Always good enough 

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

Page 3 of 5

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.

click to enlarge Victor Charlo leads a procession at the St. Ignatius Mission while visiting his family during a break from seminary school. His poems depict his struggle with reconciling his Jesuit past with his American Indian culture. - PHOTO COURTESY OF VICTOR CHARLO
  • Photo courtesy of Victor Charlo
  • Victor Charlo leads a procession at the St. Ignatius Mission while visiting his family during a break from seminary school. His poems depict his struggle with reconciling his Jesuit past with his American Indian culture.

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."

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