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."
Charlo, in fact, believes strongly in his luck. He believes it passed down through his lineage from Chief Charlot, who negotiated the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, down to his father, a man deemed the lucky "Montana Kid" by people in Arlee. All the men gambled, Charlo says. They took risks. They weren't gamblers in the unsavory, casino-seeking way, but rather people who took more chances in life and thus ended up winning more often.
After finishing home school and then grade school, Charlo enrolled at Loyola Sacred Heart in Missoula. He paid for it out of pocket from the per capita the federal government sent each member of the tribe for dam and timber resources. His brother Gene already attended the Catholic high school and the Catholic priests at the St. Ignatius Mission put extra pressure on Charlo to follow in Gene's footsteps. At first, he made only one friend, but by senior year he co-captained the football team, earned good grades and ran around with a group of white Catholic schoolboys.
"But you have to understand, see," he says, "I was an Indian and what I was trying to do was I was trying to pretend like I was just like everybody else. In my head I was. But nobody believed that."
Charlo maintained his friendships and began experimenting with writing stories. By graduation, however, with no job prospects or plans for college, he made a pact with a couple of friends to attend seminary school together. Charlo spent the next four years learning how to be a Jesuit in Sheridan, Ore., and then took his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and headed off to Spokane to become a priest.
After two years he dropped out.
"People would ask me, 'Why did you leave?'" he says. "And I don't have a reason other than I just didn't like it anymore. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be, I guess."
But he admits part of the reason he left had to do with the way the seminary discouraged close friendships. The lack of strong personal connections broke him down. He couldn't hack it.
Despite quitting, Charlo still embraces his
seminary past. He also doesn't reject his Jesuit upbringing.
"When you're a Jesuit, you're a Jesuit," he says. "Always. See, there's an indelible mark, they say, that's put on you and it's forever. And that's how I feel about it."
But his poems reveal a more complicated understanding of his influences. In "St. Francis Xavier Novitiate Sheridan, Oregon 1957" he ends with, "Mirabile dictu. Mirabile visu. I realize now if you sing Gregorian chant, you forget the stickgame songs."
University and activism
After leaving the seminary, Charlo enrolled at the University of Montana, where he met and befriended the late poet and professor Richard Hugo. While Charlo worked on his degree in English and Latin, his writing came in fits and starts. He felt unsure of his abilities, he says. Lukewarm statements from Hugo often included a high compliment or two about his potential. Charlo struggled with not knowing if he would ever be good enough to call himself a poet. But he kept at it.
A letter poem by Charlo called "Letter to Hugo from Dixon"—a nod to Hugo's style in 13 Letters and 31 Dreams—reads: "I never did tell you the truth. I could have asked you, friend, how you write this way as we drank your gin and orange juice those dull, dark, lonesome days. I certainly wasn't your student but I was. Drunk Indian." And then, "I was your Indian poet those times yet the only line I wrote that made you laugh hard was 'Garfield's ghost swims the Skalkaho' and that poem soured fast after that sweet beginning."
Charlo spent the next few years working with community action groups, writing grants and training poverty activists on the Flathead Reservation and, afterward, through the University of Utah, during which time he flew back and forth between several Western states. He helped with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's campaign as Indian Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After King's assassination, Charlo trekked with other American Indian organizers to Washington, D.C., to join in demonstrations.
"I went there and just caught on fire," he says. "It was something I had to do. And so for all that summer we marched, we got arrested and got beat up. I didn't quite get beat up but I did go to the D.C. prison for 15 days."
After he got out, Charlo traveled to more organizing events around the country and met up with some of the top American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders of the time. In Oklahoma he stayed with AIM organizer Clyde Warrior and the two sat up all night drinking and talking about the unrest and excitement of the times. Warrior suffered from cirrhosis of the liver.
"They were all drinkers, but he was a heavy drinker," recalls Charlo. "And he just couldn't quit. What do you say? That was the last time I saw him. After we buried him I came back to the reservation."
