Literary Analysis of the Surrounded
One of the first Native American novelists, D’Arcy McNickle is also regarded as one of the best. His realistic fiction depicts the hard lives of rural Americans on reservations, farms, and ranches during the Great depression of the 1930s. His sensitive stories detailing the consequences of Euro-American ethnocentrism neither romanticize nor demonize Native Americans. Although he was successful as a writer, McNickle is equally remembered for his efforts to improve the prospects of Native American peoples through his service in the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), his organization of the National Congress of American Indian (NCA), and his development of the Center for the History of the American Indian at Newberry Library in Chicago.
The Sorrounded (1936) is D’Arcy McNickle’s first novel. It centers on a two year period in the in the life of Archile Leon, whose mother is a full-blood Salish Indian, and his father is a white rancher of Spanish descent. The story opens with Archilde’s return to his father’s ranch in Montana after being away for nearly a year in Portland, Oregon, where in Archilde’s description.
Although McNickle’s literary significance went largely unacknowledged in his lifetime, McNickle is now recognized as one of the originators of modern Native American literature and ethno-history. He is considered a writer of power and perceptiveness who’s melding of boyhood experiences, tribal myth, and scholarly study of Native American cultures makes hid work engaging and true. In his fiction and nonfiction, McNickle explored the culture conflicts between American Indians and Euro-Americans. In The Surrounded, McNickle attacks federal policies and legislation, particularly the General Allotment Act of 1887, which encouraged the assimilation, if not the extermination, of Native American culture by imposing a system of individual land ownership on many Indian tribes and opening the remaining land to white settlement.
Also central to McNickle’s fiction is the power and function of Native American song, storytelling, and traditional celebratory behaviors studied from sides.
Part of the novel’s strength lies in Manacle’s cogent use of Native American oral tradition, in which the higher goal is not to amuse but to educate. The story is presented in a Native American fashion, as an oral tale rather than a written story. The sentences are short; the point of view is omniscient, as in traditional storytelling; and the story closes with a summary of the consequences, an ending typical of the oral tradition.
D’Arcy McNickle, like Mourning Dove, draws a correlation between colonial domination and textual production in his novel The Surrounded, which has the same Flathead Reservation settings as Cogewea.(25) When Archilde Leon, a former boarding school student like Cogewea, returns to the reservation from a year of fiddle playing in Portland, two sets of elders await him: the Salish elders, including his mother, an important community leader who is either his mother’s uncle or her brother-in-law; and the non-Salish elders, including his father, Max, and a priest, Father Grepilloux. Each set of elders has a different
In addition to arguing, that oral traditions are vital to the security and survival of Native people, McNickle casts into doubt the ability of a colonial chronicler to understand and document in writing all aspects of the colonial experience. As Father Grepilloux writes the history of his missionary work, he struggles are a consequence of his belief that there is only one colonial story with one linear plot that ends with the conversion, assimilation, and salvation of the Salish. He tries to fit all that he sees into this narrative, which is too inflexible and too limited to account for the complexities of life on the reservation. At the same time, McNickle suggests that the documentation by an apparently fragile priest like Grepilloux’s is still an aggressive invasion of the Native world. Grepilloux’s history is an act of violence in its relentless inscription of Native people into a narrative that plots their destiny as eventual absence by assimilation into a Judeo-Christian world.
McNickle situates book knowledge as a definitively European American cultural value in his construction of two primary European American characters.
Colonial domination begins with the imagination and, in times and places that privilege writing rests on the effort expended to document it. The interaction of Native characters with colonial texts, however, also suggests the role that storytelling and textual interpretation can play in decolonization.
Colonialism, we might even say, is a failure of the imagination. When Native authors begin writing novels, they intervene in a non-Native storytelling tradition that contributes to the overall colonial effort by consistently imagining Native Americans as culturally and racially inferior and, usually, doomed to absence. Imagining cultural and racial superiority is the necessary first step to creating material circumstances and textual documentation that appear, deceptively, to prove that superiority. The writers that follow McNickle devise strategies to liberate Indians from this pervasive colonial text.
