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Salish elder visits Statue of Liberty for 85th birthday

NEW YORK - Agnes Kenmille had quite an 85th birthday.

The revered Salish elder was honored by the Montana state government for her lifetime achievement in tanning and beadwork and had a birthday pow wow and dinner attended by hundreds on her native Flathead Reservation.

To cap it off, she came to New York City to fulfill a wish to see the Statue of Liberty.

Kenmille, known universally as "Oshanee," (the "a" is silent), took New York City right in stride. Besides visiting Lady Liberty, she went to a Broadway play ("Kiss Me Kate"), was scheduled to tour the National Museum of the American Indian, and drew cheers at a lunch at the American Indian Community House by singing and drumming a Salish honor song.

Oshanee, accompanied by Mary Jane Charlo, community services technician of the Salish & Kootenai Housing Authority and Arleen Adams, Trio director of Salish & Kootenai College, displays an energy that belies her years, as well as a sly sense of humor and an infectious laugh.

She described her visit to the statue as the high point of her visit to New York (she climbed part way but didn't make it all the way to the top). The low points were the traffic and the wild driving of the taxi drivers, she said.

Oshanee came away from her visit with an outlandish pair of Lady Liberty sunglasses, and plans to bead a crown like the one on the statue.

She recalled she made buckskin gauntlets for boxing champion Muhammed Ali and former vice president Al Gore, a reflection of the national recognition accorded her artistry (she specializes in beaded moccasins and vests).

Following a luncheon at Community House, Oshanee was persuaded to tell a few stories, the first stretching back three quarters of a century. She was 11 and did her first beadwork, a cloverleaf design on a canvas bag. Oshanee related how she went to the tribal Fourth of July pow wow (she is head woman dancer at that pow wow) and traded the bag for a necklace. With the wisdom of hindsight, she admits she got the wrong end of the bargain.

Oshanee speaks all three of the languages in use on the Flathead - Salish, Kootenai, and English. How she came to speak Kootenai makes a good story. When she was 14, her parents arranged a marriage with a man from the Kootenai tribe. They met for the first time on the day of their marriage in Kalispell, when she saw him step out of a horse and buggy.

They were married by the justice of the peace, but there was one small problem - Oshanee didn't speak Kootenai, and her husband didn't speak Salish or English. For months, they communicated in sign language, with Oshanee learning Kootenai as she went along.

Oshanee buried that husband and two others and bore a total of seven children. She brought herself up short by remembering that if her eldest daughter, Annie, had survived, she would now be 70. Oshanee has between 40 and 50 grandchildren, and some of her grandchildren have their own grandchildren.

Her memory is precise. She remembers the names of all four families that shared a tent at a pow wow when she was 18 or 20, and how her growing tanning ability saved the day when bad gambling luck left all four families broke.

She sold a pair of gloves for $1.25 (the same pair would fetch $250 today) and bought 75 cents worth of groceries, (spare ribs, potatoes, flour and sugar), as well as gasoline for their Model T Ford, which was empty. The other 50 cents she gave to her husband, who took it to gamble and saw his luck change - he came back with $14, a small fortune for the 1930s.

A national television audience was introduced to Oshanee, indirectly, when her travel companions Charlo and Adams were interviewed on the "Today" show as they watched it being broadcast live from Rockefeller Center in New York.

Oshanee was born in Arlee, Mont., in 1916, and lived most of her life in Elmo. In later years, she taught the Salish language and hide tanning (she uses deer brains to soften the hides). She has taught at both Two Eagle River School in Pablo, Mont., (the tribal capital) and at Salish & Kootenai College, also in Pablo.

Both places figured in the giant birthday dinner and pow wow March 16 and 17. The dinner, drawing 300 people, was at the college, while the pow wow was at the school.

Thirteen drums performed Friday night, and nine on Saturday, Charlo recalled. She said Oshanee's nephew, Francis Cullooyah, the emcee, called everyone out to dance and then to form a big circle around Oshanee, Charlo, Adams, and Oshanee's son Camille, since all their birthdays were close together. The whole crowd sang happy birthday.

Oshanee made a trip to the state capital in Helena to receive the governor's arts award for which she was nominated by Gov. Judy Martz.

The program for the Jan. 19 ceremony describes Oshanee's home in Pablo as being surrounded by deer hides she is working on. And it describes the skill and dexterity she brings to her stitching and beadwork - attesting, as one of her many citations proclaims, that Oshanee was "Born to Bead."