Photo courtesy J.R. Smith
Noel Altaha, White Mountain Apache, was only 13-years-old when her mother was murdered. Now 27, she works to raise awareness of domestic violence.

Her Mother Was Murdered. Now This Apache Woman Works to Break Cycle of Domestic Abuse

Samantha Mesa Miles
8/7/15

She was just a teen when her entire world changed the day her mother was murdered. What follows is how an Apache woman decided to transform her life from a cycle of trauma, to action earning a masters degree at an Ivy League to work for social justice for indigenous people.

 

It was around 11:00 a.m. on a school day and Noel Altaha sat in math class, joking with her classmates in Apache. She was living with her grandparents apart from her mother at the time, and she loved going to school. “In those years I could just be a kid, like everyone else,” she said.  She could never anticipate how her life was about to change.

The principal called her into the office. There, she saw her aunt sobbing as her uncle sat quietly. “What I’m about to tell you is serious and I need you to listen carefully,” her uncle explained to Altaha, then only 13-years-old.

Her mother, Jade Velasquez, was found murdered near a camper in Phoenix, hours away from their Arizona home.

And this was not an isolated incident.

It turned out that she was killed by a man who had raped and murdered four other women. Recently, Altaha, now 27, talked about the incident in an interview in a quiet corner of a Columbia University library. Softly lit lamps glowed behind her as she sat in a leather chair mentally retracing that life-changing conversation. It appeared to be as exhausting as living through it. She felt her hands become clammy, and a hot sensation course through her head. “It was almost an out of body experience,” Altaha recalled. Her voice quiet and shaky, she continued: “The rest of the year is a blur. It’s as if my head blacked out.” She gently moved strands of her waist length brown hair away from her face with hands decorated in silver and turquoise rings.

Speaking about it conjured up painful memories.

In those days after her mother’s death, Altaha continued attending school to try to maintain normalcy. But as the family held traditional Apache ceremonies, they left out a major process in their culture. Usually, the family of the deceased burns all of the persons belongings as a way of letting them go, sometimes even including pictures. Her mother’s clothes were, instead, held for crime scene investigations. The family grieved her life in traditional Apache ceremonies, and the girls cut their hair for one year. But they didn’t feel the mourning process was complete. “That was very hard going through the motions, partly because her clothes were withheld from us,” Altaha said.

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She was also confronted with media coverage of the murders. Various newspapers including the New York Times and local Phoenix publications reported about the murdered women. One of the victims was reported to be mentally disabled, and three of the women were confirmed to be prostitutes. Cory Morris, the murderer, declined psychological evaluations prior to the trial, according to court reports.

Gossip spread throughout her hometown, and some of her classmates said her mother was a crack head, according to Jan Tenijieth, her mother’s sister. She decided to send Altaha to a boarding school in Portland, Oregon.

Grieving the loss of her mother was an even harder transition because Altaha had to figure out how to face the effects of abuse. “I coped with the former child neglect by just checking out and not let anything anyone would say get internalized,” she said.

Her mother, a military veteran, frequently abused drugs and alcohol, and had endured abusive relationships with boyfriends, sometimes becoming abusive towards Altaha. Altaha recalled a moment that stirred tremendous guilt. She was at her aunt’s house about a month before the murder, and her aunt asked about her mother. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t have a mom anymore.’ So of course my little 13-year-old mind is going to think that I caused her death,” she said. “I had to try to understand what it means to realize my mother’s death was not my fault, while still trying to get through high school.”

Altaha’s experience was unique from her family members. Keyana Ayers, her younger sister, was 6-years-old at the time of the murder.  Today, she is raising two toddler boys mostly as a single mother.

Ayers rarely talks about her mother and their past of domestic violence. Instead, she quietly followed the investigation of her mother’s death. But that changed recently. “It brings back too many painful memories. It’s just not good for my well-being anymore,” she said. 

But their aunt, Tanijieth, has followed the investigation closely since the day she learned of her sister’s murder.

Tenijieth continues to receive letters from the state attorney's office regarding the appeals being processed by Morris. She is still trying to collect Jade’s clothing from the state evidence room.

And when the children were left without a mother or consistent father, Altaha’s grandfather, Amyx Seymour, stepped into the father role for the girls. But the family would rarely discuss her death, or the domestic violence the girls experienced.

As an adult, Altaha grappled with how to make sense of the murder.

She enrolled in college at age 18, but her studies were interrupted when she took over guardianship of her sister after her grandmother passed away. It was during this time that she experienced survivor anger for her mother’s death, she said.

Years later when she returned to college, Altaha decided to turn resentment into action.

She took courses that helped her to articulate what she had experienced growing up in domestic violence, and started going to therapy. She began to understand how her mother’s murder had affected her, she said. She also became involved with student groups that gave her a sense of belonging on campus.

But she cautioned that her way of healing was not a “one size fits all” remedy. “I don’t want my story to come across as ‘she made it, anyone can make it.’ My story is one in which I processed the trauma in a way that was appropriate for me instead of internalizing it,” she said. “To not internalize the trauma that you’re faced with, however you do that, is what’s really personal to you.”

She is now a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City. She plans to pursue a PhD program to be a researcher, professor, and a tribal consultant.

