| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
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.
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
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.
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.
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
In the Heath Anthology
They Came Here First
Runner in the Sun: A Story of Indian Maize
Indian Man: A Life of Oliver La Farge
Native American Tribalism: Indian Survival and Renewals
Wind From an Enemy Sky
The Hawk is Hungry and Other Stories
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D'Arcy McNickle (1904-1977)
A literary and biographical introduction to McNickle.
Native American Authors Project
From the Internet Public Library.
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