Always good enough 

Poet Victor Charlo's long journey to national prominence took more than just luck

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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.

click to enlarge Victor Charlo, far left in his Loyola High School blazer, stands with members of his family at their home in Evaro. “I was an Indian,” explains Charlo of his time at the school, “and what I was trying to do was I was trying to pretend like I was just like everybody else.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF VICTOR CHARLO
  • Photo courtesy of Victor Charlo
  • Victor Charlo, far left in his Loyola High School blazer, stands with members of his family at their home in Evaro. “I was an Indian,” explains Charlo of his time at the school, “and what I was trying to do was I was trying to pretend like I was just like everybody else.”

"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."

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