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Shining Star

Marlene Roulliard broke free from a vicious cycle and founded the Women's Empowerment Circle.

It wasn't much different for Marlene and her family. Her dad had died in the Korean War, before she was born. When she was three, her mom married a white construction worker who drank. Because he drank, her mom drank, and the usual troubles followed.

Marlene was sick, too. She had polio and spent much of her childhood in braces. She endured twelve operations and languished for months inside hospitals. Her mom worked a lot, first in a laundromat and then as a nurse's aide, and she visited infrequently. Her stepdad rarely bothered. Most of the time, Marlene was alone.

But in the silence, she drew strength. At night, while other patients slept, Marlene wheeled herself to the physical therapy room, slapped her favorite singles onto the record player, and pulled herself onto the parallel bars. To the rumblings of "Wipe Out" and "Surfer Joe," she taught herself to walk again.

RoSean Kent Howard (left) and Marlene at Four 
Winds.
John Johnston
RoSean Kent Howard (left) and Marlene at Four Winds.

Marlene had determination -- and that was a good thing, because racism flourished in that part of the country. When she was eight, Marlene moved with her family off the reservation and to the town of Norfolk. There, restaurants refused to serve her.

And school wasn't much better. Marlene had learned to speak Dakota, but in the classroom, teachers rapped her on the knuckles for every word that wasn't English. Her hands became so bruised that one of her grandfathers told the family to speak only English to Marlene. After a while, she forgot her native language.

It didn't make a difference on the playground. To the Native American kids, Marlene was white, since her father had been half French. But to the whites, she was pure Indian. Every day it was fight, fight, fight -- one side, and then the other.

When Marlene came home one afternoon scratched and bleeding, her grandfather grabbed her. "Who are you? Who are you?" he demanded.

"I'm a Dakota," Marlene cried. "I'm a Dakota woman!"

That declaration gave her strength. Afterward, she stayed as close as she could to her Dakota relatives, both on and off the reservation.

Marlene harbors a memory from that time. She was hiding beneath the big star quilt stretched out on a frame in her grandmother's kitchen. Coffee bubbled on the stove beside a big pot of soup, and the air smelled of corn, chicken, rice and potatoes. Her grandmother was there with her friends, laughing, talking, punctuating the conversation with the click of scissors and the punch and pull of needle and thread. They talked about grandkids, cousins, husbands and grandfathers. They shared problems and offered advice.

"If your husband likes the wine too much at church," one woman told Marlene's grandmother, "wait at the door with a rolling pin. When he comes home, whack him hard and make him sleep in the barn until he sobers up. Do it. It works."

Marlene sat under the quilt, soaking up every word, holding a rag doll with button eyes close. She loved this time, this place. Under the star quilt, it was warm.


Although she wanted to learn her tribe's traditions, Marlene was forbidden to do so. Her mother and her aunts had been frightened away from the old ceremonies by the grandfathers, fierce rivals who threw medicine at each other. The stories were terrifying: eagle claws and blue lights.

The traditions had been pushed deep underground by Christians. When ceremonies were held, they were held in secret. Marlene remembers standing guard while one of her grandfathers poured water over the hot stones for the sweat-lodge purification ceremony. She was intrigued but unable to learn more.

Her great-grandfather, although he was Dakota, served as a layman in the Episcopal church. He and her mom force-fed Marlene Christianity every chance they got. Even though Marlene would cry because she was worried about making mistakes, becoming a sinner and burning in hell, her mom dragged her from one church to another. Church of the Nazarene. Church of Jehovah's Witnesses. Church of the Pentecostals. Marlene went to them all. Afterward, she felt empty.

But she wanted to believe. She wanted to feel the strength and serenity she had heard so much about. So she prayed. She prayed a lot.

When she was thirteen, Marlene's stepdad went on a three-day drunk, and her mom soon followed. Marlene was left alone in the house with her younger siblings. Pretty soon, the food ran out. When her six-month-old brother began to cry, Marlene panicked. There wasn't even flour in the cupboards.

"I have to gather food," she prayed. "Help me."

A friend agreed to watch the children while Marlene walked two miles to the Norfolk Safeway, stopping along the way to oil her leg braces. At the store, she filled the cart with food her parents might buy: pork chops, chicken, bread, bananas, milk. She even added a bag of candy. Then she went up to the front door of the Safeway.

"Please Jesus, help me with what I have to do."

She wheeled the cart past the clerks and out of the store -- and no one paid attention. She wheeled the cart down Main Street, and still no one paid attention. She wheeled the cart past a police car, and the officer didn't even look up. She wheeled the cart all the way home, put away the groceries, fed her siblings and stashed the cart in a nearby alley. Then she opened the sack of candy and waited.

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