Credit: Screenshot of GoFundMe page for Silver Little Eagle

Confusion, rumors and newly public information are circulating about the recent attack on Silver Little Eagle, the 24-year-old freshman member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, approximately 10 days after the violence took place. 

Public awareness of the incident spiked on Thursday, May 20, when Little Eagle and her family released a statement via Twitter and Facebook describing a brutal assault she had suffered in Billings the weekend prior. The incident, according to the family’s statement, left Little Eagle with “severe physical injuries.” They credited her survival to the fact that she had been found by a family member. A GoFundMe account created Saturday, May 22 on behalf of Little Eagle’s family has since raised more than $25,000 for the councilwoman’s medical and legal costs. 

Since awareness of the attack began to spread, however, theories and allegations have raged across social media sites, filling the void left by an initial absence of media reports and public information released by local and tribal officials. Facing online accusations of drug and alcohol use and purportedly improper sexual conduct, Little Eagle’s family has reiterated that she was the victim of a “brutal unprovoked attack,” and that the claims circulating on social media are without merit. 

“As Cheyenne People, we are taught to take care of one another and practice kindness and love because we are all related,” the family’s original statement said. “Those who continue to bring slanderous gossip and lies against Councilwoman Little Eagle must realize this violent crime could have happened to your daughter, sister, or granddaughter … The fact remains that this was a brutal unprovoked attack spurred by jealousy and hate. Further, an elected leader of the Northern Cheyenne Nation nearly died as a result.” 

Messages and emails sent by Montana Free Press to Little Eagle and her father have not been returned.

TIMELINE, DETAILS EMERGE

On Tuesday morning, approximately 10 days after the attack took place, the Billings Police Department released a statement detailing the department’s preliminary involvement with the case. According to the department, officers first responded late Sunday morning, May 16, to a hotel room at the Crowne Plaza in Billings, where a 23-year-old woman from Lame Deer was found and transported to a medical facility by ambulance to be treated for undescribed injuries. (Little Eagle turned 24 on Monday, according to the Great Falls Tribune.)

Police said a 31-year-old man, also from Lame Deer, was later reported to have been assaulted at the same time and place as the female victim. The release did not specify the time and place of the assaults, or the man’s medical status or subsequent treatment. The department said it had identified two women in their mid-20s as persons of interest who are currently being sought for questioning. At the time the statement was released, no arrests had been made or charges filed.

“Further, it is believed there is some type of association between all parties involved and the crime is not believed to be a random act of violence between unknown parties,” the police statement said. 

Lieutenant Brandon Wooley, a public information officer for the department, later told MTFP that detectives had been assigned to the investigation on Monday, more than a week after the attack took place. He said he was not aware of any collaboration between the Billings Police Department and tribal law enforcement agencies at this time. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said Tuesday that his office has reviewed the case with police detectives but is not prepared to issue any charging documents.

Citing the ongoing investigation and the circulation of online rumors, Wooley indicated that the police department would be restricting the release of public information until the investigation has concluded. A sergeant with the department had previously commented to MTN News that Little Eagle’s injuries were “non-life-threatening,” a characterization at odds with the family’s initial descriptions, and one the department walked back in its Tuesday release.

“Regarding previous comments from a BPD Sergeant regarding severity of injury to parties involved,” the statement said, “[t]he investigation remains on-going and has not been completed. The BPD will not provide information on severity of injury.”

A spokeswoman for Billings Clinic told MTFP Tuesday morning that Little Eagle was not currently listed as a patient at the hospital, but declined to say whether Little Eagle had been previously admitted. According to an updated statement posted to the family’s GoFundMe page late Monday, the councilwoman is “healing from multiple broken bones, head trauma, and is now facing potentially long-term damage to her vision.” The family has not said where Little Eagle is currently receiving treatment. 

ONLINE THEORIES, ACCUSATIONS

As the hours and days since the incident ticked by, rumors about what happened in Billings unspooled on Facebook in a public group called “Cheyenne Truth,” with some commenters sharing allegations about the circumstances leading up to the attack, as well as doubts about the extent of the councilwoman’s injuries. Several commenters have taken issue with the family’s reference, in its original statement, to the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, instead framing the recent violence against Little Eagle as an interpersonal dispute and calling on Little Eagle’s family to donate the money raised on GoFundMe. The stream of criticism aimed at Little Eagle has continued in recent days, including speculation that she engaged in irresponsible drinking and sexual behavior while holding a position of tribal leadership. Those allegations remain unsubstantiated. 

“As a tribal official your decisions and actions are under a microscope as they should be,” said Jae Sosee, a commenter in one such thread. “… Nobody in their right mind expects perfection but what they expect is that the person they believed in enough to elect is going to make responsible choices.”

Other commenters have sought to defend the councilwoman’s reputation, sharing disappointment that community members would be so critical in the aftermath of a violent assault.

“No one has the right to say anything or judge people in general,” a commenter named Truvy Hardground responded. “Are you doing their job? Are you making our tribe better? … all your doing is making people carry on the gossip and turn on each other.”

Dr. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and assistant professor of sociology at UCLA who’s been supporting Little Eagle’s family over the last few days, expressed the difficulty of the attack and its aftermath, including what she described as “slut-shaming” on social media. While the situation may be distinct from other publicized cases of violence against Native American women involving strangers or non-Native perpetrators, Rodriguez-Lonebear said, violence of any sort “should never be condoned.”

“It’s part of this lateral violence that is happening in our community. And it’s really upsetting because we always want to blame someone else,” she said, explaining that violence against Native Americans is most often inflicted by non-Native people. Sometimes, she said, “it comes from our own. I think a lot of Native women share that sentiment. And nobody’s willing to talk about it.”

This story was updated May 25, 2021, to correct Silver Little Eagle’s age. She turned 24 on May 24.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare and criminal justice systems, including public health matters such as substance use disorders and mental health care. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.