Shining Star

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"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.

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?"

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Harrison Fletcher