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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."