Of Canadian Cree, French, and Irish American ancestry, McNickle grew up in a Salish, or Flathead, community in western Montana. As a child he became an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kutenai Tribes.
Much about McNickle’s early life can be learned from his largely autobiographical novel, The Surrounded (1936). The novel, now a classic in American Indian literature, describes the difficult homecoming of a “mixed-blood” man educated in mission and federal boarding schools. The novel presents a devastating view of early twentieth century reservation life and recounts a tragic tale of a man struggling between two irreconcilably different worlds.
Despite the bleakness of his first novel, McNickle’s own life was an inspiring one. After beginning a career as a novelist, in the 1930’s McNickle was hired by John Collier to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In this capacity, McNickle spent many years working to improve relationships between Indian communities and the federal government. McNickle also produced numerous works of anthropology and history; he is widely respected as one of the first scholars who attempted to write histories from an Indian perspective. McNickle served as a founding member of the National Congress of American Indians in 1944 and, from 1972 to 1977, as director of what is now known as the D’Arcy McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian at...
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