Feb 15, 2015 - Hi I’m Noel, I’m Native American & I’m the Daughter of a Mother Murdered by a Serial Killer By Noel Altaha
When I was thirteen years old my mother was murdered. This kind of introduction can come across like its ripped from the headlines of a Hollywood script. In fact a local media did cover this story. The New York Times even wrote about it but the media got their facts wrong. My mother wasn’t a prostitute. She wasn’t a saint but she also didn’t fit the media’s description. Unfortunately my mother’s murder and the effects of trauma is the reality for my family and me. A serial killer murdered my mother on February 27th 2003. What a twisted hand of cards fate has dealt me. But don’t get it twisted this is not a ‘woe is me’ kind of piece. I don’t see myself as a victim. I choose to not allow what happened to my mother and my family and me define me. Yes my mother was murdered. That’s a fact, an unfortunate fact in my life. But I am more than what has happened to me. I believe my mother would agree.
I was a freshman in math class when the news came. Up until the point of being sent to the front office I was just like everyone else. I was a typical girl on the rez who lived with my grandparents. I attended school with other rez kids and life was predictable. I guess that’s only half true. Honestly, I was ‘sort of’ a rez girl. A third of my childhood was spent living off the rez with my mother. The majority of my childhood I lived on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona. I’m White Mountain Apache and my clans are ‘Tugain’ Water Water People and Eagle.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona and mostly raised by my maternal grandparents. I had a stable humble upbringing. I spent summers riding horses, swimming in rivers, chasing flying grasshoppers and building clubhouses with all my cousin brothers and cousin sisters. The other part of my life was spent living with my mother off the rez. We traveled often and didn’t stay at any one place long enough for me to remember the names of my classmates. Most places we stayed at were homeless shelters for battered women and children. I can remember at least five different shelters though there were probably more.
Other memories with my mom include traveling by car or Greyhound bus for miles and miles, mostly at night. I remember all the stars outside and imagining my mom and me in a spaceship traveling to a distant planet to visit aliens. Other times I remember holding a lot of maps and pretending we were going on a treasure hunt, “x” marks the spot. It never occurred to me that this was not the norm. Our constant moving is what I referred to as a ‘nomadic’ lifestyle and I didn’t know it was dysfunctional. I would later joke with guys when they asked me where I grew up. With charm I’d wittingly say, “I guess you could say I lived a gypsy lifestyle.” (I later learned that my reference to Gypsy people in a negative context can be offensive and I have since stopped). The thing about a parent who died during your childhood is the manner in which they lived their life and more importantly how they parented the child.
My mother was an incredible person, a beautiful, smart, vivacious, strong, funny, engaging, attractive woman and she also was not a great parent to me. The two are not mutually exclusive. She excelled at sports, especially basketball. She was tribal royalty, and served in the Army in the 1990’s. She was awarded medals in rifle and hand grenade expertise. She was a modern day true Apache warrior. She just wasn’t the ideal mother I feel I deserved as a child. At least speaking for myself. She gave birth to three other children after me. I will not speak for them.
I respect my mother; I love her. I am strong because I am my mother’s daughter. That still doesn’t mean I can’t be honest about the struggle in our relationship when she was alive. My mother was my first child. I was the parent raising my parent. I was the caretaker of my caretaker. Some of my first memories are helping my drunk strung out mother get into bed. Reminding her to pay the bills so our lights don’t get shut off again. I remember having the feeling I later learned was “anxiety” because I didn’t want school to end. I didn’t want to deal with the drug and alcohol or substance use disorder of my mom. Let me be clear here, just because someone chooses to live their life an unhealthy way it doesn’t give anyone the right to exploit them and disregard their life.
Over time I realized my unstable childhood was far from the norm. It took time until I started to work through the traumatic childhood and lack of parenting I experienced. I mean how do you explain this kind of upbringing on a date or when meeting new friends? It’s not easy and I usually leave it at “it’s complicated”. With time and the compassion and love from my grandparents I started to value the positive qualities of my mother. She taught me survival skills and street-smart savyness. She taught me how to be assertive and direct. Look people in the eye and stand among giants with absolute confidence and self-assurance. She warned me of the dangers of addiction. My mother warned of the reservation life mentality ‘bucket of crabs syndrome’ and other negative features of life on the rez. These life lessons helped me overcome many of the challenges trauma children face.
