Shining Star

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

Pretty soon, her mom came home. She peeked in the cupboards, assumed her husband had bought groceries, and then passed out. Her stepdad came home. He peeked in the cupboards, assumed his wife had bought groceries, and then passed out himself.

No one said a word.

Marlene didn't get hit, her candy-loving siblings didn't tell, and everyone ate well.

John Johnston
A stitch in time: Marlene Roulliard works on a star quilt 
in the Four Winds basement.
John Johnston
A stitch in time: Marlene Roulliard works on a star quilt in the Four Winds basement.

Maybe it was Jesus. Marlene didn't know. But someone had watched over her.

Marlene was luckier than many Native American women. She made it all the way to 21 without using alcohol or drugs.

She'd been forbidden by her mom to date Dakota boys because they drank too much. But in high school, she was too busy studying and working part-time at an egg-processing plant to date much. After high school, she'd married her childhood heartthrob (a white guy, the brother of her best friend) and quickly had three sons. When the kids were old enough, she got a good job and started going to school for a degree in social work. At that time in her life, she didn't need to get high and she didn't want to.

But then her husband started hitting the bottle. In 1976, after eight years of marriage, she divorced him. Unable to make both ends meet, Marlene and the boys returned to the Santee reservation to live with her mom's family.

Not long after that, she got sucked in. Black Jack and coke. Bathtub speed. Want ads, unemployment lines, general-assistance checks. Selling pot. Hanging out.

By 1984, Marlene knew she had to get out. She wanted her boys to know a life other than welfare and hangovers. She dreamed of Denver, this cultural crossroads, this center of urban Indians, this land of opportunity.

When people left the reservation, Denver is where they came. There were lots of Sioux here, and Navajo, too, as well as members of other tribes. Some had been brought here during the '50s relocation and assimilation programs; others came for work. As a result, Denver had become the unofficial capital of Indian Country.

Marlene loaded up her orange Dodge van and rumbled into town with visions of cleaning up and starting anew. Instead, she hunkered down with her boys for four months in the parking lots of Holiday Inns and the campgrounds of Estes Park.

She did find work, though -- as a bartender on East Colfax and, later, as a secretary in a finance office. She also found an apartment, made friends, got her kids in school and even planned to finish her bachelor's degree. Then a guy approached her one night at the tavern. She was dog tired, and it showed.

"Lemme show you something," he said.

He poured two lines of white powder on top of the bar. Then he rolled a dollar bill into a tight straw and told Marlene to hold it to her nose and take a snort.

She liked it.

She liked it a lot.

That powder gave her more energy than a pot of coffee. It gave her a nice little buzz, too. Whenever she did it, she felt like cleaning her whole apartment.

Then she lost her day job. Then she lost her night job. Then she started leaving her boys with whoever wanted them. She started dealing. She started living with dealers. She started believing in one thing, and one thing only: her next hit.

"Cocaine," Marlene remembers, "became my god."

In 1986, she fell from grace.

An informant dropped a dime on her. She was cuffed, booked and offered a deal: "Cough up three connects and do less time." But Marlene had been dealing with the Cubans. Cross them, she knew, and you die.

So she ran to Tucson. She grabbed a backpack, left her kids with relatives, jumped bail and hit the hot Arizona streets at 2 a.m. And who was the first person she met? Who are the only people lurking in the shadows at 2 a.m.?


Back in business.

Forget rent. Forget food. Forget clothing. If Marlene had 25 bucks, it went straight up her nose and straight into her arm. She was so skinny she wore little boy's pants, and even those slid off her hips. "If I stuck out my tongue and turned sideways," she recalls, "you'd think I was a zipper."

Then the voices came. The worried voices. The frightened voices. The nagging voices. "They're coming. They're going to get you. The cops are on their way." The voices got so bad that Marlene hid in the closet, trembling.

One night she was walking down the street to her connection, looking like death itself, trying to stop herself from going.

"Help me," she prayed. "Please help me."

Just as she turned the corner, two feds screeched to the curb with her picture in their hands. Twenty minutes later, Marlene was off to prison.

In Arizona's Perryville prison, the voices returned. They hissed through the ventilator as she shivered and sweated through cold-turkey withdrawal. Marlene, who had once taught herself to walk, was now purging the drugs from her body. Alone with her nightmares, she understood why people killed themselves.

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