Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722
William D’Arcy McNickle was born on the Flathead Salish reservation in Montana in 1904. His mother, Philomena Pareneau, was a Creek whose family had fled Canada after their involvement with Louis Riel and the Métis uprising in 1885. His father, William McNickle, was an Irish rancher. Even as a child, D’Arcy McNickle felt himself torn between Anglo and American Indian cultures. In 1915, he was sent to the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, where he spent three unhappy years. He returned to Montana, where he attended the University of Montana.
In 1925, he attended Oxford University for a year, after which he spent some time in Paris before returning to New York in 1926. He worked at a variety of editing positions in New York, taking time to study at the University of Grenoble, before he joined the Federal Writers’ Project in March, 1936. Later that year, John Collier hired him as an administrative assistant at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), where he stayed for eighteen years in various positions. In 1936, he also published his first novel, The Surrounded, which met with critical, if not financial, success. In 1944 McNickle organized the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), an organization designed to unite Indians on a national political level.
McNickle focused on nonfiction writing during his years at the BIA, including the 1949 They Came Here First: The Epic of the American Indian, a carefully researched history of white/Indian relations. He worked on a variety of self-help projects with several different tribes during his years with the BIA. When he finally left the BIA, he worked on various projects associated with the NCAI, including a series of landmark community development projects at Crownpoint, New Mexico.
Using Boulder, Colorado, as his home base, McNickle continued to write ethnography as well as fiction. His 1954 novel Runner in the Sun: A Story of Indian Maize was set in the pre-Columbian Southwest and published as part of a series of juvenile historical novels. Together with journalist Harold Fey, he wrote Indians and Other Americans: Two Ways of Life Meet, which continued his research on the history of interracial relations and defended John Collier’s cultural relativism.
He continued to be active, and his academic reputation spread throughout the 1960’s, culminating in a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1966 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado as well as a position at the University of Saskatchewan; he went to Regina as a full professor in order to organize and chair the new anthropology department. He continued to publish, primarily nonfiction, including, in 1962, The Indian Tribes of the United States, and the 1971 Indian Man: A Biography of Oliver La Farge, which was nominated for a National Book Award. He also served on the editorial board for the Smithsonian’s revised Handbook of North American Indians.
In 1971, he retired to Albuquerque; however, in 1972 he agreed to be the founding director of the Newberry Library’s Center for the History of the American Indian in Chicago. He worked tirelessly to develop this library and study center, which now bears his name. During this time, he finished Wind from an Enemy Sky, his last novel. McNickle died in October, 1977, in Albuquerque.
McNickle’s fiction, like his historical writings, is primarily concerned with culture conflict. In The Surrounded, a highly autobiographical novel, he tells the story of Archilde Leon, a young man whose father is Spanish and mother Salish. Archilde is constantly presented with either/or decisions between Native and Anglo cultures; ultimately, he chooses Native ways, and his life ends badly. Both Runner in the Sun and Wind from an Enemy Sky deal with culture conflict among Indians. Runner in the Sun tells of a somewhat rebellious young man named Salt who is sent by his tribe to look for a new, healthier strain of corn; he returns without the corn but with information about other tribes and a newfound respect for the ways of his own elders. The novel contains a wealth of anthropological information. Wind from an Enemy Sky is the story of two American Indian brothers whose conflict ends in violence. Henry Jim is regarded as a sellout to the whites, while Bull is entrenched in radical traditionalism. The novel contains characters that span the spectrum of racial and cultural attitudes, enabling McNickle to comment on the complexity of this issue.
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