Victor Charlo peered nervously from the Wolf Trap stage at the sea of empty seats earlier this year. His nerves, coupled with the effects of a 2001 stroke, caused the poet to stumble his way through an afternoon soundcheck, and again at the evening rehearsal. As if he needed anything else to happen before arguably the highest profile reading of his life, he'd also fallen and hurt his knee earlier that day.
His daughter, April Charlo, worried the August 2009 performance would be rough. She felt bad luck in the air. The duo often gave poetry readings at Montana bookstores "to 20 or five people or one person," Victor half jokes. During those appearances, he'd stand at a podium reciting poems about life on the Flathead Reservation and seminary school, about his father, about a life-changing trip to the Arctic and about traditional American Indian games. April would translate some of his words back into the Salish language for the audience to hear.
But the Wolf Trap reading just outside the nation's capital marked their first appearance on a national stage. The event was a celebration of Glacier National Park called Faces of America, and Victor and April were slated to speak to a crowd of 3,100. After the shaky soundchecks, it appeared the scope of the performance was potentially too much for Victor.
"And then the night of the performance, oh my God, it was amazing," says April. "Dad didn't mess up. He was beautiful."
In fact, the trajectory of that day—from the unsettled beginnings to the ultimate success—mirrors Charlo's remarkable life journey. At age 71, he's best known in Montana as a gifted poet who writes about his experience on and off the reservation. And there's plenty to pull from. When he was growing up, his elders taught him to suppress his cultural identity. He attended seminary school on a whim. He was part of the celebrated University of Montana writing circles during the 1960s where he notably befriended the late poet Richard Hugo. He's written plays and created documentaries. His second book of poems, Put Sey (pronounced "poot shay"), published by Many Voices Press in 2008, provides a small sample of the massive amounts of poetry he's written over four decades. When Charlo tells a story, he inevitably punctuates the end of it with, "And I have a poem about that."
Outside of his writing, he's also a huge influence on the reservation. As the great-great-grandson of Chief Victor Charlot, he's the spiritual chief of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. His experience as a longtime teacher, principal and counselor underlies his current service on two education boards on the Flathead Reservation.
Charlo humbly embraces his improbable route to becoming a community leader and respected poet. But from the way he tells it, all he needed was a little luck and the confidence to know he was good enough to make it.
Charlo was born in 1938 on the Flathead Reservation and, as a boy, no one expected him to live long. Infantile paralysis plagued him, and his doctors finally sent him home from the infirmary to spend his last days. But not long afterward, his parents brought him to a medicine man who reportedly healed Charlo after only one visit.
He lived in Evaro by the train tracks with his parents and seven brothers and sisters—five other siblings had already left home. His parents had credit at a small Mission store and Charlo bought a gum eraser, a small tablet and a pencil. He didn't yet know how to write, but he'd scribble on the lines filling whole pages and then tear them out, put them in a tin can and bury them in the yard.
"I don't know," he says now. "They're probably still out there behind the old root cellar where we grew up."
Language didn't come easily to Charlo. In his early years, he stuttered. At 6 years old, he sat in the back of the classroom wishing to be invisible. He remembers once when the teacher called him to the front and asked him his name, and he cried for fear of stuttering. She sent him home.
"My dad said, 'Oh boy, you're really smart. You went to school one day, and you're home already!'" he says laughing. "I felt bad. I probably cried then too. But then my sister Betty helped me. I just worked hard. I studied."
Charlo and his siblings learned only English because their parents had already suffered—through boarding schools, missionaries, broken treaties and white influence—the ostracizing pain of embracing Salish and the native culture. Still, the family incorporated traditional games and songs into their lives, and Charlo, like his father, was especially skilled at stickgame, a traditional American Indian game of luck. In the game, each team has a plain bone called the "white bone" and a striped bone called the "black bone." Everyone angles to win all of the other team's sticks by correctly guessing their opponent's white bone. The players sing traditional songs throughout the contest.
"Stickgame is a game of chance," Charlo says, "but it's a game of life, is what it is. What you're doing is, you're gambling to see how things might turn out the coming year. And if you win, of course, that's good. But it's [also] how you end up seeing your life."