D’Arcy McNickle was born on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana and was a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. As a child, he was sent to the federal Indian boarding school, where he faced punishment if he spoke an Indian language rather than English. He spent four years at the University of Montana and went on to study in Europe, both at Oxford and at the University of Grenoble. He was an anthropologist, historian, and scholar; an administrator in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he founded the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian in Chicago, which now bears his name. The Surrounded was his first work of fiction and is still the most readily available. It received some critical acclaim when it was first published and has become increasingly popular since it was reprinted in the 1970’s.
The Surrounded has strong autobiographical overtones. The novel focuses on Archilde, through whom the readers see the identity conflicts that trouble the racially mixed hero. Archilde is caught between the white and the Indian cultures, neither of which is unambiguously good or bad, making his position even more difficult.
One of the ways that the novel emphasizes this cultural conflict is by describing many characters and events as opposing pairs. Catharine LaLoup Leon and Max Leon, for example, each present to Archilde some of the positive aspects of Indian and white culture, respectively. The Indian dancing on the Fourth of July, full of ancient meaning and beauty, is contrasted with the white people’s meaningless dance in a dark, bare hall.
The novel expresses particular concern for the decline of Native American culture. McNickle describes in great detail the transformation of Mike and Narcisse as the older women prepare them for...
(The entire section is 746 words.)