One of the first things you notice when visiting Salish elder Agnes “Oshanee” Kenmille are the elk and deer hides.
There are hides with hair, hairless hides, bleach-white hides, soaking hides and stretched-out hides. There are hides hanging outside from rafter ropes, from nails, and from nearly every place that gives cover from the rain and snow. Inside her modest home on the edge of Pablo, Agnes keeps pieces of soft, brain-tanned leather in little piles. Several traditional dresses are in the works, as are numerous vests and matched sets of gloves and moccasins. Intricate beadwork adorns most of the items, testament to the time she still puts into delicate and indelicate tasks.
Over the years, Agnes has developed a worldwide market for her leather goods, which she always makes from scratch. One set of beaded gloves was a gift to Al Gore during his first campaign with Bill Clinton. Another pair was given to former heavyweight fighter Muhammad Ali. Special pride is reserved for a vest she made for former Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Mickey Pablo before he died last summer.
In a sense, Agnes, who turns 84 next week, keeps her feet in four worlds—the past, the present, the Indian and the white. But it is the modern world, with its freewheeling morals and dearth of traditional teachings, and the younger generation, that can get her temperature rising.
“I don’t know what to think of them,” she says of today’s youth. “They watch TV. They sass their parents, and they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They shouldn’t run around.” Agnes is concerned that young people don’t respect their elders, or little else for that matter.
“I don’t really know how to change that,” she says through her ever-mischievous smile. Despite their shortcomings, Agnes says she still seeks out young people whenever she can, primarily because their innocence needs to be savored. “I have a lot of young friends,” she explains. “Lots of young friends. The others, the older ones, always ask me why. I say it’s because the young ones laugh a lot. They have humor. The old people don’t laugh a lot.”
Agnes could be unhappy, too. She’s been widowed several times. She’s lost some of her children, and her life has almost always been lean. But instead of investing in sorrows, Agnes is infected with a wholesome, regal grace that rubs off on most everyone she meets.
“She is a person who is incredibly upbeat, with a wonderful sense of humor who loves to laugh,” says longtime friend Germaine White, who works for the tribes as a cultural-preservation specialist. “She’s been my teacher for about 30 years. She’s a grandmother to hundreds.”
“She’s always on call to help,” adds Salish Kootenai College President Joe McDonald, who has also known Agnes for decades. “She’s got that twinkling eye and a wonderful smile. She’s just terrific.”
Agnes, however, is very modest about her popularity. She lives a simple life and still works every day. She attends nearly every wake on the reservation and is the lead woman dancer at virtually every powwow. She still teaches hide-tanning classes at SKC, and will share her clothes-making and beading skills with anyone who will take the time to learn.
Agnes was born in Arlee on March 16, 1916. She was the last of 12 children and was orphaned at an early age. When she was 14 she quit school and married her first husband, who died less than two years later. She later remarried, but her second husband, Joe Mathias, was killed in a landslide. A third husband, Camielle Kenmille, has been outlived, as well.
Over the course of her marriages, Agnes gave birth to six children, including former tribal Vice Chairman Laurence Kenmille. Her oldest daughter died of tuberculosis at age 35. Another son, Eneas, died a few years ago.
For much of her life, Agnes lived along the shores of Flathead Lake in the Kootenai community of Elmo. She is one of the few people on the reservation who fluently speaks both the Kootenai and Salish languages.
While she’s taught various language classes over the years, primarily at the Pablo-based Two Eagle River School, Agnes says she’s taking a break from that for awhile. The problem, she explains, is that most young people don’t want to learn their traditional ways. And without a bridge to connect their own past with the present, she fears they—and the languages—will be lost.
“There’s five people I talk to in Indian,” she says, her eyes opening wide. “What can I do about it? No one will learn it if they don’t speak. I wish they would learn.”
Despite her occasional frustration, Agnes says she enjoys teaching traditional ways to others, no matter their race. And don’t expect long and boring lectures from her. Her classes are hands-on or nothing.
“You’ll never learn by the book,” she says of hide-tanning students in particular. “You have to be watching. It’s hard to tan. It’s hard. When they scrape the hair off, they’ll have sore arms for two or three days.”
Agnes says she plans to stay home for her birthday, but will consider going to a party when she turns 85.
“I’m still doing pretty good,” she says while looking at the clock and gently heading a visitor toward the door. “But I’ve got to get to work.”