By the last decade of the twentieth century, the direct revision of non-Native authored texts emerges as a popular narrative strategy for Native authors. The frequent critical allusions by Native authors to newspaper articles, government documents, and literary works that assault Native identities, cultures, and communities become intensive revisions of those narratives in the work of novelists like King, Vezenor, and Alexie. Their revisions also subvert the role these narratives are able to play in the persistence of colonial domination and violence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These authors disavow the colonizer’s privilege of narrating plots that end in conquest that is, the absence of Native Americans and this affirmation of Native presence challenges the assumption that there was an actual conquest as envisioned and defined by Eurowestern authors.
McNickle do in his novel that the foundation of colonization is textual and that decolonization can proceed with stories that explicitly challenge non-Native textual traditions. Without textual support, this author imply, the colonial world would disappear.
Some early Native American novels as well, but more in theme than in form. Closer to the detailed description of realism and the narrative fatalism of naturalism, than to the innovation of modernism, D’Arcy McNickle’s, “The Surrounded,” incorporated oral storytelling into the Western narrative model of conflict-crisis-resolution.
But particularly since the 1960s Native American writers have emphasized the possibility of reconciliation along with a degree of formal experimentation (most often by combining and juxtaposing Native American and European American traditions). Whereas McNickle used a standard Western singular, omniscient third-person narrator to tell the story of Archilde’s alienation, contemporary Native writers often use multiple points of view. But ironically, despite a history of colonialism, Native use of multiple narrators often has little to do with alienation and loss and much more to do with the coherent multiplicity of community. What is experienced as loss of control, a breakdown of unified consciousness, an in determinacy of language, by many non-Native Americans is a natural reflection of the interplay of difference for many Native people. After 500 years of adaptive survival, Native writers know how to entertain difference without labeling it other. The task, as Erdrich describes it, is to “tell the stories of the contemporary survivors while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the catastrophe” (23).
Meanwhile, the novel that grew out of the manuscript version was unusual for its time. Other American Indian novelists, for instance John Joseph Mathews, whose novel Sundown preceded D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded by two years, and Mourning Dove, who published Cogewea, the Half-Blood in 1927, were still advocating assimilation in their works, as McNickle had also done in his earlier manuscript version. White writers dealing with Indian themes, on the other hand, were focusing their interest on the most picturesque, least complex situations of the blanket Indian in the Southwest, or turning their faces towards the past, as Oliver La Farge pointed in his review of McNickle’s novel. (Half-Breed Hero). That is why La Farge himself.
The central theme of this novel is the near impossibility of American Indian assimilation, as political and social policy and as individual practice. The so-called civilizing instructions of Euro-American society its religion, government, and economy stand always in opposition to the culture of the American Indian. Related to this dichotomy are the continuing consequences of ethnocentrism exhibited by the representatives of each of these institutions at every level of contact.
Another theme involves issues of identity and examines the question posed by Archilde’s Hispanic father; “what kind of Indian of Indian are you?” It is a question central to both plot and theme and is embodied in the character of Archilde Leon, a man who is caught between the two worlds of conquered and conqueror of the American and the Indian.
Family relationships play an important role in The Surrounded. The conflicts of the father with his seven sons and the conflicts among brothers become metaphors for the wider conflicts among races and social groups that lead to confusion, pain, dread, and emptiness. The novel also celebrates the vanishing beauty of the valley and the threatened American Indian way of life.
D’Arcy McNickle found a new awareness of his mixed-blood heritage in writing his novel The Sorrounded and drew from the experience in his lifelong work of interpreting Indians to whites, whites to Indians. His first novel reflects not only his growing awareness of the Salish traditions that had marked the periphery of his childhood but also his ambivalence toward those traditions.
Although assimilation might be natural and inevitable, McNickle nonetheless insisted on Indians’ rights to maintain their tribal identity, to adapt to the white world in their own time and in their own way.
Endrich, Louise. “Where I Ought to Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place,” The New York
Times Book Review, 28 July 1985, 23.
General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) of February, 8, 1887.
La Farge, Oliver. “Half-Breed Hero.”.Rev. of The Sorrounded by B’Arcy McNickle.
The Saturday Review, March 14, 1936:10.
McNickle, D’Arcy. “The Sorrounded.” reprint with an afterword by Lawrence W.
Towner, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1936.