Char-Koosta News

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Helen Charlo celebrates 100th birthday with friends and family

By Lailani Upham
Char-Koosta News

Birthday candles burn on a three-layered Chief Cliff cake as Grandma Helen smiles to her Happy Birthday jingle sung to her from family and guests. (Lailani Upham photo)Birthday candles burn on a three-layered Chief Cliff cake as Grandma Helen smiles to her Happy Birthday jingle sung to her from family and guests. (Lailani Upham photo)

PABLO — For the past 100 years, “Grandma Helen” has been known for her gentle, kind spirit, and her strength for her Kootenai family, tribe and Flathead Reservation community.

“There are no words to explain the treasure I have in her,” said her youngest daughter Chrissie Ewing. “She means everything to me.”

Helen Charlo celebrated her 100th birthday with a Pacific Island Luau with friends and family on Saturday at the Two Eagle River School.

What better place to have a party — at TERS where Helen is known to have made a huge impact over the decades.

“She has been an example and a big part of TERS grounding and community,” Shelly Fyant said. “It’s such an honor to witness this (party).”

Great granddaughter, Nevina, 2; and her cousin, Layla Tenas, 10, smile with delight and take in the vibes of an Pacific Islands song with Grandma Helen during her 100 year birthday party at Two Eagle River School on Saturday. (Lailani Upham photo)Great granddaughter, Nevina, 2; and her cousin, Layla Tenas, 10, smile with delight and take in the vibes of an Pacific Islands song with Grandma Helen during her 100 year birthday party at Two Eagle River School on Saturday. (Lailani Upham photo)

Several of her traits to those who have known her include honesty, love, tradition, soft, quiet and just a beautiful soul, Carole Lankford said.

One cannot leave out humorous.

“No matter what she’s been through or you're going through, she always makes you smile with her quick wit or crazy stories,” said her granddaughter Colleen Tenas.

One of Helen’s many great granddaughters, Elisabeth Hampton, said growing up with Grandma Helen was humbling and inspiring. “She instilled a passion in me to learn our culture and strive to learn the language,” Hampton said.

After blowing out the candles, Grandma Helen receives a sweet kiss from a granddaughter. (Lailani Upham photo)After blowing out the candles, Grandma Helen receives a sweet kiss from a granddaughter. (Lailani Upham photo)

“She was my first Kootenai language teacher,” Dana Hewankorn said. “I still remember everything she taught me.”

Hampton said of her strong-willed grandmother, “She loves having her grandchildren around, this is when she is the happiest — when her whole family is around.”

“No matter how hard life comes at her. She lived it. She kept busy and never let anything tie her down,” Will Buckskin said. “If anything came in front of her, she went right over it.”

Nephew Craige Couture said there are no words to describe Helen’s influence has had, but one thing he is assured of is the impact of her prayers over the family she has had and still has.

Peniamina from Tribal Waves performs a victory fire knife dance in honor of Grandma Helen who won many battles in her 100 years of life on earth.  (Lailani Upham photo)Peniamina from Tribal Waves performs a victory fire knife dance in honor of Grandma Helen who won many battles in her 100 years of life on earth. (Lailani Upham photo)

Mike Kenmille said Helen played a big part in him “Straightening up.”

“She means a lot to me. Quite a few years ago the tribe had a plan in place in the court system that you were assigned to visit an elder,” he said. “I chose Helen.” She guided him back to controlling his life in a good way. Through the years even after the court assignment was long gone, he still visited Helen for guidance.

“We met Grandma Helen about 12 years ago when her nephew Craige Couture asked me to go with him to pray with the family in Elmo,” said Tribal Waves pastor and friend Sika Ulutoa. “Her and Lydia her granddaughter brought their prayer requests for the kids in the family and Elmo. As we prayed I felt in my heart that this grandma really has a burden for her people.”

Ulutoa said Helen’s heart inspired him to do something for the young people and families on the Flathead Reservation.

