The Lakota warrior spoke candidly about Tom Custer and other soldiers at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, sharing details many people did not want to hear.
Wasicu iya sintehla! That Lakota phrase is usually translated as “white man speaks with forked tongue.” An alternate translation is “land-grabber speaks like a rattlesnake.” Wasicu is a pejorative term. As a snake has no external ears, it constantly flicks out its tongue as a sort of tuning fork to evaluate its surroundings—and, if the “snake” in question has two legs, to evaluate the response to what is being said and avoid the negative consequences of too much honesty.
Red men also sometimes speak with forked tongues. Attempts by historians to determine what actually happened at Custer’s Last Stand—once they move beyond who was killed, how they died and the spots where the bodies fell—rely heavily on Indian accounts, what individual warriors claim to have seen or done. Shortly after the June 25–26, 1876, battle some Indian eyewitnesses told reporters that the 7th U.S. Cavalry troopers in the five doomed companies of George Armstrong Custer’s immediate command fought heroically and that the fighters on both sides were all dauntless heroes.
Army officers who examined the scene or the evidence were less impressed. “It was a rout, a panic, till the last man was killed,” battle participant Captain Frederick Benteen said bluntly. “There was no line formed.” Samuel Sturgis, the nominal colonel of the 7th Cavalry, who lost his son at the Little Bighorn, caustically noted that the enlisted dead were sprawled all over the field, while the officers seemed concentrated in the center around the Custer brothers and their cronies. Dr. Thomas Marquis quoted Cheyenne witnesses who told of mass suicide by terrified troopers once they were surrounded.
When Richard Allen Fox Jr. and his archaeological team combed the battlefield with metal detectors in the 1980s, they discovered a pattern of spent slugs and cartridge cases autographed by the rifles’ firing pins that pointed to a substantial panic, though few suicides. Some troopers fought to the death. Others died hopeless and in despair, literally cringing. Fox evoked roars of indignation, but while the conclusion of his forensics bore little resemblance to the hero myth of comrades fighting to the last gasp, as in the film They Died With Their Boots On, it bore a substantial resemblance to the growls of Benteen and Sturgis and the hints dropped by a few of the Indians.
One Indian, a Hunkpapa Lakota warrior in the Old West’s most famous battle, was bold enough to tell what he saw without the flickering tongue of a snake. He had no interest in appeasing whites with the hero myth and no remorse for having killed people trying to hide or even surrender. His name was Rain-in-the-Face.
Contemporaries took Rain-in-the-Face seriously. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem titled “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face” in which Rain cries, “Revenge upon all the race of the White Chief with yellow hair!” before carving out George Custer’s heart. Longfellow, while treating the troopers as tragic heroes, blames the “ruin and scathe” on “our broken faith”—violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The poem was defensible in moral terms but full of tactical mistakes.
W. Kent Thomas published one of the best accounts of Rain-in-the-Face, whom he interviewed in 1894 at the Coney Island resort community in the city of Brooklyn (soon to be part of New York City). Also present was his friend E.E. McFadden and interpreter Harry McLaughlin. The story ran in the March 1903 Outdoor Life. One might regard the interview as drunken exhibitionism by a braggart—Rain had twice knocked back the contents of Thomas’ pocket flask. But it could also be the most accurate account of Custer’s Last Stand by a participant.
Rain-in-the-Face started by describing his rage against George Custer’s brother Thomas Custer, who in 1874 had arrested him for the murder of an Army veterinarian in Montana Territory a year earlier. Tom Custer had treated Rain “like a squaw,” keeping him shackled in the guardhouse at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory. Rain told Thomas he had escaped and sent Custer “a picture, on a piece of buffalo skin, of a bloody heart.” McFadden then showed Rain a fanciful sketch of “Custer’s Last Charge” and asked whether it was an accurate rendering. Rain burst out laughing.