Charlo finished his degree, got out of organizing and started a family. He began teaching at the "alternative school," where he eventually became principal and later renamed Two Eagle River School. But with his writing, he continued to wrestle with two worlds—his academic writing circles in Missoula and the Salish traditions to which he found himself increasingly drawn.
Charlo says that during this time his poems took on a sad tone about the loss he felt about his native culture. He wrote a poem called "Bad Wine," originally about his brother, Gene. But eventually, he says, he came to realize that it was about his own failures to take responsibility for his fractured life:
You can love a dying Indian,
But when he drinks bad wine
And breaks your best glass
You give him to the wind.
Poet Roger Dunsmore also knew Charlo and Hugo during those days. He's read Charlo's poems over the years, giving him feedback and, finally, became his official editor. In an essay about Montana poets published in the Drumlummon literary journal, Dunsmore wrote about Charlo's conflicted voice. He describes his poetry as existing in a space caught between the English of the reservation and the white school, the Latin of the Jesuit seminary and the absence of Salish.
"You have to imagine with Vic what that means for him," he says, "being a generation that was skipped [with Salish] and then sent off to learn Latin and become a Jesuit, and then working his way out of that back into a sense of his own tribal roots but without the language. I'm sure none of us can really imagine."
Inklings of chiefdom
In 1979, Charlo made a deal with Agnes Vanderburg. The Salish elder lived at a camp at Valley Creek near Dixon, and there she welcomed people to learn Salish traditions from her—tanning hides, saddle making and setting up teepees, among other skills. Charlo, his wife at the time, Jan, and four kids—Mary, Claire, April and Martin—often visited Vanderburg and stayed the night.
"Agnes was a revered elder," says Charlo. "What she always said is, 'If you want to come up here I'll teach you whatever you want to know.'"
Vanderburg had a hide hanging in camp and Charlo joked with her about what a nice shirt it would make, to which she would banter back that it would make a better dress. Finally she told Charlo that she would make him a traditional shirt if he'd shave his beard and dance in the pow wow. Charlo wasn't keen on it. He'd never danced in a pow wow and he intended to keep it that way.
"I said, 'Sure, I'll shave off my beard,'" he says, smiling, "because I realized this was June already and the Arlee Pow Wow was in July. I knew they couldn't make anything in that amount of time."
The Arlee Pow Wow came and went. But Vanderburg continued to work on the shirt anyway and soon she revealed that she was going to hold a pow wow right there at the base of the mountains at Valley Creek.
Charlo shaved his beard reluctantly, and led the pow wow's grand entry in his war bonnet and other traditional clothes.
"We went out and we danced," he says. "We danced all afternoon with no contests, nothing like that, just a nice little pow wow."
But Vanderburg had sent a clear—though unspoken—message. The chief leads the grand entry. She'd given her blessing to Charlo's lineage, nudging him to take the reins of leadership.
Vandenburg also had an impact on Charlo's children. April Charlo recalls growing up in the mountains in Arlee and says she always felt a connection to the Salish language and a need to learn it. At her high school, however, classmates shied away from Indian culture; it wasn't deemed cool. Often, when she attended her Salish language class only one other student showed up. Vanderburg's camp was different. She encouraged the old traditions and Salish words.
The first time the Charlo family spent time up at the camp, Victor recalls, he helped Vanderburg set up a teepee. But no matter how hard they tried, the structure wouldn't quite stay in place. Finally, Vanderburg turned to Victor and said, "Put sey," meaning "good enough" in Salish.
The phrase struck Charlo momentarily as a remarkable way to view life. He remained dismissive of tribal politics and, instead, immersed himself in family life and his students' studies at Two Eagle River. But "put sey" and other Salish sayings would resonate with him, influencing his poetry and, eventually, his role as a community leader.
Poet Zan Agzigian met Charlo in 1986 after he'd taken shelter in a friend's basement in Dixon, displaced by divorce and missing his children. She felt displaced too, having just left her job at Viking Penguin Publishers in New York City as head of paperback reprints to move to St. Ignatius for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).
Agzigian grew up Catholic but she mainly joined the JVC in order to see another part of the country.
