Always good enough 

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

Page 5 of 5

The team

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."

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