“No,” Rain said, “this picture is a lie. These long swords [mila hanska, “long knives,” meaning troopers] have swords—they never fought us with swords but with guns [rifles] and revolvers. These men are on ponies —they fought us on foot, and every fourth man held the others’ horses. That’s always their way of fighting. We tie ourselves onto our ponies and fight in a circle. These people are not dressed as we dress in a fight. They look like agency Indians—we strip naked and have ourselves and our ponies painted. This picture gives us bows and arrows. We were better armed than the long swords. Their guns wouldn’t shoot but once—the thing [Springfield ejector] wouldn’t throw out the empty cartridge shells. …When we found they could not shoot, we saved our bullets by knocking the long swords over with our war clubs—it was just like killing sheep. Some of them got on their knees and begged; we spared none—ugh! This picture is like all white man’s pictures of Indians, a lie.”
Rain-in-the-Face then took the stump of a lead pencil from his pouch and drew a map of the Battle of the Little Bighorn on the back of a buckskin jacket while he continued talking. He said Sitting Bull had foreseen that the whites would come against the Indians and that the Indians would destroy them—the oft-reported vision of soldiers falling into camp upside down. Rain also made the dubious claim that Indian runners had warned of the cavalry’s approach. Most Indian accounts report George Custer had achieved tactical surprise on June 25 while the Indians were sleeping off the June heat and an intertribal dance the night before. Once the attacks fell on the Hunkpapa camp, according to Rain, the band’s war chief, Gall, took whatever warriors he could round up to the river to cover the camp and protect the women and children from capture or worse.
“Then we showed our line in front, and the long swords charged,” Rain told Thomas. “They reeled under our fire and started to fall back. Our young men behind them opened fire. Then we saw some officers talking and pointing. Don’t know who they were, for they all looked alike. I didn’t see Long Yellow Hair [George Custer] then or afterward.…All dismounted. And every fourth man held the others’ ponies. Then we closed all around them. We rushed like a wave does at the sand out there [at the Coney Island beach] and shot the pony holders and stampeded the ponies by waving our blankets in their faces. Our squaws caught them, for they were tired out.
“I had sung the war song, I had smelt the powder smoke. My heart was bad—I was like one that had no mind. I rushed in and took their flag; my pony fell dead as I took it. I cut the thong that bound me. I jumped up and brained the long sword flagman with my war club and ran back to our line with the flag.
“The long sword’s blood and brains splashed in my face. It felt hot, and blood ran in my mouth. I could taste it. I was mad. I got a fresh pony and rushed back, shooting, cutting and slashing. This pony was shot, and I got another.
“This time I saw Little Hair [Tom Custer]. I remembered my vow. I was crazy; I feared nothing. I knew nothing would hurt me, for I had my white weasel-tail charm on. [Thomas noted that Rain was still wearing it in 1894.] I don’t know how many I killed trying to get at him. He knew me. I laughed at him and yelled at him. I saw his mouth move, but there was so much noise, I couldn’t hear his voice. He was afraid. When I got near enough, I shot him with my revolver. My gun was gone, I don’t know where. I leaped from my pony and cut out his heart and bit a piece out if it and spit it in his face. I got back on my pony and rode off, shaking it [the heart]. I was satisfied and sick of fighting; I didn’t scalp him.”
Thomas, whom Rain called Wechasa Chischina (“Little Man”), asked his Lakota interviewee who had killed George Custer. “I don’t know,” said Rain. “No one knows. It was like running in the dark.”
George Custer had trimmed his trademark long reddish-blond hair before the campaign, and the Indians hadn’t scalped his body. McFadden, called Potoshasha (“Red Beard”) by Rain, asked whether that was because the warriors had considered him too brave to scalp.
“No one is too brave to be scalped,” replied Rain. “He must have laid under some other dead bodies.”
McFadden asked how many Indians had been killed.
“I don’t remember, but about 10 and four or 10 and six.”
“How about Curley, the Crow scout, who claims to have escaped?”McFadden asked.
“Ugh! I know Curley. He is a liar. He never was in the fight. His pony stumbled and broke something. He stayed behind to fix it. When he heard the firing, he ran off like a whipped dog. One long sword escaped, though; his pony ran off with him and went past our lodges. They told me about it at Chicago. I saw the man there, and I remembered hearing the squaws tell about it after the fight.”
