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Salish matriarch was link to ancient tribal culture
Salish matriarch was link to ancient tribal culture

ST. IGNATIUS - She was a Salish Indian, born in a log cabin without plumbing or running water, but she did not dwell on the hardships she endured.

She worked all her life at manual labor - washing clothes on rocks or a washboard, carrying water from a spring, hauling posts and poles her husband cut from the timberlands of the Flathead Reservation. (She was loading posts and poles into the back of a pickup even after she was 70 years old.) But she did not complain about low wages or the lack of opportunity for advancement.

She gave birth to 12 children, and mothered many more when she found neighbors' children in need. But she asked for no reward, except obedience and respect, which the children (almost always) willingly gave.

Somehow, even when there was no food to be had, she provided food for her family during a time of great privation for tribal people in the decades following the opening of the Flathead Reservation to non-Indian homesteaders."

When she passed away peacefully Jan. 11 at the age of 93, Agnes PokerJim Paul left behind more than 100 living descendants - children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, plus nieces and nephews "too numerous to mention," her obituary tactfully stated.

She was a matriarch of the Salish in another way. One of eight children born to Louie and Catherine PokerJim, Agnes PokerJim Paul was the last surviving child of the PokerJim family.

The thread of her life formed a link to the ancient Salish tribal culture before Europeans encroached into the land we now know as western Montana, to change it forever. Agnes Paul helped bring the Salish culture from the 19th into the 21st century by her example of how to live one's life.

Tony Incashola, the director of the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee, of which Agnes Paul was a founding member, said at her funeral that Agnes is part of the foundation of "who we are as Indian people. Her gentle and kind way, and the strength behind it, are passed on from generation to generation," he said.

Thompson Smith of Charlo, a longtime friend of Agnes and her late husband, John Peter Paul, is a consultant to the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee.

He was asked by her family to give the eulogy at her funeral in the historic St. Ignatius Catholic Mission in St. Ignatius. To prepare, Smith asked her relatives about their memories of Agnes.

"Like a few other traditional elders we still have the good fortune to have among us today, Agnes lived in the old ways, raised and surrounded by people who had a direct tie to the time before the disappearance of the buffalo, before the construction of the railroads, before the reservation itself existed, before the explosion of non-Indian population in the place we now call Montana," Smith reported.

Her grandmother accompanied a Salish hunting party to one of the last buffalo hunts the Salish made east of the mountains, and Agnes remembered her grandmother recalling the experience. (Her grandmother told her she went on one, and only one such hunt, and chose to never go on another one because "It was too hard.")

By the time Agnes was born on March 13, 1910, in the family's log cabin below Saddle Mountain near Arlee, the buffalo had all but disappeared behind fences.

But the old ways of life were still strong.

She did the things Indian girls did in those days: riding and breaking horses, for example. An interview with Agnes published in the Feb. 2, 1989 issue of Char-Koosta News, the tribal newspaper, quotes her as follows: "We used to ride horse all the time. All of us (she and her siblings) had our bones broke. We didn't like to tell anyone when we were hurt. We were afraid of a whipping from our dad if he found out."

Agnes herself suffered a broken collarbone, the Char-Koosta story said. There was also hunting and gathering to be done - important work if you were going to feed a family by living off the land, as the Salish did. The children helped.

"We caught a whitefish out of the Jocko River. Down there along the banks of the river we would also pick wild raspberries in summer," she told the Char-Koosta News reporter Shannon Burke.

Agnes also helped dig the root of the bitterroot plant, a starchy staple of the Salish, to supplement the family's winter food stores. She recalled some of the best bitterroot grounds existed in what is now Missoula's Reserve Street corridor, especially along south Reserve Street, where Shopko and an asphalt parking lot were built some 20 years ago, and beneath what is now the tidy, closely trimmed greens and fairways of what is now Larchmont Golf Course.

Agnes told of traveling with her family past Missoula, using the ancient camps near the base of Mount Jumbo, where she described them camping and fishing for bull trout in the Clark Fork River, and gathering berries in the hills nearby. She told of going up the Blackfoot River to the Potomac area and the camas-digging grounds and past Clearwater Junction, toward Seeley Lake, hunting through all this open country, she told interviewers from the cultural committee.

She met her husband-to-be, John Peter Paul, at the Arlee Fourth of July Pow Wow when she was about 18.

"Everybody camped there on the grounds. For many days, there was a big dance, and no stick game. The old people would visit at camp and the kids would play. We would be at the river swimming or riding our horses," she told the 1989 interviewer. The couple remained together for 73 years, until John Peter Paul's death in 2001.

She was a storehouse of cultural knowledge, working with the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee from its inception in the early 1970s, sharing her knowledge of the Salish language, Salish place names and Salish cultural ways. She learned her English at the Catholic boarding school in St. Ignatius, but Salish remained her preferred language all her life.

Agnes' daughters recalled how her husband John Peter Paul would come home and start talking English. Agnes would turn to him and insist on speaking Salish.

Incashola recalled that on occasion, her gentle and kind ways could become gritty and tough, when something close to her was threatened. For example, when the Yellowstone Pipeline Co. wanted to renew its lease for an oil pipeline across the Flathead Reservation, despite a dismal record of pipeline ruptures and leaks on tribal lands over many years, both Agnes and John Peter Paul vehemently opposed the lease agreement.

"They wanted to protect our land for the future," Incashola said.

In the 1989 interview with the Char-Koosta, Agnes expressed herself this way about her experience of continuity and change as a Salish Indian living throughout most of the 20th century.

"Everything changes everywhere. When I go to Missoula, I see the fairgrounds where we used to camp and dig bitterroot. I don't like it, but my grandmother said everything would change, and it does."

Burial was in the Paul Family Cemetery north of St. Ignatius.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-36-7186 or

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