Again let me reiterate, it took time and even some therapy to work through all of this. As an adult I learned healthier ways to express myself and process the traumatic experiences. I developed and established safe boundaries. Childhood trauma can be devastatingly challenging to overcome. It’s an ongoing process. Before this publication I only shared this information with people I trusted. Well now this information is available for the world to see and that’s okay. I am at a place in my life where I’m comfortable enough to share my story. I want to share my story because I feel like it speaks to many similarities in other narratives of Native girls or Native children experiencing the loss of a murdered Native mother. As a daughter of a murdered Native woman and an educated researcher I felt a responsibility to address the larger issue at hand. The problem is the failure of the U.S. and Canadian government to act on the issue of an alarming rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada. This is an epidemic.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, there are over 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous First Nations women, our sisters north of us in Canada. This past week and over the Valentine’s Day weekend there were events throughout three cities in the U.S. honoring Missing and Murdered Native women. I live in New York City and as I was getting ready I heard on National Native News of the “The SORR Exhibition” an earring exhibit showcasing 1,181 single earrings. This is to symbolize the Indigenous women who were stolen. Earring exhibit designed by muralist/painter Nani Chacon (Diné) along with original art piece created specifically for this event.
Call it serendipity or the Universe’s way of connecting us but I felt compelled to reach out to the creator/coordinator Tanaya Winder about this exhibit. I emailed her and Winder was generous with her time. She shared her experience of a powerful event, a march she help organized for Valentines Day in North Dakota to honor the missing and murdered Indigenous sisters in Canada. This event was her way of showing solidarity. Winder and 30 others walked in -32 degree weather for the missing women. I shared my personal connection to this issue. I wanted to write about my mother’s story for a while but I was waiting on the right time. Then this week while I was getting ready in my Manhattan apartment again I read on ‘Last Real Indians’ about the SORR Exhibit. It nudged me and I felt the pull to write and share my story. Maybe it’s the spirits of the missing and murdered Native sisters. Maybe it’s my mother’s spirit.
My story is my own and I own my truths. I share my narrative because even though it’s been 12 years since my mother passed I still experience loss. There is the physical loss and then there’s a spiritual loss. I refer to this as historical trauma. Research by Native scholars like Dr. Maria Brave Heart refer to historical trauma as the cumulative effects experienced by Indigenous peoples as a result of the colonial invasion and targeted genocidal practices to erase an entire race off the face of the earth. Dr. Brave Heart spoke at Columbia University. She described historical trauma like a deck of cards, every card stacked on the deck is another trauma and most Native experiencing historical trauma feel the impact of the entire deck. My mother’s murder is intimately connected to the historical trauma Native peoples face. She was a woman, a Native woman, a person of color, and poor. She experienced many of the symptoms of historical trauma and had her own methods of self-medicating as a way to deal with the effects of this trauma. My mother used drugs and alcohol and constantly moving around the country as a way to numb, avoid, or escape her historical trauma. The primary symptoms of historical trauma for her included being a product of the U.S. enforced policy, Foster Care Program and being the daughter of a family deeply affected by the Indian Boarding Schools. Most of my family experienced the effects of historical trauma, particularly with Indian Boarding Schools. My mother’s mother, my grandmother, went away to a government funded job-training program off the reservation. This government-funded program was designed to literally separate and disconnect Natives from their culture. My grandmother later taught at the Indian boarding school on my reservation. As a child, my maternal grandfather ran away from the Indian Boarding School because he was told to cut his long Apache hair. He hasn’t cut to this day. He later attended but didn’t finish an Indian Boarding School off the reservation and out of the state. My mother’s siblings also attended Indian Boarding Schools. I went to reservation public schools, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A) government reservation school, and after my mother’s death I was sent to Chemawa Indian Boarding School in Salem, Oregon. This is important to know: all Indian Boarding Schools have an intentional purpose.
Historically the Indian boarding school experience or “The Boarding School Era” was a cruel systematic racist government policy targeted at disrupting the Native family. Its very creation was designed to disconnect Natives from their culture. General Richard Henry Pratt established the first boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and based it off of the military system. It was horrific time for Native children and families. The ideology of the Indian Boarding School era was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” is the title of a study I later published examining the cumulative effects of historical trauma. The forced removal of Native children, ages 3 and older, ripped from their homes and sent thousands of miles away to school to be forcibly assimilated into the dominant white culture. According to the logic U.S. government’s Department of Defense, this practice was more cost efficient than using bullets. Historical trauma at its finest. During the 1880’s there were alarming rates of early death related to unsanitary conditions, exposure to diseases their immune systems had never encountered, psychological and physical assaults including child abuse, rape, and molestation. The U.S. government’s tactics and practices of dealing with Native people was later heavily studied and admired by German Nazi Dictator Adolf Hitler. The Nazi Dictator references the U.S. practices as a source of inspiration in his horrific plan during the Jewish Holocaust. In America most school children learn about the Jewish Holocaust. There is no mention of the Native Holocaust. The U.S. is quick to pass judgment towards other countries but we fail to look in the review mirror at our recent history. This country was built on the backs of slaves and on stolen Native land.
Indian Boarding Schools is connected to patriarchy. Historically Native women have and continue to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. This issue of missing and murdered or sexually assaulted Native women is also connected to capitalism and neoliberalism. You can tell a lot about a society by the way in which they treat their women.