"I was always rebellious within my Catholicism and I didn't feel deeply rooted in it," says Agzigian. "We both came from that. I could really relate to him in the ways he felt disconnected from that spirituality that he had sought in the white man's world."
Charlo worked as a representative for the native tribes, helping the mainly young white kids of the JVC understand how to be respectful on the reservation. Agzigian connected to Charlo's deadpan humor and his creative approach to life and they became fast friends. Agzigian spent her year in St. Ignatius and when her JVC service was up, she stayed in Montana and shared the stage at poetry readings with Charlo.
A year after meeting Agzigian, Charlo spent a week in the sub-arctic temperatures of upper Manitoba with bear expert Chuck Jonkel. One day, the group drew straws for a single spot on a helicopter ride to see polar bears, and Charlo won the seat.
"Holy mackerel!" he says. "I just hopped in the helicopter and we flew over the Hudson Bay. Sure enough, there were these polar bears—they were so beautiful. We flew over them and then passed over them again. What an experience that was!"
They stayed in old bear-resistant military digs at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and Charlo was inspired.
"That was wonderful. I was writing poetry the whole time. I just couldn't stop," he says. "Dick Hugo used to say, 'You should spend some time with this, not write it right away.' I thought, 'Well, that's good advice, but at this point I wasn't doing that at all."
He returned from Manitoba rejuvenated, immersed in his writing again. Agzigian began organizing Charlo's poetry, looking for publishers and helping him focus on how to market his work. They also collaborated on writing projects.
"Not only are we a native–non-native team," says Agzigian, "but we do collaborate well together and that doesn't happen for everybody. It's a synergistic thing."
In 1990, Charlo stood in front of the Salish cultural committee to ask for its blessing on a new project. He'd just received a grant from the Salish-Kootenai Tribal Cultural Center to write a play celebrating the opening of the People's Center—a museum and education heritage center for Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille tribes.
Charlo had recruited Agzigian as a co-writer and she stood with him inside the St. Ignatius longhouse. He suggested to the committee that they could adapt a traditional Salish coyote story—a trickster tale—and perform it onstage. But the committee wouldn't have it. You don't perform coyote stories in the summer, they protested. And even if they performed it in the correct season, coyote stories shouldn't be written down. And, besides, sacred animals should not be paraded across the stage.
"They didn't want us to do anything," Charlo says. "Boy, that just really...wow! They said not to write about any of our animals."
Charlo and Agzigian left the longhouse in despair. They sat in the Old Timer Café down the street drinking coffee and trying to make sense of what had happened. They needed to figure out how to find middle ground between sacredness and creative freedom. Agzigian knew her outsider presence at the longhouse didn't help convince the committee either.
"They didn't know me and so they didn't trust me," she says. "It was one of those things that's like a ripping truth. It rips into you because you know why and you can understand it. And, yet, what it did was it made me want to empower Vic more, made me want to stand behind him."
The timeline for the grant money ended in August and it was already April. Without a story or actors or a place to perform, the situation appeared bleak. But the event marked a turning point for Charlo. The lack of support from the committee stirred him. Many of the elders included his peers, and—though he'd been reluctant to embrace his spiritual chief title, though he'd been a renegade in many ways—he decided that his voice mattered. He possessed stories and viewpoints more than good enough to share with the world.
Charlo says he already had an inkling of what to do next. At the same time, Agzigian turned to him and said, "You should tell your own story, Vic." And he said, "Okay, how about a play about Trickster at Dirty Corner."
Dirty Corner is a curve in the road near Arlee and trickster, in most native tales, is a shifting creature who embraces the paradoxes and multiplicities of life. The play they wrote worked as a loose autobiography of Charlo, about a character torn between native traditions like oral storytelling and the Western literary traditions of linear narratives. The humorous and playful dialog follows the traditionally irreverent tone of the trickster, and its modern perspective and serious message underlines the importance of storytelling.