Noel Altaha speaking in 2014 at an annual youth conference held by her tribe, the White Mountain Apache, in Whiteriver Arizona on the Fort Apache Indian reservation. Photo courtesy J.R. Smith

One of her goals is to raise awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women through blogging, academic research, and poetry. She talks about domestic violence and murder, in hopes of helping her sister’s, and other indigenous survivors of violence, move forward.

“Having those uncomfortable conversations with my sisters about what they were going through when my mom died is most important to really recognizing that healing from this is a lifelong process,” Altaha explained. “How can we teach self-compassion to the Native youth, or adults suffering from addiction?” she questioned.

“This is not the end of my journey. I feel like it’s just the beginning,” Altaha added. She continues to reflect on her ups and downs of reconciling her mother’s death. “I used to be obsessed with the death and would blame myself,” she said. “But I realized you can still continue to live a healthy life, a life that’s not just surviving, you’re actually thriving.”

Today, she focuses her work on breaking the cycle of domestic violence and substance abuse, and wants to identify why indigenous women are perpetrated at higher rates. “My mom warned me of the dangers of addiction, and the reservation life mentality ‘bucket of crabs syndrome.’ You get used to the trauma,” she said. “Childhood trauma can be devastatingly challenging to overcome.”

Altaha plans to serve as a lecturer addressing these issues, and to use social media to raise awareness for violence towards Native women. “He’s (Morris) on death row, and my mom is still in my DNA,” she said. “I still get to live my life. That’s my closure.”

Noel Altaha, left, and her two sisters, Araya and Keyana, along with Keyana's son, near Durango, Colorado, in 2014. Photo courtesy J.R. Smith

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bullbear's picture
bullbear
Submitted by bullbear on
I wish to share that although I cannot fathom the depth of anguish you have endured through your life, your story does jolt memories I have carried for years as well. I am certain that there are countless individuals who have endured the sadness, anger, and blaming oneself for tragic occurrences of family and friends for most of their life. Often times we have to harbor those feelings and live each day the best we can for our younger siblings' sake which makes us feel like our own feelings were put on a shelf and every now and then it can be taken down to be dusted off. Then later in life we may feel blessed with children of our own and often feel helpless when we have to let them go so they can have a life of their own. Ms. Altaha, you may have been told time and again that your life's purpose are tied into the tragedy at such a young age which likely brings little solace to you. But it is your decision to turn it on its head to help others overcome the seemingly unbearable odds whereby tragedy struck at one's very core. One of the saddest realities is that there is essentially no professional care and services available in Indian communities for behavioral support. To go one further, there is rarely anyone who has the education and clinical experience who is Native American in the mental health field. Where does that leave us? One does not have to look too far to see it mushrooms and becomes a social ill in the way of domestic violence, alcoholism & drugs, and crime. I spent many summers on the beautiful White Mountain Apache reservation when it was in its 1960's heyday of the timber industry. It seemed that everyone smiled and happily greeted one another so openly. Time changes everything and yet the more they change, the more they stay the same. And I am certain that Noel will one day return to her homeland and help make life more wholesome for those who are in need and inspire the younger generations to also grasp a strong education, gather practical experience and return with their strengths and also help the In-deh (Apache.) I like the way someone put it while the Apache tribal chairman and one of their traditionalist were blessing the newly redesigned Apache helicopters. They were made to help our service men and women in times of peril need. He said they were given the name Apache, not because they were known for their beadwork. Strong and resilient. God bless every step you take, Noel, on your journey.

Alamosaurus's picture
Alamosaurus
Submitted by Alamosaurus on
Cases like this are causing me to have second thoughts about my opposition to the death penalty. I don't think that everyone convicted of a homicide should be executed--the law recognizes there are degrees of homicide, but there are a few rare cases where it is appropriate: murder by a life term prisoner; torture murder; and mass murder including serial mass murder. This young lady's mother was the victim of a serial mass murderer who got his jollies having sex with corpses. There is no cure for a sick, rabid animal like this; it must simply be put down before it strikes again. There are obviously homicide cases where the death penalty is not appropriate. The husband of one of my friends was killed in a traffic collision which took place in a dense fog; she thought the driver of the other car should have been executed, but this is an example of a case where the death penalty would NOT have been appropriate. Another case where it would have not been appropriate was a notorious case in Trinidad: a woman ran away from her abusive husband and tried to hide out with two friends; he came after her; kidnapped her and beat her unconscious, and when she came to, held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. She slipped out a note to one of the friends saying her life was in mortal danger and begging them to rescue her. They came to her house; and killed the husband. All three were convicted of murder 1 and sentenced to be hanged--but the sentences were overturned on appeal and the verdict reduced to voluntary manslaughter--killing under extreme provocation. The judge never told the jurors she could have been convicted of a lesser degree of homicide and allowed the prosecution to pack the jury with friends of the deceased husband. Another non-capital homicide case. (The lady is now out on parole.)

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I thank the Creator for women like Noel Altaha! Domestic violence is often difficult to imagine unless you've seen or experienced the violence firsthand. Murder resulting from domestic violence is unimaginable so it seems that anyone surviving such a circumstance is perfectly suited for dealing with it amongst those currently caught in this distressing web. Natives taking care of Natives is the way it should be - we can't trust many other people to care for us!
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