On the opening day of hunting season in 1980, Ella Mae Deno slept in a family travel camper at the Whitestone campground near the Hellgate Game Reserve with her elderly mother and father, Bill and Della Beardslee. Her parents were both 78. Ella was 54, and she was hunting elk, one of five Colville Tribal members selected by lottery in the first “Special Elk Hunt” on the Colville Indian Reservation.
Elk had only been reintroduced to the reservation a few years before, but they had thrived, and when the Tribes opened the lottery-based hunt, Ella Mae jumped at the opportunity.
All her life, she had been in the outdoors; she told the story only a couple months before her passing on March 18, 2015.
She was born in Kiernan, California on May 30, 1926, where her father worked on a farm and her mother worked picking hops.
By 1933, with the family then in Wapato and the Great Depression making farm work a difficult way for her father to support his family, her parents sold everything they owned that couldn’t fit into a trunk and moved Ella Mae and her older brother Ralph to the little town of Kewa, south of Inchelium along the windy Columbia River—back home.
Her mother, whose maiden name was Delphine Toulou, had an unimproved 160-acre allotment for the family to live on—and that’s where Ella Mae grew up, living for a time in a canvas wall tent as her father and uncle erected a two-story home for the family and began clearing the wild rose bushes that covered the property.
She rode her horse Dolly 2 miles to school in Kewa.
Later, Ella Mae talked about education and her early experiences. When asked if she had anything to share with younger tribal members about what she’d learned over her 88 years, she would say, in a serious, no-nonsense way, “The importance of education.”
First in Kewa, then later in Inchelium, Ella Mae took to schooling.
“When I was old enough, Mrs. Christine Taton let me help the younger children to read, spell and do arithmetic,” she would later write in her journal, reflecting on the time of her youth.
At home, doing chores alongside her parents and older brother she worked hard, milking the cows, working in the hay fields, cleaning the barn, cooking and canning with her mother, taking care of her other siblings and the dozens of other tasks that helped the family survive.
At school, she flourished.
In another life, she would have been a teacher she said in 2015.
In 1944, times were hard in Inchelium and Kewa. She quit school her junior year to marry John Stanley Judd Jr. on May 1, 29 days before her 18th birthday, so only 17, her mother signed her marriage certificate for her.
She moved with her new husband onto a farm in Inchelium called the Squash Johnson Place, and a year later, her first son, Melvin Lee Judd, was born. The next year, her first daughter, Arleta Marie Judd was also born.
“It was a very busy time for us,” Ella Mae later wrote in her journal.
In 1946, Ella Mae had surgery and with her hospitalized in Colville and her husband living away from home to help her, they were forced to sell the farm, unable to repay the Federal Housing Administration loan. The family eventually moved to Republic following logging work, then Spokane where John went to work for the Great Northern Railroad and Ella Mae worked in a diner then, later in K-Mart.
Her third child, Paul Stanley Judd, was born in1955, and her final child, Jesse Owens Judd, was born in 1960.
The section of her journal, detailing the time of her life, is conflicted, torn between the love for her children and a palpable emotional struggle. In 2015, she would say simply—articulating from a place of experience, humility and sincerity—“It was a hard time.”
“When Jesse was just six months old, I had a hysterectomy,” Ella Mae wrote. “After my surgery, I was a different person. Meanwhile, John was a different person also. We began living away from each other in the same house.”
By 1967, Ella Mae and John divorced.
“I had to leave my two young boys with their dad and grandparents who had been living with us. It was a real hard thing to do, but I took nothing from my home except the clothes on my back and my purse that had no money in it. I could not take my boys with me at that time.”
Eventually, Ella Mae met Robert “Bob” Deno, and the two moved to Idaho and Montana chasing employment together. Bob worked in mines, in the woods and for farmers or ranchers, and Ella often cooked.
The two were married, and by 1972, after working six years at Washington State University as a cook—Ella Mae was later told the school hired three men to replace her after she left—her youngest son Jesse came to live with them. Her son Paul joined the U.S. Air Force.
“I knew where our young boys were,” she wrote, noting the moment as one of a long sought comfort, a breath: Her two older children were married, making lives of their own.
In 1978, Bob was injured in a farm accident while working in Lind, ending his life as a hand. The couple began running a Gas-A-Mat in Pasco. When Gas-A-Mats began closing down, replaced by modern style gas stations, Ella Mae and Bob Deno were ready to retire.
They traveled back to the reservation, first stopping at Twin Lakes to rest and fish, then in 1981 onto Alice Flats in Keller where they bought a HUD house from the Colville Tribes.
“That was the last of our moving around,” Ella Mae wrote.
There on opening day at Whitestone in 1980, Tribal Gamer Officer Pat Finley—who retired in 2015, and Ella Mae remembered as a young, handsome man—knocked on their door in the pre-dawn hours.
When Ella Mae answered, Finley was excited. He’d seen an elk, he said.
Later that day, with Finley acting as an informal guide, Ella Mae downed a six point bull at three hundred yards, becoming the first tribal member to “legally”—she would make the distinction—harvest an elk on the Colville Reservation.