Thomas then wrapped up his interview with a description of Rain-in-the-Face as the last surviving chief who fought at Custer’s Last Stand, able to understand English but not to speak it, “utterly heartless and unprincipled, physically brave but morally a coward.” Thomas noted that this survivor’s “redeeming feature lies in the fact that you can depend upon any promise he makes, but it takes a world of patience to get him to promise anything.” Thomas likely added this disclaimer of a fearless, honest man with a bad temper to distance himself from any sneaking affection for Tom Custer’s gloating killer. The writer seemed in awe of Rain when he stated that “even at the age of 60 he is still a Hercules.”
How much of Rain in-the-Face’s account was true? The 60-year-old Lakota warrior gave the interview with a bellyful of booze. But he had no motivation to lie and possibly no ability to prevaricate at the time of the interview.
In describing the crumbling morale of the 7th Cavalry troopers once the Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes had surrounded George Custer’s five companies, Rain-in-the-Face rebutted one of the accepted myths of Custer’s Last Stand—that every soldier fought to the last man and last bullet. Benteen and Sturgis had already insisted such across-theboard heroism didn’t happen. Rain simply concurred. Fox’s archaeological findings should have ended any debate, but a century after the battle the legend had locked in.
The hero myth demands at least one dead Indian for every soldier, but the numbers tell a different story. Rain-in-the-Face claimed 14 or 16 dead Indians for the 210 troopers who died with Custer and 58 other soldiers who fell with Reno, not to mention seven dead scouts and three dead civilians. When Gall, whom Rain acknowledged as the Hunkpapas’ head war chief, was asked how many Indians died, he claimed, “Eleven down in that creek [now called Reno Creek], four over there and two in that coulee.” That makes 17. When the reporter pressed further, Gall said, “Forty-three in all.” But he also said something significant that is not often quoted: “My two squaws and three children were killed there by the pale-faced warriors, and it made my heart bad. After that I killed all my enemies with the hatchet.” The total number of Indians killed at the Little Bighorn includes 10 to 20 women and children. Add these casualties to the 17 warriors of Gall’s account and seven Cheyennes—not counted by Rain-in-the-Face, who omitted Cheyenne losses—and the actual total approaches both Gall’s and Rain’s estimates of 10 dead white men for every Lakota.
Custerphiles don’t like to talk about the Indian women and children killed when the soldiers attacked, though they freely discuss how Indian women mutilated the dead troopers. Walter Mason Camp, dean of the Little Bighorn interviewers, never sat down with Rain-in-the-Face, but he did receive an Indian death count from White Bull, who listed 26 dead warriors (including the seven Cheyennes), 15 of whom were killed in the fight against Custer’s command. Reno counted 18 Indian bodies near the battlefield. Since the Cheyennes buried their dead, while the Lakotas mounted them on scaffolds or trees or left them in burial tepees, those 18 were most likely all Lakotas—so Reno’s number is a close match to the number (14 or 16) given by Rain.
Rain-in-the-Face was also right about Curley. Reporters ballyhooed the Crow scout as having escaped from Last Stand Hill (also known as Custer Hill), but when Camp actually spoke to Curley, with Russell White Bear as an interpreter, Curley himself said he left the column just after “a young man—on a sorrel-roan horse” (Sergeant Daniel Kanipe, Custer’s next-to-last messenger). Curley left before the last messenger, Giovanni Martini (aka John Martin), departed. The Crow scout was never anywhere near Last Stand Hill.
Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, wife of George, had seen Rain-in-the-Face when he was in the Fort Abraham Lincoln guardhouse and described him as an imposing figure. But when word got out he had boasted of murdering her dear brother-in-law, Tom, she was filled with revulsion for “that incarnate fiend.…It was found on the battlefield that he had cut out the brave heart of that gallant, loyal and lovable man, our brother Tom.” Captain Thomas Custer had demonstrated his courage—earning two Medals of Honor in the Civil War—before entering the pantheon of martyred heroes at Custer’s Last Stand. But even Libbie suggested he was a bit of a bully and had a drinking problem, and Rain had not been the only Indian to dislike Tom. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Tom’s body was recognizable only by its tattoos; his head had been crushed flat. Debate persists about whether his heart had been excised. But on June 27, after the Indians fled at the approach of the Gatling guns with Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry’s column, searchers found a human heart tied to a rope in the tepee circle.