Although he didn't plan on it, Charlo ended up directing the play and taking on the lead role as Silent Raven Sing-Too-Loud. Between 1991 and 1992, Trickster at Dirty Corner toured across Montana and then to Eastern Washington University and the Metropolitan Center for Performing Arts in Spokane, where writer Sherman Alexie produced it. The cultural committee responded with positive feedback.
"We realized we had the blessings of the tribe when some elders came to the St. Ignatius play runs... and brought [their] kids and they laughed and enjoyed themselves," says Agzigian. "They were glad we took our own road and looked at another more creative way to express the story other than leaning on and interpreting angles of the Native traditions."
In 1993 the duo collaborated on a second play, Moon Over Mission Dam, directed by the Montana Rep's Greg Johnson, and followed that up with The Beta Cycle. Charlo's engagement with American Indian issues coupled with his rebellious personal perspective brought praise from many of his peers, including native educators who, Agzigian says, saw the humor of the plays as a positive way to break down taboos.
The surge in writing provided an outlet for the multiple experiences and perspectives Charlo encountered throughout his life.
"Vic has had all these experiences that definitely make him what he is, and he doesn't regret any of it," says Agzigian, "You take from the experiences what you know you need and you let go of the rest. And I think he's done that."
Charlo enters the Old Timer Café to a chorus of greetings from the wait staff. He lives in Dixon with April, but he eats at the café in St. Ignatius almost every day. His white, clean-cut beard frames his face, mapped with laugh lines and brow creases, and he carries a book bag full of photographs and the last copies of the first edition of Put Sey. April joins him at the table and after breakfast and coffee they make plans to spend the afternoon translating one of Victor's poems into Salish for an upcoming book of poetry. When one of them laughs, the other starts. It's contagious.
The collaboration between the two started as an accident. Lowell Jaeger, editor of Many Waters Press, queried Victor for a Salish poem and Victor asked for April's help. At the time, April taught at a boarding school in Chico, Calif., and she possessed only elementary knowledge of Salish and no ear for poetry.
"I loved watching my dad read his poems," she says, "even though I don't know what they're about, or why people were nodding and going 'Hmmm. Mmm,' you know?"
But she tackled the poem translation and when Victor coerced her to join him onstage to recite the Salish part, their reading partnership began. Around the same time, she landed a job at the Salish Kootenai College's Native American Language Teacher Training Institute and invested herself in both Salish and poetry. It's her goal, she says, to save the Salish language. And one of those ways is by working with her father.
"We're a team now," Victor says. "It used to be just me, but now we're a team."
Victor refers to his 2001 stroke—which sent him veering off Highway 93 into an embankment—as his "stroke of luck." He spent several months afterward unable to talk or write, and he slowly relearned almost everything, though some tasks remain difficult.
Since the stroke, however, Victor's taken his role as a spiritual leader more seriously, and he says his work for the reservation's education boards serves as part of his plan to "transform the whole education process on the reservation." These are pretty momentous times, he says.
Agzigian, who now lives in Spokane and continues to help market Charlo's work, types up the poetry he writes longhand.
"It's been interesting since the stroke to see him recognize himself as chief," she says. "He's been quiet about it, but over time he's taken more responsibility for it. It's had a transformative effect. It's gotten him in touch with his history."
Though not keen on running for council or other political tasks a chief might do, Charlo says he envisions his role more like a tribal ambassador. He sees his writing and other artistic endeavors as part of his spiritual leadership role now, rather than in opposition to it. After selling all 500 printed copies of Put Sey, Charlo recently struck a deal with Lost Horse Press to release a second edition. Last year, he and April appeared on Montana PBS' "Backroads of Montana" in "Rockets, Peaks and Poets" discussing their Salish poetry. Recently, SKC honored Charlo and community leader Johnny Arlee with a theater in their names. Charlo says he hopes to stage more plays at the new theater.
When you ask Charlo if he harbors regrets about the strange roads his life has taken, he'll say "no." And when you ask him why, he brings it all back to the concept of taking risks and, no matter what, seeing oneself as good enough, or "put sey."
"There's an idea about that," he says. "Really good things have happened to me all my life and I feel like I haven't even gotten started yet. But I'm getting there."