Shining Star

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.

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.