Dr. Charles Eastman, a three-quarters Santee (Dakota Sioux) and great exponent of Indian culture, spoke with Rain-in-the-Face in 1905 while the old warrior was waiting to die at Standing Rock Agency in North Dakota. Eastman recounted Rain’s 1874 escape from the Fort Abraham Lincoln guardhouse with the cooperation of a soldier guard, probably Corporal William Teeman, whose body was one of the few spared mutilation at the Little Bighorn. But Eastman included a disclaimer from Rain about the Custer brothers: “Some say that I killed the [Long-Haired] Chief, and others that I cut the heart out of his brother [Tom Custer], because he had caused me to be imprisoned. Why, in that fight the excitement was so great that we scarcely recognized our nearest friends!” That sounds about four-fifths true: The confusion and Rain’s claim to have never seen George Custer could be taken verbatim from the 1894 interview by Thomas. In a conversation with DeCost Smith, a painter who spoke Lakota, Rain denied he had shot George Custer but refused to say whether or not he had killed Tom.
Perhaps Rain-in-the Face’s most sincere interview was with Mary Collins, a Christian missionary who consoled him in his very last days. Rain always had a soft spot for women. He doted on his wife, and he once skipped a chance to kill an Arikara woman from ambush because it would have been a cheap trick for an easy scalp. As a baptized Christian, Rain took a serious interest in his own salvation, even though in retelling the tale Mary Collins may have confused George Custer with Tom Custer. “Uncle, will you now tell me the truth [about who you killed] for the sake of history?” Collins asked. “Yes, I killed him,” Rain said, staring into her eyes in all earnestness. “I was so close to him that the powder from my gun blackened his face.” Since George’s face bore no powder burns, it was obvious which Custer the warrior meant.
Rain-in-the-Face didn’t know how to spell—aside from his autograph— but he dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s of Custer’s Last Stand. Trouble is, most people didn’t want the truth as Rain told it. His words rebutted the oral accounts of mass suicide recorded by Marquis, but they confirmed the suggestion of widespread panic by Fox—and much earlier by Captain Fred Benteen. Rain’s tally of only 14 to 16 dead warriors offended those who wanted Custer’s men to have killed hundreds of warriors. Rain’s mention of the successful escape of at least one trooper challenged the widespread belief that no man in Custer’s immediate command survived the one-sided battle. That claim also strengthened the escape story of one Frank Finkel, who claimed to be 7th Cavalry Sergeant August Finckle and who often visited Chicago, where Rain said he saw the survivor. Rain shot down the popular notion that Crow scout Curley stood on Last Stand Hill and made it out alive, a claim Curley himself probably never said and found embarrassing. Tom Custer’s notorious bullying and practical jokes while in uniform may have tarnished the genuinely heroic image he had earned on Civil War battlefields, but in any case his mutilation—and Rain’s stated involvement in it—was horrifying to most people. Myth bearers preferred to ignore or discount the Lakota warrior’s recollections.
Rain-in-the-Face died at his Standing Rock home on September 15, 1905, shortly after speaking to Mary Collins. She told him to be at peace, as he had only defended himself and his people, and all men had the right to do that. “I believe he told me the truth then,” she wrote to DeCost Smith. “You would have believed it had you seen it.” Years earlier Rain had described himself to Thomas and McFadden without varnish—“I was a bad man and dangerous to fool with”—and in the end he probably spoke with a straight tongue.
John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor: Revised (2014), with new photographs and information to support his 2010 contention that Sergeant August Finckle and Battle of the Little Bighorn survivor claimant Frank Finkel were the same person. W. Kent Thomas’ Coney Island interview with Rain appeared in the book Indian Fights and Fighters (1904), by the Rev. Cyrus Townsend Brady. Also suggested for further reading is Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1985).
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.