Author of The Surrounded, two other novels, a biography, and three book-length studies, D'Arcy McNickle was a major figure both in American Indian literature and Native studies, as well as an activist and government worker on behalf of American Indians. William D'Arcy McNickle (Métis) was born on January 18, 1904, in St. Ignatius, Montana. He was an enrolled member of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, or Flathead. His mother, Philomena Parenteau, had fled Canada after the failed Métis revolt in 1855 and was formally adopted into the Flathead tribe. She later married local Irish rancher William McNickle. Their son D'Arcy began his education at the Catholic boarding school at St. Ignatius and then, against his mother's and his own desires, was sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school at Chemawa in Oregon for three years. At the age of seventeen, he began studies at the University of Montana, focusing on literature and languages such as Latin and Greek. Seeing in McNickle a talent for writing, one of his professors urged him to attend Oxford. McNickle financed his trip to England by selling his land allotment in 1925, but trouble with credit transfer prevented him from taking his degree. For a time, McNickle moved to Paris, where he wrote and played music before returning to New York in 1928.
McNickle married three times and had two daughters. In New York, he worked in various positions, among them one as an editor for Encyclopaedia Brittanica and the National Encyclopaedia of American Biography, and intermittently took classes at the New School for Social Research and at Columbia. He continued to write, completing several short stories and his first novel, publishing The Surrounded in 1936. The novel focuses on the mixed-blood Archilde Leon, caught between his tribal culture and relatives on the one hand and the changes brought by colonization on the other. It is written much in the modernist tradition, at the same time highlighting cultural differences and values.
McNickle, disappointed with the lack of success of his novel and needing money, went to Washington, D.C., to work for the Federal Writers' Project and subsequently found a position with John Collier's administration at the BIA, where he work for sixteen years. Charged with the implementation of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, McNickle strongly advocated federal protection of tribal lands and instituting democracy in tribal governments. Gradually, he began to see the need for intertribal political organizing to advance positive change through Indian agency. In 1944, he cofounded the National Congress of American Indians for these purposes. However, with the 1950s termination and relocation policies, McNickle left the BIA to take a job with the American Indian Development Corporation. McNickle sat on the United States Civil Rights Commission and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1966. The same year he took a position as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, where he developed the newly established anthropology department.
Advancing a Native perspective but writing for a non-Native audience, McNickle published a number of books, including They Came Here First: The Epic of the American Indian (1949), Indians and Other Americans: A Study of Indian Affairs (with Harold Fey, 1959, and The Indian Tribes of the United States: Ethnic and Cultural Survival (1962), all drawing on anthropological methods he learned in his BIA fieldwork. In 1954, working with Apache visual artist Allan Houser, McNickle published Runner in the Sun: A Story of Indian Maize. This young adult novel may be the first book set in pre-contact America written by an American Indian. He retired from the university in 1971 and published Indian Man: The Story of Oliver La Farge, which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1972, he helped found the Center for the History of the American Indian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, serving as its first director. Retiring to Albuquerque to work on Wind from an Enemy Sky, he died of a heart attack in October 1977.
Bear Don't Walk, Scott. 1996. "McNickle, D'Arcy." In Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life from Paleo-Indians to the Present. Edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, 369–370. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.; Malinowski, Sharon, ed. 1995. Notable Native Americans. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.; Markowitz, Harvey, ed. 1995. Ready Reference: American Indians. Vol. 1. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.