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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

D'Arcy McNickle
(1904-1977)


D’Arcy McNickle was born on January 18, 1904, in St. Ignatius, Montana to William McNickle and Philomene Parenteau. As he was to write later in life, his mother and her family came to Montana to escape the aftermath of the failed Métis Revolution in present-day Saskatchewan. (Descendants of Cree and French trappers, the Métis tried to maintain control over their lands when the Canadian government wanted them settled by European immigrants; the hostilities are often referred to as The Riel, or The Northwest, Rebellion.) Whether or not Philomene’s father, Isidore Plante Parenteau, was an active participant in the revolt, and indeed the amount of “Indian blood” he possessed, are points of debate among some present-day scholars; however, the debate is noteworthy for one simple reason: it so clearly represents the resonating effects of McNickle’s life and works. He raised controversy about contemporary Native American identity and issues at every turn. It is sufficient to note here that in April 1905 Philomene renounced all claim to lands or rights as a member of the Cree, and that she and her three children were adopted into the Salish (Flathead) tribe. There is no doubt that McNickle identified as a Native American, as he often articulated, and that he was dedicated to the causes of indigenous peoples.

His mother and father divorced, and in 1914 he was sent, as so many other Native American children in similar situations were sent, to a federal boarding school, Chemawa in Salem, Oregon. He was to write of this experience in several works, including two of his novels, for it epitomizes the central conflict and dilemma faced by generations of tribal peoples on this continent after the incursion of the European: the ever-present attempts to undermine native cultures, in this case through “re-education” camps, but also the immense attraction—the power, glitter and wealth—of the “modern” lifestyle offered as an alternative.

Although McNickle portrays federal boarding schools in very bleak terms, he continued with his education at the University of Montana, majoring in English, and in 1925 he sold his eighty-acre allotment on the reservation to fund his study at Oxford University. Although he did not finish his degree, McNickle became a respected scholar, academic, and activist: he wrote well-received books on Native American history, as well as three novels, and numerous short stories; he was the first director of the Newberry Library’s Center for the History of the American Indian, which now is named after him; he helped found the Department of Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina; and he was a founding member of the Congress of American Indians. These are but a few of the accomplishments that seem to indicate his total assimilation into mainstream society, as some scholars have argued.

McNickle was, however, a self-proclaimed, vocal proponent of the Native American right of self-determination, one who succeeded in urban America, true, but who remained self-identified with the lifeways he left on the reservation, and who drew a voice from native verbal arts and tribal perspectives. As his novels repeatedly proclaim, American Indians want only to be left alone to pursue their futures in their own ways. As history demonstrates and McNickle dramatizes, when this basic human right is abrogated, bad things happen.

Yet, his fiction is not always bleak and humorless, nor tragic in the usual, historical sense, for it is always underscored by a consistent reaffirmation in modern times of native values and beliefs; he provides insights into cultures that exist today after tens of thousands of years, despite very obvious recent changes in the landscape of this continent. Moreover, as the story “Hard Riding” shows us, attempts to impose non-traditional, non-indigenous patterns of behavior on native populations can have its humorous side. Employing his favorite character, the well-intentioned Euro-American, McNickle is able to show the inherent folly of an ethnocentric approach to intercultural interaction: the power figure is rendered powerless by those who give him what he wants, and is given an abject lesson in the subtle strength of self-determination at the same time.

John Lloyd Purdy
Western Washington University


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Hard Riding (1989)

Other Works
The Surrounded (1936)
They Came Here First (1949)
Runner in the Sun: A Story of Indian Maize (1954)
Indian Man: A Life of Oliver La Farge (1972)
Native American Tribalism: Indian Survival and Renewals (1973)
Wind From an Enemy Sky (1978)
The Hawk is Hungry and Other Stories (1992)



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Links

D'Arcy McNickle (1904-1977)
(http://www.ncteamericancollection.org/litmap/mcnickle_darcy_mt.htm)
A literary and biographical introduction to McNickle.

Native American Authors Project
(http://www.ipl.org/cgi/ref/native/browse.pl/A49)
From the Internet Public Library.


Secondary Sources

Dorothy Parker, Singing an Indian Song: A Biography of D'Arcy McNickle, 1992

John Purdy, Word Ways: The Novels of D'Arcy McNickle, 1990

John Purdy, ed., The Legacy of D'Arcy McNickle: Writer, Historian, Activist, 1996

James Ruppert, D'Arcy McNickle, 1988





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