Shining Star

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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.

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Harrison Fletcher