Shining Star

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

After two months, Marlene stumbled out of a dream. She was 21 when she'd started using and 34 when she arrived at Perryville. She had thirteen years of catching up to do. Thirteen years of maturing. It was like watching herself in a movie.

Temptations were everywhere, but Marlene wasn't interested in the psychedelics and pills pushed her way. She had to keep her head clear to survive. She was attacked in the laundry room once, but she flattened her assailants with a pillow case weighted with combination locks. Then she had her own demons to battle.

Without the distraction of drugs, Marlene was forced to face herself straight and cold. She saw guilt, anger, denial and blame. Lots of blame. But she couldn't avoid the truth: She alone had put herself in this place.

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.

It was a Cheyenne friend who mentioned the talking circle. A Sioux sundancer had been visiting Perryville to help Native American inmates, and Marlene jumped at the chance to work with her. She needed to pray. As a Dakota.

In the prison, she gathered in a side room with the sundancer and inmates who were Cheyenne, Pima, Apache and Ute. They smudged themselves down with sage, held the eagle feather and the abalone shell, and prayed from the heart.

"I felt renewed," Marlene recalls.

Prison had saved her life. There was no other way to say it. She had learned discipline and responsibility. She had also reconnected with her roots in a way that gave her confidence and hope.

When she left Perryville in the spring of 1988, after serving 27 months, Marlene tapped her shoes and shook away the loose dirt. She was done with that place, she told herself, and with that life. She would not return.

But freedom was a long time coming. After she returned to Colorado, she had to spend a year in Cañon City on the Denver drug convictions. She tried to resume the talking circles in this prison, but administrators resisted. Undaunted, she saved bits of cafeteria food and placed them under bushes in the yard as offerings.

After Cañon City, Marlene continued her march through the justice system. Medium-security in Pueblo. Halfway house in Fort Logan. Rehab in Greeley. Wherever she went, she asked around for people who might help her learn about Native American traditions.

In rehab, she met a Lakota sundancer named Jerry Standing Bear, who put her in touch with the Eagle Lodge after-care program in Denver, which put her in touch with other people who could help. In August 1990, Marlene sat in a sweat lodge for the first time. She made tobacco tyes and hung flags, even though she didn't know what she was doing. And she prayed: "Help me to learn these ways. I'm going to help my people. And if I help my people, will you take care of my family? Will you teach me?"

Soon afterward, Marlene walked through the doors of the Living Waters center at 515 West Fifth Avenue, which offered Native Americans assistance with such things as alcohol recovery, finding affordable housing, learning the old ways. There Marlene began to pray with George Tinker, a spiritual leader who'd been instrumental in establishing sweat lodges in Colorado prisons. Early on, Tinker saw something in Marlene, "a deep and genuine commitment to people and to community." The more he came to know her, the more he saw something even rarer, he says: "An ability to push her ego aside."

At ceremonies and community gatherings, Tinker called on Marlene to speak. She hesitated. She even cried. But Tinker kept asking until her confidence grew.

One Sunday, a year after she'd arrived at Living Waters, Marlene attended a pipe ceremony. Russell Means was there. Marlene was handed the pipe with these words: "Test it. Ask whatever you want."

Marlene wanted to travel to South Dakota for her first sundance ceremony and her first vision quest. She wanted to help women in prison, but she didn't have any money, she didn't have a car, and she didn't have the time off of work. So she asked for help in continuing her journey to serve the community.

Six days later, she checked the numbers on a $1 lottery ticket. She'd won, straight down the line: $500. Then a friend at work gave her an '89 Chevy.

She would visit South Dakota.

The rain was relentless.

Marlene sat on that hill, among the juniper and cedar, battling a lifetime of pain. On the fifth day, she woke to a brilliant sunrise.

Marlene couldn't change her past. This she now understood. But she could change herself. She could make a commitment to her community, her family, to herself.

And she did.

Afterward, Marlene told a medicine man about everything that had happened on her vision quest. The rain. The cricket. The sunrise. He agreed to help her.

Over the next six years, Marlene learned; she prayed, she visited prisons.

"If I can change," she told the women inmates, "you can, too."

Marlene was becoming a sundancer, a pipe carrier, a servant of the community, a person committed to praying for her people.

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