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.
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