Artist Sheila Claw-Starr was born between worlds. As she felt the birth nearing, Claw-Starr’s mother boarded a bus, hoping to make it back to her family’s home on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona to give birth. But she didn’t make it.
“That’s how I was born in Redlands, Calif.,” Claw-Starr says.
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Nevertheless, she made it back home. She was sent to live with her grandmother in Arizona while still a toddler, and quickly began to learn the traditional ways: how to pray as her grandmother prayed, how to weave baskets and rugs and make her own pottery, how to recognize and gather plants that can heal.
“She started telling me it’s all about walking the 'Beauty Way',” she recalls. “And how it’s all about your inside, which is your heart, your mind, and having it in balance.”
Claw-Starr’s own life lost its balance during her teen years, when she became pregnant and wound up in an abusive marriage. Over time, the abuse led her to alcoholism and nearly destroyed her family. That was when she came to Tucson, and returned to the traditions her grandmother had taught her.
“It was just like I was a child again, and I could hear their voice through the wind, and I could hear them being happy and feeling happy,” Claw-Starr says.
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As she recovered, Claw-Starr met Ray Mattia, a member of the Tohono O’odham nation on his own journey of recovery. They talked about the suffering they saw among American Indians in Tucson, and how they might be able to help.
“We started talking about what we could do, and how we grew up being medicine people, and how our grandparents taught us certain ways of doing things,” she says, “and so, me being from the north and him from the south, we combined our traditions and started doing prayers for people out there.”
Mattia and Claw-Starr soon took their prayers and other practices—including talking circles and sweat lodges—everywhere they could: to juvenile centers and wellness centers, transitional homes and halfway houses, detox centers and mental health or substance abuse treatment facilities. They offered their program, called One Sacred Nation Healing, for free.
At first, there was little interest in and more than a little resistance to their approach. They were allowed into a single detox center for a single hour a week.
But “the more we went there and did it, the more they recognized there was a change in the clients there,” Claw-Starr says, and demand for their services soon grew. Now, the pair serves 200 to 300 people each week.
Claw-Starr supports herself with her artwork and jewelry-making, which draw on the skills her grandmother taught her and the traditional imagery she sometimes uses in the One Sacred Nation Healing program. But she says her work with the program and the good it does to others offer even greater rewards: a sense of peace and love she never imagined, and a reminder of how very far she’s come.
“I feel at peace, I feel a love I never felt before, I feel connected to my children, my grandkids, my mother, my brothers and sisters,” she says. “And I grew spiritually from it too. Working with the people, having them come to the circle and express themselves, I’m reminded every day where I came from too, being an alcoholic and coming through that. Having people tell me about how they came to rehab, how broken they are—that could easily be me.”