Courtesy of Noel Altaha
Noel Altaha with her mother.

Historical Trauma and Me, the Daughter of a Mother Murdered by a Serial Killer

Noel Altaha

When I was thirteen years old, my mother was murdered. This kind of introduction can come across like it’s ripped from the headlines or like it’s the title of a Hollywood script. In fact, local media did cover this story, and The New York Times wrote about it too, but the media got the facts wrong. She wasn’t a saint, but she also didn’t fit their description. My mother wasn’t a prostitute.

A serial killer murdered my mother on February 27, 2003, yet I don’t see myself as a victim. I choose not to allow what happened define me because I am more than what has happened to me and my family. I believe my mother would agree.

I was a high school 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, and life was predictable. I’m White Mountain Apache.

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, and primarily 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 rez. When I was with her, 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, although there were probably more.

We traveled by car or Greyhound bus for miles and miles, mostly at night. I imagined us in a spaceship traveling to a distant planet to visit aliens. Other times I remember holding 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. Because she died during my childhood, I focused on the manner in which she lived and how she parented.

My mother was an incredible person—a beautiful, smart, vivacious, strong, funny, engaging, attractive woman. But she 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 1990s. 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. But my mother was my first child. I was the parent raising my parent. 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 my mom’s drug and alcohol problems. Even so, 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 that life. Every life has value.

Over time, I realized my unstable childhood was far from the norm. It took time for me to work through the traumatic childhood I experienced. I mean, how do you explain this kind of upbringing on a date or when meeting new friends? It’s not easy. I usually leave it at, “It’s complicated.” With time and compassion and love from my grandparents, I saw the positive qualities of my mother. She taught me survival skills and street smarts. She taught me how to be assertive and direct, how to look people in the eye and stand among giants with absolute confidence and self-assurance. She warned me of the dangers of addiction, the bucket-of-crabs-syndrome, and other negative features of life on the rez. These lessons helped me overcome many of the challenges trauma children face.


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