The novel stresses how the Native American sense of community and tribe is particularly challenged by Western tradition. The Surrounded shows how Archilde Leon's education makes him a stranger within his own family. The theme of violent assimilation through education is further explored in the character of Mike and the traditional American Indian rituals that the community seeks to administer him to help him overcome the trauma of boarding school education.
Set in the 1930s, at a time when Indian boarding schools had the mission of destroying any sense of belonging to Native American culture and assimilating Indian children into the American mainstream, Archilde Leon's search for identity is further complicated by his dual heritage represented by his Spanish father, Max, and his Indian mother, Catherine. On the one hand, Archilde has difficulties understanding his mother's old-age retreat in the Native American religion, beliefs and values that she seemed to have given up in her youth. Catherine's belonging to two seemingly incompatible worlds will determine Archilde's own entrapment in the reservation life that he wanted to escape (see, for example, Catherine's contradictory reconversion to Indian religion and rites and her wanting a Christian burial for her son). On the other hand, Archilde is not willing to work at his father's ranch in the reservation. Together with the Jesuit Father Grepilloux, Max represents the Euro-American conquest of Indian culture, a project that seems to have caused tragic consequences which neither the priest nor the rancher had foreseen. After the death of Father Grepilloux, Max wonders at how so much work for the Indians on the priest's part has been unable to improve their condition. The reader is lead to conclude that isolated people of good-will (although coming from a Eurocentric, white standpoint) like Father Grepillioux could not face the planned destruiction of Native American traditions and ways of life engineered by federal institutions and officials (see, for example, the character of the Indian agent Horace Parker).