The Canadian government is much like our US government in that both equally see Native woman as not significant enough to call this issue an epidemic. Winder is not sure of the latest statistics for missing and murdered Native American women but her consultants in the field guesstimate about 1,000. There is little data on this epidemic. Whatever the numbers, I know that just one murdered person is enough. We as Native Americans are only 1% of the total population. We cannot disappear. We must survive.
I am no expert but I have studied a trend found in individualistic societies functioning in colonial structural systems. Individuals tend to have more anti-social personality disorders, i.e. sociopaths, psychopaths and the subtype of those groups: serial killers. In my review of the research I have yet to find a serial killer in a collective society. My speculation is the interdependence and interconnectedness of a collective society protects or buffers individuals from developing a disorder known as antisocial personality disorder.
According to the American Psychiatric Association the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (or DSM 5) individuals with antisocial personality disorders lack empathy. When a person lacks empathy he/she literally do not have the ability to feel for others or connect to their pain. In a capitalistic society, I feel it’s easier to develop such disorders, because people are focused on their own profits that they can’t connect to the suffering of people they are profiting from or oppressing. This leads to the corruption on Wall Street and in politics and in corporate America. But that’s an entirely different conversation for another day. My point is our society, as it currently stands, lack accountability and compassion for one another. When we are deficient in a vital nutrient for our spiritual well being, i.e. compassion, we allow for exploitation. Particularly of women. Particularly women of color. That includes women with less privileges or status or rights i.e. Native women.
According to the United States Department of Justice (2014), Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assault within their lifetime compared to all other races. One in three Native women have reported being raped within their lifetime. (http://www.justice.gov/ovw/tribal-communities). Speaking for myself, as a Native woman, I shouldn’t have to live my life according to the probability of “being sexually assaulted today” This shouldn’t have to hang over my head. I deserve to live a life free of targeted harm. I deserve protection in my own land and all over Turtle Island. I once heard a Native sister say, “for me its not about ‘if I’ll be assaulted’ but ‘when’. That’s disturbing because the statistics speak for itself. It gives me chills to think that statistically speaking as a Native woman, as a Native sister, I am more 2.5 times more likely to experience a sexual assault. I refuse to be a victim. I choose to be proactive rather than reactive to the actions of a perpetrator.
Speaking of perpetrators, research also found that in addition to the statistic that Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted most acts are committed by non-Native men, mostly white men. Although the serial killer wasn’t white he was a non-Native African American man. He is currently sitting on death row for his strangulated murders. Even though my mother didn’t know her murderer it’s important to note that violence whether its domestic violence, intimate partner violence or any act of physical, emotional, or spiritual violence is wrong and must be addressed. It is not healthy and it stems from a larger problem. It is a symptom of a greater disorder.
Patriarchy is a system that allows men in power to dominate over women. Violence and sexual assault is about power and control. Growing up I witnessed domestic violence so often I normalized it and it wasn’t until I went to college that I learned domestic violence is not the norm. I feel like this is important to emphasize because it’s a matter of knowing the difference between safety and feeling abused. It could be the difference between life and death for some women. We must become aware, educated, advocates, allies and activists about this issue. We become empowered when we speak up and speak out against this epidemic.
My mother’s murder and her death is an experience I endured and I will live with that experience my entire life. I simply choose to see it as something that affected and will affect me but doesn’t define me. I am still here. I am still standing. I am strong because I am my mother’s daughter. I am an Apache warrior. I am a Native American woman. I was raised in a matrilineal tribe. We are taught and raised that women are strong and must be respected. I also know that an educated Native woman is a threat to the mechanisms that make the system of patriarchy work. I choose to invest in my education for the next several generations.
I am currently a graduate student at the School Social Work at Columbia University in New York City. Social work allows me to support others and also sophisticate my skills in research and policy. I want to use my expertise to bring awareness and action to issues of Native injustices. How can we overcome historical trauma? How can we help bring attention to this epidemic? How can we teach self-compassion to the Native youth, or adults suffering from addiction? We all must ask ourselves these questions if we want justice in our society. I currently work in the Bronx at a domestic violence shelter. It’s funny how the world has a way of coming full circle. This is not the end of my journey though, I feel like it’s just the beginning.
Noel Altaha is a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona. Noel is a graduate student in a Masters of Social Work program at Columbia University in New York City. Noel received her B.A. from Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado. Noel is a writer, a researcher, a Native thinker, an activist, and an advocate. She plans to pursue a PhD program. Noel wants to be a researcher, an academic professor, and a tribal consultant.
Noel Altaha is a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver Arizona. Noel is a graduate student in a Masters of Social Work program at Columbia University in New York City. Noel received her B.A. from Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado. Noel is a writer, a researcher, a Native thinker, an activist, and an advocate. She plans to pursue a PhD program. Noel wants to be a researcher, an academic professor, and a tribal consultant.