Shining Star

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

A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong its weapons. -- Cheyenne proverb

The rain was cold and hard, and it beat down upon Marlene Roulliard like a thousand fists. It punished her again and again for every mistake she had made: all the pain she had caused her sons, all the pain she had caused her family, all the pain she had caused herself with booze and dope and prison. It all came thundering down that June night in the badlands of South Dakota. Just when she thought it had ended, the rain slammed down again.

On the third night of what would be five days without food or water, Marlene was so wet and miserable that she decided she couldn't take it anymore. But as she prepared to leave the hill, a cricket skittered across her altar of dried meat, kidney fat and raisins. It stood, glistening, in the circle of sage, tobacco tyes and flags.

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

Marlene had been told that she could ask anything on this vision quest if she asked it in a good way, so she asked the little cricket for help. "I don't think I'm going to make it."

And then Marlene gathered her star quilt around her, hugged her ceremonial pipe, lay on her bed of sage and fell asleep.


Among the tribes of the Great Plains, a quilt is the modern equivalent of the buffalo robe. Quilts are wrapped around babies at birth, draped over caskets at funerals, given at graduations, weddings and birthdays. In Indian Country, a quilt is comfort, protection and love. There is even a saying: "As every grandmother knows, if you wish to see someone loved, first see them warm."

On many of these quilts, one pattern radiates from the center: an eight-pointed star. The morning star. The symbol linking the living with the ancestral spirits. The reflection of the sun. On the plains, a star quilt is a celebration of life in all its variety and change.


This is Marlene: Fifty-one years old, with a warm smile, a hearty laugh and a hard stare. She is sitting in the basement of a ninety-year-old brick building that once was a church but is now the Four Winds Survival Project. It's a place where Native American people come to get advice, computer training, help finding an apartment. It's also a place where they come to pray in traditional ways.

Marlene is finishing a stitch on a pink, maroon and white star quilt stretched out on a frame of two-by-fours. She is nursing a cup of coffee, squinting through the smoke of another Marlboro, trying to finish one phone call so she can get rid of another.

She always has two phones with her, and they are always ringing. Someone will need a ride, or someone will need information about a sweat-lodge ceremony, or someone will need a few diapers, usually size four.

But this time it's a woman, a white woman, who wants to start a program to help Native Americans. She wants to know what Marlene does with her Women's Empowerment Circle. She wants to know if she can visit Four Winds, discuss a few ideas, offer a critique and improve the low-key gathering that Marlene and her friends have nurtured for six years.

The circle began as a way for the women to sit together and learn traditional arts and crafts, but it has now blossomed into an outreach program for Native American women on the streets, women just released from prison, women who are new to Denver and need help getting solid ground beneath their feet.

Marlene listens patiently to the woman, brushing an ash from the wolf's face on her pink sweatshirt. "Thank you," she says after a while. "But no thank you."

It is true that Native Americans are among the poorest people in the United States, Marlene explains later. It is true that almost half of all Native Americans have drug and alcohol problems. It is true that Native American men and women die every year on the streets of Denver, which has one of the largest off-reservation populations in the country.

In fact, four Native Americans died in this city last October alone. One man had his throat cut off I-70, and a woman was found dead in a dumpster behind a hospital. That same month, a close friend of Marlene's was beaten into a coma for no reason by five men.

But this is also true, Marlene says: Ultimately, Native Americans must help themselves. Only then will true strength come. Only then will true strength last. She has seen it. She has lived it. The strength is there, Marlene says. And that is what she does in the basement of Four Winds: helps women find it.

This is Marlene: hanging up both phones, picking up her needle, beginning to sew.


The Santee reservation stands in the wide and flat farm country of northeastern Nebraska. There's a casino on the land now, but when Marlene was a kid, it held nothing but buffalo grass and boredom. Many of the 500 or so people who lived on the reservation, mostly Dakota Sioux, scratched by on general-assistance welfare checks.

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.

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.

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.

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.?

Boom.

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.

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.

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.

By 1996, Living Waters had become the Four Winds Survival Project. It had begun phasing out its alcoholic-recovery halfway house and started devoting itself to traditional Native American ceremonies. Its councilmembers were exploring other programs, too.

Marlene, a volunteer, had an idea: Drawing upon her memory of her grandmother's kitchen, she suggested a program where Native American women from all tribes could gather and make traditional arts and crafts. They could sew star quilts, moccasins and jingle dresses. And at the same time, they could discuss problems, share advice, get to know each other. In the basement, they could have a circle.

The councilmembers agreed that the idea had merit. Life in Denver was hard enough for Native American men, but for women who were often alone with children, it could be brutal. Although there were already assistance projects in place, including those at the Denver Indian Center, too many women were falling through the cracks. Women needed an additional support system, a safety net.

The project started slowly, but Marlene and her friends persevered. The word spread, and more women came. Soon they had a circle.


