BILLINGS, Mont. — From the moment Silver Little Eagle decided to run for Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, people dismissed her as too young, too green. But she was determined. Wooing voters with coffee, doughnuts and vows of bringing new energy to tribal issues, she won as a write-in candidate, becoming her tribe’s youngest councilwoman at age 23.
Then last month, Ms. Little Eagle was beaten and robbed inside a Billings hotel room by two other women. News of the assault of a young Native American leader traveled fast, shocking people far beyond Montana. But it was only the start of Ms. Little Eagle’s travails.
In the month since the May 16 assault, Ms. Little Eagle said she had been bullied and harassed, and failed by the very tribal systems she had campaigned to change. To some, her story has become an example of the shame and indifference Indigenous women confront as victims of violence, even from their own communities.
“I was thrown to the wolves,” Ms. Little Eagle said, sitting inside a safe house where she has been staying with relatives. Cedar smoke from a family prayer drifted through the living room.
As Ms. Little Eagle talked about her assault one recent morning, her left eye was still bloodied and swollen. The bandages had just come off her broken nose. Her right arm was a fading map of bruises.
The deeper wounds were harder to see.
Ms. Little Eagle and her family said tribal agencies and law enforcement had been slow to take her attack seriously. A tribal judge dismissed their efforts to get a permanent restraining order. People on local social media groups have spent weeks maligning her. Ms. Little Eagle said she no longer felt safe on the reservation. She does not know when she will return to the tribal council.
“It just leaves me wondering who I am,” she said.
More than 80 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives become victims of violence, according to the Justice Department, a long-running crisis that activists say is worsened by inconsistent and haphazard responses from law enforcement. On some reservations, Native women are 10 times as likely to be killed as the national average, according to the Indian Law Resource Center.
Under pressure from activists and victims’ families, leaders in Washington as well as state and tribal governments have passed laws and created task forces to address the violence and improve coordination between law enforcement agencies. But activists said little had actually changed on the ground when it came to prosecuting those who commit violence or addressing the needs of victims and their families.
“It’s so pervasive that it even happens to our elected tribal leaders, and there’s no recourse,” said Desi Small-Rodriguez, a demographer and sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Northern Cheyenne citizen. “In Montana, Indian women are not safe. We’re not even safe among our own people.”
Ms. Little Eagle’s story began far from the small safe house where she now shuttles back and forth between doctor’s visits and counseling sessions. She grew up among the rolling grasses and rocky hills in the tiny reservation town of Lame Deer, population 2,000.
She got a scholarship to Dartmouth College but felt out of place, at the bottom of a hierarchy of class and money. She left after a year.
After coming home, she got a job as an activities coordinator for the Northern Cheyenne Elderly Program, spending her days making dolls and balms, playing cards and planning outings. Ms. Little Eagle had been raised by her grandmother, and said she sometimes felt like an elder who happened to inhabit the body of a 20-something. A desire to help tribal elders propelled her to run for council, she said.
“It took a long time and a lot of hard work and prayer to get where I am,” she said.
When Covid-19 tore through the reservation late last year, she joined in efforts to protect elders by ferrying meals of ham steaks and sweet potatoes down winding country roads to people’s homes. She shooed elders home if she saw them driving around. But several died of the virus, including Ms. Little Eagle’s grandfather.
Ms. Little Eagle’s case was far from the first time Indigenous victims have felt stymied by the justice system in Montana.
Family members spent years asking the authorities for answers and attention in the deaths of 18-year-old Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, whose body was found in a yard in Hardin, or 14-year-old Henny Scott, who was found dead on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation 20 days after the authorities say she walked away from a house in Lame Deer and died of hypothermia in 2018. Nobody has been charged in their deaths.
At the same time, Ms. Little Eagle’s story has stirred pained conversations about violence within Indigenous communities, and the price of speaking out. Ms. Little Eagle said her assailants were two other Native women — she said she knew one through intramural volleyball.
On the night of the attack, they had gone out together in Billings and ended up in Ms. Little Eagle’s room at the DoubleTree, according to Ms. Little Eagle and her family. The last thing Ms. Little Eagle remembered was being kicked in the head.
When she woke up the next morning, her money, identification and phone were gone, and her car had been stolen, according to Ms. Little Eagle and the Billings police. When she staggered into the bathroom to wash off the blood, she said, she could barely recognize her swollen face in the mirror.
The police in Billings said that Ms. Little Eagle’s attack was not random or racially motivated, and that they were seeking to interview two women, 25 and 27 years old, whom they described as “persons of interest.” Nobody has been arrested.
Ms. Little Eagle and her family said the assault had forced them onto a frustrating quest for justice.
When the family called a tribal agency that helps victims of violence, they were told the sparse staff was too busy working on budgets and a new computer system to immediately help. The tribal council has made no public statements about the attack.
Ms. Little Eagle was able to get a temporary protective order against the two women she says assaulted her, but it expired after a tribal judge would not let her attend a court hearing remotely. Her family said driving to court in Lame Deer would have been too dangerous and traumatizing. They said they had to start over and fill out paperwork for a restraining order in Yellowstone County’s courts, off the reservation.
The Northern Cheyenne Nation’s president, judges and council leaders did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
As Ms. Little Eagle sought justice, her case became grist for voracious gossip and speculation on social media.
Local Facebook groups have become no-holds-barred public squares source in many rural communities where local news sources are shutting down. A scrappy newspaper that had served the community, A Cheyenne Voice, closed in 2016. Into the void stepped groups like Cheyenne Truth, a Facebook group whose 6,400 members outnumbered the population on the reservation.
People in the group traded rumors and falsehoods about the assault. Some minimized Ms. Little Eagle’s injuries. Others speculated that Ms. Little Eagle had been having an affair with the husband of one of her assailants, and that her attack had been some form of retribution.
One person wrote: “Held accountable is what needs to happen to Silver!” Another said: “Silver Little Eagle you need to resign!”
Ms. Little Eagle said there was no affair, but said the question was beside the point. The rampant shaming and dissection of her personal life would never have happened if Ms. Little Eagle were a man, she said. The online gossip became like a second assault.
“My healing was stripped away,” she said. “I wish I knew what was hurting them that made them want to hurt me.”
Facebook removed the Cheyenne Truth group for violating its policies against bullying and harassment after being contacted to comment for this article.
Others inside and outside the tribe rallied to her aid. Ms. Little Eagle’s family created a fund-raising page that quickly raised more than $25,000 to cover medical and legal bills. Members of the Oglala Lakota Nation drove from Pine Ridge, S.D., to deliver a red quilt emblazoned with their tribal flag. There has been an outpouring of support on social media to counter the criticism.
“It’s important to support young female leaders,” said Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Lakota.
At the same time, her case has caused some families to ask why one act of violence draws media coverage, thousands of dollars in donations and a public outcry while other victims struggle for attention.
These days Ms. Little Eagle is trying to shift attention away from her case to those of other Indigenous women who have faced violence or have gone missing altogether.
Indigenous people are four times as likely to go missing in Montana as non-Indigenous people, and Ms. Little Eagle recently drove five hours to the Blackfeet Reservation in western Montana to join a search party looking for Arden Pepion, a 3-year-old girl who has not been seen since April. There was slim hope of finding Arden, but Ms. Little Eagle said she needed to be there.
She said she wanted, more than ever, to help other families and keep them from going through what she had.
“I was turned away from support and help,” Ms. Little Eagle said. “I’m fortunate to have support that other women don’t. That has to change. There are so many other women who ask for the same help, and they’re not able to get it.”