Shining Star

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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.

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Harrison Fletcher