(L to R): Daughters, Florence Johnson, 71, Chrissie Ewing, 66, Leona Juneau, 76, and their mother Helen Charlo, 100, enjoy some laughs as family and friends snap cellphone photos before leaving the party on Saturday. (Lailani Upham photo)(L to R): Daughters, Florence Johnson, 71, Chrissie Ewing, 66, Leona Juneau, 76, and their mother Helen Charlo, 100, enjoy some laughs as family and friends snap cellphone photos before leaving the party on Saturday. (Lailani Upham photo)

“Her life gave me hope in life, her presence in our bible studies, prayer meetings and luau brings completion to everyone that is there,” Ulutoa said. “When grandma is there, we feel as Samoans and Tribal Waves that we are safe. Because when our elders attend our events it’s a sign of hope and security. It brings assurance that we are doing something right. She prays for us, she blesses our gatherings.”

The Ulutoa family who would not miss Grandma Helen’s party for the world said they would do anything for her, from cooking, pig roast in the ground, to dancing.

Leina Ulutoa is joined with the youngest ladies of the party to offer a dance for Grandma Helen. (Lailani Upham photo)Leina Ulutoa is joined with the youngest ladies of the party to offer a dance for Grandma Helen. (Lailani Upham photo)

“My son loves to do the fire knife dance for grandma,” Ulutoa said. If Grandma Helen wants something done Sika and the Tribal Waves family is there. “She deserves it. She went through so many battles in her life; she built so many tepees for her children, grandchildren, great and greats. She cooked and took care of so many people in her life. She cried so many tears of sadness in this life. She continues to bring hope, joy and light to this younger generations.”

“She made it 100 years, she is still here attending almost every gathering we have,” Ulutoa said. “How blessed we are to have this precious gift of Grandma Helen from God. My grandparents went to be with the Lord a longtime ago but Grandma Helen gives me an opportunity to serve her as my own grandparents. As we say in Samoa ‘E afua mai mauga manuia’ meaning our Blessings from God flows from our Elders.”

“It’s cold here in the winter time for us Pacific Islanders from Samoa but Grandma Helen and family here keeps us warm and helps us to know that we are safe,” Ulutoa said.

A look back at 100 years

Helen Charlo, then in her mid-30s, early 40s, stands outside her mother's Elmo home. (Courtesy photo) Helen Charlo, then in her mid-30s, early 40s, stands outside her mother's Elmo home. (Courtesy photo)
Ellen “Helen Charlo” Couture was born to Josephine and John Couture on June 7, 1917 in Elmo, Montana.  She joined her siblings Madeline, Alex, Joe, and Pete, and was raised along Paul Mathias and called him brother.

Helen remembers living in Kalispell and walking everywhere; riding horses and eventually riding in horse and buggy. The first time she drove a car she was 10 years old; she drove her mother to Heart Butte to visit a relative and sell hides.

She went to Catholic School in Kalispell, as well as the Ursulines in St. Ignatius. As a tall teen, Helen played center for her high school basketball team.

At age 17 in 1934, she married Samuel Hewankorn and had five children; Eugene, Henry, Leona, Florence and Christine.  Samuel passed away in the 1960s, as well as Henry. In 1970, Helen married Antoine Charlo. Together they raised several grandchildren, including: Tom, Cissy, Sam, Lydia and Casper. Eugene passed away in 1987.

When Helen was younger she worked in the orchards thinning and picking apples. She would spend many summers picking huckleberries in Buckhorn, traveling to many powwows to play stick-game, and bingo. There are many stories of her travels that her grandchildren have, as they either had to travel with her or drive her. She was a very talented beader and hide tanner. In her later years she worked at Salish Kootenai College and Two Eagle River School as the Kootenai Language Teacher.

Helen currently resides in Elmo where her and her granddaughter Lydia are raising more grandchildren; Daizey, Odessa, Drake and Darrin. She spends most of her days watching Young and The Restless, The Price Is Right, and Let’s Make a Deal. She says that she would like to win a brand new car. She loves to ride shotgun and look at the long trees. The trip usually starts with grandma saying, “Well, where should we go today?”

She also loves visits from her 13 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren, and 9 great-great grandchildren. When her granddaughter Keke visits, she always asks her, “Gram, how old are you?”  Her response is, “91, because I like to be younger.”

Story contributions by Colleen Tenas, Christie Ewing, Lydia Hewankorn and Leona Juneau.
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