes in history and presaged a major Indian-white conflict. They traveled with Sitting Bull to the Little Big Horn River in early June, to meet up with a contingent of Cheyenne warriors.
On the 17th of June 1876, a battle at Rosebud Creek ensued that lasted for more than six hours. This was the first time that diverse Native American tribes had united together to fight in such large numbers against a common, non-Indian enemy.
Just eight days later and 30 miles away, Rain-in-the-Face was a leading warrior in the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in southeastern Montana. Wounded in the battle, Rain-in-the-Face walked with a limp the rest of his life.
Following the Little Big Horn victory, he accompanied Sitting Bull to Canada before returning with him to the United States in 1881. Rain-in-the-Face then surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Fort Keogh, near what is today Miles City, in eastern Montana.
Like many other former Lakota warriors, he became a reservation police officer, performing many of the traditional functions of a camp patrol officer. He lived the remainder of his life on the Standing Rock Reservation. He died there in September 1905, and buried near Aberdeen, South Dakota.
*In the Sioux tribes, the title "Chief" was an honorific accorded if the warrior had accomplished great deeds in battle. It did not indicate that the man was a tribal leader; decisions were made in a group council.