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An Oklahoma woman finds healing in her Chickasaw roots

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Time again for StoryCorps. Today, a story from Oklahoma City. That's where Shelby Rowe heads one of the country's largest suicide prevention centers. Her own story is one of triumphing over struggles that included becoming a mom at 18 and then three difficult marriages. Today, in addition to her work as an advocate, she's also an award-winning artist. At StoryCorps, Rowe talked with her friend Johnna James about drawing strength from her roots as a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

SHELBY ROWE: I left Oklahoma for a cute man. (Laughter). Most of my tragedies start with a cute boy. And honestly, I didn't think I would ever go back home because when I would accomplish things, people that knew me growing up would be like, oh, Shelby, you know, you're doing so well for a teen mom. And so I was like, I just want to do well, period. But when I got divorced from Mr. Charming, I spent a lot of time thinking, OK, who am I? Where do I come from? Because I didn't grow up in Indian country. I wasn't raised in the traditions. And so I didn't know if I really belonged. Would they be like, who is this person from the city coming and trying to fit in?

But I moved back close to Chickasaw Nation. And as soon as I got there, I knew I was home. And then I thought, OK, I don't have anything connected with our culture. And I was really hungry for that. But, like, I'm not very good at dancing. I can't paint. And I'd already given up on language. But then I was walking around an arts festival, and I found a table with some beaded hatbands. And I was like, oh, that kind of looks like a spreadsheet. I'm good at spreadsheets.

JOHNNA JAMES: Yes, you are.

(LAUGHTER)

ROWE: I was like, I bet I could - I could probably read a pattern. And so I bought a little, child-sized loom, and I thought, I'm going to try this. And that was my thing. You know, I do have PTSD, and so sometimes, I have a hard time telling the difference between things that happen 20 years ago and things that happen this week. But I realized pretty quickly with beading, all I'm doing is counting beads. I can't let my mind wander, or I'll mess up. And I'm sure it's no surprise to our ancestors because they knew all of this before there was therapy. It's a source of grounding, a source of pride just knowing this is me. This is who I am, a part of the unconquered and unconquerable Chickasaws.

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MARTÍNEZ: That was Shelby Rowe with her friend Johnna James at StoryCorps in Oklahoma City. The interview is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jo Corona