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Marie Kashpaw (née Lazarre) is the big kahuna matriarch of the Kashpaw family, which is pretty much at the heart of everything in the novel. Here's what you need to know:
Early on in the novel, we learn that Marie was super interested in Catholicism when she was a girl, and she even spent some time up at the local mission training/hanging out with the nuns. We even learn that she fantasized about herself as a saint that the sisters would kneel to:
No reservation girl had ever prayed so hard. There was no use in trying to ignore me any longer. I was going up there on the hill with the black robe women. They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don't have that much Indian blood. And they never thought they'd have a girl from this reservation as a saint they'd have to kneel to. But they'd have me. And I'd be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss. (2.1.1)
As you can see, there was a lot going on in Marie's head religion-wise when she was a kid, and it wasn't really about her love of Jesus. Mostly, she seemed interested in the convent because she wanted to be accepted and valued regardless of her lineage.
You see, she was super defensive about having some Native American relatives, telling the reader that she doesn't "have that much Indian blood" and was just as "light" as the other nuns were. In fact, she was so sensitive about that stuff that eventually denied having any Native American blood, even with family members like Lipsha who knew better.
So, back to the main point, Marie seemed to like the church because prayer is kind of a great equalizer—she could pray with the best of them, which meant it would be impossible for the nuns to ignore or look down on her (if they were so inclined).
Unfortunately, Marie's nunly aspirations took a bad turn when she ended up under the wing of a sadistic nun named Sister Leopolda who, believing that the devil had his sights set on Marie, would do things like pour boiling water on her to get "the Beast" to vacate.
Ironically, after one of these incidents (which ended with Marie defending herself and getting a poker through the hand in the bargain), Marie became that kind of saintly figure she had envisioned, with the nuns all praying to her because of the "stigmata" she had on her hand. Sister Leopolda was good at inventing cover stories in a pinch, apparently. So, she got to enjoy that dream for at least a little bit… before running as fast as her legs would take her away from the mission and nutso Sister Leopolda.
As she was fleeing the mission, she ran (literally) smack dab into Nector Kashpaw. Although Nector had been set on marrying Lulu Nanapush up to that point, suddenly Marie and her forcefulness turned his head—and not too very long after that, they were married.
Soon enough, Marie had channeled all of her energy and can-do attitude into her marriage and making Nector a success. As she went about her daily chores, she mulled how to keep her husband on the straight and narrow, despite his party-animal ways:
With each stroke of my dasher I progressed in thinking what to make of Nector. I had plans, and there was no use him trying to get out of them. I'd known from the beginning I had married a man with brains. But the brains wouldn't matter unless I kept him from the bottle. He would pour them down the drain, where his liquor went, unless I stopped the holes, wore him out, dragged him back each time he drank, and tied him to the bed with strong ropes. (5.1.27)
So, yeah, it sounds like Marie kind of had her hands full getting Nector to develop into the kind of man she thought he should be. As you can see there, however, she felt more than equal to the challenge. Marie Lazarre was not one to mess around.
Her strength even managed to impress Nector's mother, Rushes Bear (and that name should tell you everything you need to know about what a bruiser she was). At first, Marie was a little bit cowed by her mother-in-law; as she mused,
Although I'd faced down the raging nun and had no fear of my own relatives, although I wasn't afraid of the French priest, although I had slapped away men who came to work on Nector when he was sober, I was edgy in the presence of Rushes Bear. (5.2.5)
However, after some power tussles between the women, relations smoothed out quite a bit—and then, after Rushes Bear watched Marie endure an extremely difficult birth with barely a whimper, she decided that Marie really was a good egg. So, that really tells you a lot about Marie—if a woman known for rushing a bear thinks you're tough, you probably are. 'Nuff said.
Well, maybe we're not completely done singing Marie's praises for being tough. We just have to throw in there that even when Nector decided (briefly) that he was going to leave her, Marie kept on going without ever breaking down or succumbing to a crying jag—in fact, she decided to clean to keep herself on an even keel:
I felt better, that's all I know, as I scrubbed off the tarnished wax and dirty. I felt better as I recognized myself in the woman who kept her floor clean even when left by her husband. (8.1.171).
Personally, we'd probably use the breakup of a marriage as an excuse not to clean (and not get out of our pjs, TBH), but Marie doesn't do laziness or self-pity. So, she worked through her feelings while doing something useful. And before she was even done, Nector had come home.
Don't be fooled: Marie is tough as nails, but she also has a soft spot both for her biological kids and the other children who end up in her care throughout her life. For example, she adores her niece June, who ended up living with her after Marie's sister, Lucille, passed away. Even as June seemed hell-bent on pushing Marie away and giving in to some seriously self-destructive impulses, Marie's affection grew.
Marie even let her typically tough exterior down long enough to be tender with June after a rough confrontation between them, saying, "You can be my girl and live here" (5.1.58). Unfortunately, June never really seemed that into living with Marie, and she eventually left to stay with Nector's brother, Eli.