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D’Arcy McNickle is regarded as one of the founders of Native American literature and ethnohistory. The product of two cultures, part white and part American Indian, but belonging to neither, he was a writer, historian, policymaker, activist, and educator. His life and work symbolized the potential to bridge two societies and allowed for the survival of the modern Indian and the recognition of tribal culture by American society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
McNickle was born on January 18, 1904, in St. Ignatius, Montana. His mother, Philomene, was half Cree Indian and half French, the daughter of a recognized half-breed family that had fled Canada after the defeat of the Indians in the Louis Riel Rebellion of 1885. In 1905 his mother was adopted, along with D’Arcy and his two sisters, by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, and they were listed on the tribal rolls at the Flathead Reservation. His father was a rancher-farmer of Scots-Irish descent, and, although he lived on the reservation and took advantage of the tribal gifts of land made to his family under the Dawes Act, William McNickle was intolerant of his wife and children’s heritage. Thus, D’Arcy’s parents were often at odds, and this conflict served to aggravate the conflict within him between his Cree and white identities.
McNickle and his sisters attended the Jesuit mission school on the Flathead reservation, along with the other Salish and Kootenai children, until their parents divorced. In the custody of his mother, McNickle was enrolled in the Salem Indian Trading School in Chemawa, Oregon, where he was indoctrinated in the ways of white society. At the time, the Chemawa School was one of the schools for Indian children dedicated to the eradication of Indian culture. The children were not allowed to speak in their native language or to have any reminders of their Indian heritage. This assimilation of culture was just one way the U.S. government attempted to subsume distinct Indian culture into mainstream American culture. During this time, McNickle’s ties with his Native American heritage were severed at the behest of both of his parents; his father wanted him to grow up “civilized,” and his mother, despite her own mixed heritage, encouraged him to adopt white ways so that he would fare better in life. When his mother, who had divorced his father in 1914, married a white man, Gus Dahlberg, three years later, McNickle took his stepfather’s surname.
Education and Travels
On graduating from the Chemawa school in 1921, McNickle enrolled at the University of Montana, perhaps the first recognized Native American to do so. His interest in writing and historical narrative was stimulated in college. From 1921 to 1925, he studied literature and history. For a poetry class taught by Robert Frost, he wrote an award-winning poem, ”Old Isidore,” celebrating his maternal grandfather. He also was on the staff of the university’s literary journal, The Frontier, in which he published some of his poems and two short stories.
Recognizing McNickle’s promise and persistence, one of his professors recommended that he go to England to finish his studies. As he had no other way of funding the trip or his tuition, McNickle sold his allotment of tribal lands, a decision he later regretted. He arrived at Oxford in 1925, but the university would not accept enough credits from the University of Montana to allow him to finish his degree. For several months he traveled through England and France. Returning to the United States, McNickle did not go back to Montana to complete his studies; instead, he went to New York City, where he lived for nine years, writing for encyclopedias and newsletters and performing various editorial duties. He also took classes at Columbia University, where he became interested in American history, Native American studies, and Indian-white relations. In 1931 he took advantage of an opportunity to study literature and culture in Grenoble, France.
Writing a Memoir
In 1931, as the Great Depression was deepening, McNickle started work on a largely autobiographical novel in which he examined the conflict between his Native American heritage and white society. He struggled for more than five years through revisions and title changes to produce his most highly regarded work, The Surrounded (1936). Harcourt, Brace and Company declined the manuscript but said that ”perhaps it was the beginning of a new Indian literature,” foretelling the impact McNickle’s works have on American Western literature and on the public perception of Native Americans. The imminent birth of his daughter in 1933 led him to change his name from Dahlberg back to McNickle; his daughter was christened Antoinette Parenteau McNickle. Finally, in 1936, after having been rejected by more than a dozen publishers, The Surrounded was accepted for publication.
In 1935 McNickle was hired to compose pamphlets about American landmarks for the Federal Writers Project. This government program was part of the New Deal, a series of initiatives spearheaded by President Franklin Roosevelt in an attempt to provide jobs and revitalize the economy. At the same time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was making an effort to hire Native Americans to communicate the policies of the bureau to interned tribes, and in 1936, after applying twice, McNickle was offered a job as an administrative assistant and field representative at the bureau under Commissioner John Collier. At the BIA, McNickle applied his experience and expertise in a variety of capacities, from publishing articles and reviews in the agency’s publication, Indians at Work, to meeting with tribal leaders to explain new policies. The response to McNickle’s articles was positive, and he was often asked to contribute pieces on Native American affairs to psychological, educational, anthropological, religious, and social-welfare journals and poetry reviews. A supporter of Collier’s Indian New Deal programs, which he thought would ensure the survival of Indian culture while encouraging tribes to take advantage of modern opportunities, McNickle worked to educate Indian leaders on what the policy would mean to them.
In 1944, McNickle cofounded the National Congress of American Indians, and five years later, he published his second book, They Came Here First: The Epic of the American Indian (1949), the first historical survey of Indian-white relations written from a Native American perspective. During this time, McNickle continued to work for the BIA. However, with the Great Depression now well ended and many New Deal programs being phased out by a more conservative federal government, Collier was replaced at the BIA by a director who initiated a ”termination policy” to do away with most of the bureau’s programs and end all government obligations to the recognized tribes. McNickle left the BIA at that point to become executive director of American Indian Development, Inc., and to head a health education and community development project on a Navajo reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico.
