Born to a Scotch-Irish father and a French Canadian mother of Cree heritage, D’Arcy McNickle knew from an early age the problems of mixed identity that many Native Americans experience. Reared on a northwestern Montana ranch, McNickle, along with his family, was adopted into the Salish-Kootanai Indian tribe. Attending Oxford University and the University of Grenoble in France after completing his undergraduate education at the University of Montana, McNickle was as firmly grounded in Native American culture as he was in the white world.
Completing his formal education when the United States was gripped by the Depression, McNickle was among the writers who joined the Federal Writer’s Project, with which he was associated from 1935 to 1936. His first novel, The Surrounded, was an outgrowth of this association. This book focuses on how an Indian tribe disintegrates as the United States government encroaches upon and ultimately grabs tribal lands and then sets out to educate the Native American children in such a way as to denigrate their culture and integrate them into the dominant society. Like McNickle, the protagonist of this novel, Archilde, has a mixed identity, being the offspring of a Spanish father and a Native American mother.
In his children’s book, Runner in the Sun, McNickle deals with similar questions of identity centering on the inevitable conflicts between whites and Native Americans. The Native Americans strive in vain to preserve their culture and retain their grazing lands.
Such also is the focus of McNickle’s posthumous novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky, in which tribal lands are condemned for the building of a dam and the sacred medicine bundle is given to a museum for display. McNickle also produced several works of nonfiction that grew out of his tenure with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and his directorship of the Bureau’s division of American Indian development.