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.
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 trauma. 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 governments to act on the issue of an alarming rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada. It’s an epidemic.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, there are more than 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous First Nations women.
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, which I directly relate to 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 Natives experiencing historical trauma feel the impact of the entire deck. My mother’s murder is intimately connected to the historical trauma all Native peoples face. She was 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 U.S. enforced policy, foster care and being the daughter of a family deeply affected by 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 it to this day. My mother’s siblings also attended Indian boarding schools. I went to reservation public schools, a Bureau of Indian Affairs 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 intended purpose.
The Indian boarding school experience, aka the boarding school era, was a cruel, systematic and 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 on the military system. It was a 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 three 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 of the U.S. government’s Department of Defense, this practice was more cost efficient than using bullets. During the 1880s there were alarming rates of early death related to unsanitary conditions, exposure to diseases their immune systems had never encountered, and 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 Germany’s 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 schoolchildren learn about the Jewish Holocaust. There is no mention of the Native Holocaust. The U.S. is quick to pass judgment toward 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.
The concept behind 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 they treat their women.
I am no expert but I have studied a trend found in individualistic societies functioning in colonial structural systems. Individuals tend to have more antisocial 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’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual (or DSM 5), individuals with antisocial personality disorders lack empathy. When a person lacks empathy he/she does 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 so 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.
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 exploitation, particularly of women of color.
According to the United States Department of Justice (2014), Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted within their lifetime compared to all other races. Speaking for myself, as a Native woman, I shouldn’t have to live my life according to the probability of “being sexually assaulted today.” 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 it’s not about if I’ll be assaulted, but when.” That’s disturbing because the statistics speak for themselves. 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 shows that the majority of assaults on Native women are committed by non-Native men, usually white men. The serial killer who murdered my mother was a non-Native African American man. He is currently sitting on death row for strangulation murders. Even though my mother didn’t know her murderer it’s important to note that any act of violence, domestic, spiritual or otherwise, is wrong, and must be addressed.
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 affects 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.
Photo: Brian Wallace, Courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute
Audience members sampled the soapberry concoctions after the judging at Sealaska Celebration 2016.