Working and Writing for Indian Causes
McNickle continued to write, publishing forty-six articles while working on the Crownpoint Project, mentoring promising youngsters who later became distinguished anthropologists, and visiting remote reservations in an advisory capacity. In 1959 McNickle and Harold E. Fey published Indians and Other Americans: Two Ways of Life Meet. In 1961 McNickle wrote the Declaration of Indian Purpose for an all-Indian conference in Chicago, and he worked with the Indian Claims Commission. In addition to such journals as American Anthropologist and The Nation, his work frequently appeared in the international publication American Indigena. His 1962 book, The Indian Tribes of the United States, addressed the theme of enduring ethnicity during an era when the movement to assimilate Indian culture was prevalent and the government was continuing the termination policy that would break up reservations, eradicate tribal government, cease federal aid and ultimately subsume the culture.
McNickle was awarded an honorary doctorate of science by the University of Colorado in 1966 for his work in applied anthropology. Later that year he accepted the invitation of the University of Saskatchewan to establish and head its anthropology department. McNickle was named a fellow of the American Anthropologist Association, and, after retiring from the University of Saskatchewan and moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1971, he became the founding director of the Native American Research Center at the Newberry Library in Chicago. In October of 1977, when McNickle failed to arrive in Chicago for a Newberry Library board meeting, board members called the Albuquerque police, who discovered that McNickle had died of a heart attack at his home several days previously.
Works in Literary Context
Commentators credit McNickle, along with Mourning Dove and John Joseph Matthews, with being one of the first important Native American writers, paving the way for such authors as M. Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich. McNickle’s interests in Native American culture and cross-cultural communication colored his life’s work. His career with the government was oriented toward giving Indians more opportunities and educating the public regarding Indian culture. He crafted novels and papers that both argued his political and philosophical points and satisfied his muse.
Being part white and part Native American, McNickle experienced a conflict of self-identity. This impacted each different role McNickle took on, from writer and historian to policymaker and activist, as if the quest for his cultural identity needed more than one venue for its expression. Even though his imaginative writing was often put off in favor of his work with Indian affairs, his fiction was a reflection of his work with the government to improve the life of reservation Indians. In many of his works, including The Surrounded, he portrayed the very same identity issues arising from mixed race that he himself experienced.
Harshness and Hope
McNickle’s historical works present a Native American history to complement and protest against mainstream American history. His tone is realistic, almost pessimistic; as he explained: ”I am writing of the West, not of Indians primarily, and certainly not of the romantic West which the best-selling authors have exploited to the detriment of a rational understanding.” His works depict the harshness of rural life in the West and the tragedy of reservation life, but he also wrote optimistically about moving Native Americans into the modern world and finding them a place in an urban society.
In this way, McNickle’s fiction mixes a sense of impending doom in the face of cultural extinction with a glimmer of hope for adaptation and survival of a modern Indian culture. His themes are amazingly similar throughout his works, from the genesis of his writing career to the end of his life. Seeing the decay of Native American culture around him and observing the wretched existence of his friends, McNickle sought to flee Native American life and achieve the American dream. Eventually, armed with knowledge and experience, he returned, albeit metaphorically, to his Native American heritage. When two roads were offered, McNickle made a third: he neither held to the ”old ways” nor converted to the ”white ways.” Instead, he learned from both and created himself as a modern Native American. Struggling to temper his romantic sensitivity with the often tragic reality of the Indians’ situation that he knew so well, he finally achieved a balance between the two in his fiction.
Works in Critical Context
McNickle was widely praised for his insight into the relations between whites and Native Americans, particularly for exploring the struggles of Native peoples to retain their traditions and identity in the face of white cultural influences. He has been given acclaim for both his fiction and nonfiction, with critics praising the use he made of genuine Native American materials. Reviewers generally found his novels to be compelling and not overly sentimental, and they have noted his delicate handling of the differences between Native and non-Native perspectives.
The reviews of McNickle’s first book, The Surrounded, were generally favorable, especially mentioning McNickle’s fine descriptions of western life and landscape, though some of the reviewers thought that the novel’s plot could have been stronger and more convincing. Pulitzer Prize winner Oliver La Farge wrote of The Surrounded, ”Perhaps the most interesting aspect of McNickle’s book is his success in capturing the whole in small compass by the exercise of a thoroughly artistic selection.” None of the other reviewers, however, did more than give passing mention to the Indian themes of the novel.
- Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
- Parker, Dorothy. Singing an Indian Song: A Biography of D’Arcy McNickle. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
- Purdy, John Lloyd. The Legacy of D’Arcy McNickle: Writer, Historian, Activist. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
- –. WordWays: The Novels of D’Arcy McNickle. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1990.
- Ruppert, James. D’Arcy McNickle. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1988.
- Ortiz, Alfonso Ortiz. ”D’Arcy McNickle (1907-1977): Across the River and Up the Hill.” American Indian Journal (April 1978): 12-16.
- Owens, Louis. ”The Road to Nowhere: D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded and ‘The Hungry Generations.”’ American Indian Quarterly (Summer 1989): 239-248.
- Vest, Jay Hansford C. ”Feather Boy’s Promise: Sacred Geography and Environmental Ethics in D’Arcy McNickle’s Wind from an Enemy Sky.” American Indian Quarterly (Winter 1993): 45-67.
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