Life was good. Marlene was happy. She wanted to give something back.

It was December 1997, just before Christmas, and she wanted to host a thanksgiving ceremony. She wanted to cook a big meal and give away her most precious possessions. Although she had recently butchered a cow and offered up a freezerful of food to her friends, family and community members, she wanted to give even more.

"Marlene, you don't have to do this," her friends said.

But she insisted: "I want to. I really do."

She made preparations at Four Winds. When her youngest son said he'd come, she got excited. Since her release from prison, Marlene had tried to make amends with her family. She'd apologized. She'd listened. And she'd cried when her youngest son had slammed his fist into the wall by her head and raged, "You don't know what you did to us!" But slowly, the wounds had begun to heal.

The thanksgiving ceremony went wonderfully, but Marlene's son didn't show.

At 3 a.m. the next day, he called. "Mom, I'm in the hospital."

He and his friends had gone drinking. They'd been on C-470 when their Toyota SUV had flipped four times. He'd flown through the windshield. The impact had been so violent that his shoes stayed on the dashboard.

"Mom," he said. "I don't have a scratch."

Marlene hung up on him.

He needed a ride home, but she refused. Relieved as she was, she knew that he'd have to learn how to clean up his own messes. Then it hit her: Her son had been spared. Because she had given so much of herself to the community, her son had been returned to her.

The next morning, he knocked on her door.

"I'm done drinking. I'm done with drugs."

For a month, he stayed in his room and kicked his habit cold turkey. Then he asked Marlene if he could go to the sweat lodge with her. Then he asked if she would help on his vision quest. Then he started walking in a good way. He has been sober ever since.

Marlene's middle son now lives in Denver with his family. He's sober, too, and learning the traditional ways. So is Marlene's sister. So is her oldest aunt.

"See how prayer works," Marlene says. "People can change."


Lisa Ortega was terrified. In December 2001, she was three months pregnant, and her boyfriend had just kicked her out. He'd wanted her to have an abortion, but she had refused, so he'd showed her the door. She had no money and no friends or family to take her in. The shelters were full and it was getting dark. Soon, she'd be on the streets.

Then she remembered Marlene. If you're in trouble, Lisa had heard, Marlene will help. If you're on the streets, she'll walk along the Platte River with doughnuts, condoms, hairbrushes and sleeping bags. She'll stop and talk and make sure you're okay. If you have the shakes, she'll give you a few bucks so you don't have to drink Listerine. If you're ready to sober up, she knows where you can get help. But if not, she'll know you're better when the sleeping bag shows up back on her porch.

If you're new to Denver and don't have a place to stay or diapers for your kids, Marlene will make a few calls, find some Pampers and help out with gas money. She's also been known to offer her own couch from time to time and reach into her own pocket. She'll do what she can to help you get a job, a place and a little stability.

If you're in prison and want to pray in the traditional ways, Marlene will visit. She will talk, she will listen, she will share what she knows. And when you get out, she'll invite you to Four Winds and help you continue to learn. And she will check up on you, too, and keep on checking up on you.

"Her biggest contribution is her heart," says RoSean Kent Howard, a Four Winds councilmember. "Her heart is so big, she can't help but help the people. She's raised a lot of kids, too, and she's still raising them. And she's humble. Very humble."

Lisa didn't know Marlene well, but she'd heard some of these things. So she stopped by Marlene's bungalow, which is next door to Four Winds. Although Marlene had a full house that night, she took Lisa in. She has watched over her ever since.

When Lisa's boy was born seven months ago, Marlene practically became his grandma. She fed him, sang to him, loved him. And this generosity has helped Lisa to stand tall. She has learned how to use computers. She has made plans to attend college this fall. She's hoping to get her own place. But no matter what she accomplishes, she and her baby will continue to visit the basement of Four Winds and sit among the women.

"They care about me here," Lisa says. "They do."


Corn bread, bean soup, rice and chicken casserole, cinnamon rolls with icing. Come on in, Marlene says. Grab a plate and have a seat. If you want to visit, you gotta eat. And when you're done, eat some more.

It's another Monday night, and the women are here again, talking about making jingle dresses, moccasins and dolls representing the different Native American nations. They're here again talking about babies, husbands and supplies they need, like new sewing machines, embroidery thread, polyester stuffing and diapers. Size fours. Don't forget the Lamborghini. They need one of those, too. A yellow one.

Come on in and take a seat. They're just talking.

After a while, though, a few of them will gather around the big quilt with their manicure scissors and spools of thread and begin snipping, measuring and humming. Marlene will sit back in her squeaky chair, flicking that lighter, presiding over it all. And they'll stay there until they're ready to go home.

The wind is sharp outside, and the snow has a thin crust of ice. But in the basement of Four Winds, the women drape their jackets over the backs of folding chairs and lay their gloves on the tabletops. In here, they stretch their legs out and loosen their hair ties. Among friends, family and familiar faces, these women are warm.

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