They came from as far away as Arizona, Oklahoma and South Dakota, for the honor of carrying a piece of clothing once worn by their close friend and spiritual mentor, Marissa Joline Blacklance, who died months earlier in a car crash caused by a drunken driver.
She was 23 years old.
One by one, the women approached the center of the auditorium, bowed their heads in prayer and accepted bright yellow scarves. Bundled inside each scarf were pieces of the traditional “jingle dress” that Blacklance wore during numerous powwows and other traditional dances. A few of the women wept when the beat of the drumming stopped and they held their scarves high in the air.
The force of that sacred ceremony — held at the Minneapolis American Indian Center on May 5, 2018 — has continued to this day. Each of the 21 women who accepted the yellow prayer scarf took an oath to abstain from using drugs and alcohol for at least a year. The “prayer scarf carriers,” as they call themselves, have become models of sobriety and resilience in local Native communities that have struggled to find solutions to an epidemic of substance abuse. In Minnesota, American Indians are almost six times more likely to die of drug overdoses than whites — one of the widest disparities in the nation.
For many of the women, the carrying of the scarves began as a way to honor Blacklance, a Dakota/Ojibwe spiritual activist and dancer whose Indian name (“Wakinyan Waste Win”) meant “Good Lightning Woman.” Yet the tradition has “turned into something much, much bigger,” said Rose St. Cyr, a longtime friend of Blacklance and a prayer scarf carrier from Whiteriver, Ariz.
“This will save lives. Young girls and young men across the region are starting to see us in these scarves and see the positivity that comes from being alcohol- and drug-free.”
Virgil E. Blacklance, Marissa’s father, said the initial idea came to him in a vision.
In the days after his daughter’s death, he had a series of dreams in which her friends were performing ceremonial dances wearing her jingle dress, a traditional gown believed to have healing powers that is worn during powwows and other Native ceremonies. Inspired by this vision, the family held a ceremony in the living room of their northeast Minneapolis home. They burned sage and prayed over Marissa’s dress for several days before cutting it up into smaller pieces. Each piece of her dress was then placed in a yellow scarf similar to one that she wore during ceremonial dances.
Soon after, the Blacklances reached out to Marissa’s closest friends and relatives to see if they would carry the scarf in her memory.
It was not difficult to find willing participants. Through her activism and ceremonial dancing, Blacklance established deep connections with Indians throughout the region. In 2016, she and her 5-year-old son, Kaylor, were a visible presence at the anti-pipeline protests at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. In one memorable photo, Blacklance is astride a horse, staring down a line of heavily armed authorities. She was also a horse rider on the annual 330-mile ride from Lower Brule, S.D., to Mankato to memorialize the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota — the largest mass execution in the nation’s history.
“My daughter was bigger than just my little girl. She had a beautiful soul that touched many lives,” said Virgil Blacklance, while gazing at photos of his daughter from Standing Rock. “We heard from a lot of her friends that they still had this wish to dance with her one last time.”
Now that wish has come true. At a round dance ceremony in Minneapolis in February, more than a dozen prayer scarf carriers danced in a circle to the beat of traditional drumming. At the ceremony, five more women took the vow to carry the scarf and stay free of drugs and alcohol. Over the past year, only two of the nearly two dozen women who committed to carrying the scarves have broken the vow of sobriety; out of honor, both returned the scarves to the Blacklance family.
As word of the scarves’ healing power has spread on social media, women from as far away as North Carolina and Saskatchewan have expressed interest in becoming scarf carriers.
“We have all seen how alcohol and drugs ruin lives and have devastated many of our families,” said Talessa Hensley, 24, a prayer scarf carrier from Bismarck, N.D.
“To have so many strong young women stand up and say, ‘I am sober and drug free,’ is amazing.”
Trina Michelle Fasthorse, 21, met Blacklance when they were girls performing at traditional ceremonies. She still refers to her late friend as “my powwow sister.” Both suffered miscarriages as teenagers; Fasthorse said Blacklance was one of only a few friends who reached out to comfort her during her time of sorrow.
“Marissa had a heart of gold,” Fasthorse said. “She was there for anybody and everybody she could be for in this world.”
On the wall of her St. Paul apartment, Fasthorse keeps her yellow prayer scarf hanging next to a collection of Blacklance’s photographs. She reaches for the scarf whenever she feels grief or the temptation to drink, she said. Just touching the fabric, she said, brings back fond memories of Blacklance laughing and singing. It also brings back the trauma that Fasthorse remembers feeling on that winter morning when she received a phone call from a weeping friend, relaying the news of Blacklance’s death, caused by a drunken driver near Sisseton, S.D.
In February, Fasthorse proudly wore the yellow scarf around her waist as she danced on her toes at a traditional powwow ceremony in St. Paul. “It means so much to have this opportunity to dance with Marissa again, because her spirit is in that scarf dancing with us,” said Fasthorse, who spoke between dances at the powwow.
“By wearing the scarf, we are choosing life.”