D'Arcy McNickle

D'Arcy McNickle (1904-1977) was an advocate for Native American rights and is considered to be among the founders of modern Native American literature.

As a writer, historian, activist, government project manager, community organizer, and university professor, McNickle's career was as diverse as his accomplishments. His voice was heard in the halls of Congress and the halls of universities, in homes on the reservation and homes in urban America. He was an advocate for Native rights both when Indian causes were championed and when Indian rights were being eliminated. Not only was he able to speak to non-Natives about the Native world, but he talked to the Natives about the changes coming from the non-Native world. Throughout it all, he was a cultural mediator, thoroughly at home in both worlds.

He was born William D'Arcy McNickle on January 18, 1904, in St. Ignatius, Montana. His mother, Philomena Parenteau married Irish rancher William McNickle and lived with him on the Flathead reservation. The Parenteaus, of Cree descent, had fled to Montana after the failure of the Métis uprising in 1885 and were formally adopted into the Flathead tribe.

In his early years, McNickle attended school on the reservation. Then over his own and mother's objections, he was sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school at Chemawa for three years. He was shocked by the harsh, culturally insensitive attitude that permeated the school, preferring the schooling in Washington state and Montana. When he entered the University of Montana at the age of 17, he was drawn to the world of literature and the study of languages, including Greek and Latin. He was encouraged by one of his professors to attend Oxford. In 1925, he sold his tribal allotment and traveled to England. Difficulty with the transferability of his college credits kept him from matriculating, and, with money running out, he moved to Paris with uncertain thoughts of being a writer or a musician.

Returning to New York, McNickle took a series of jobs, including positions as editor for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. In November 1926 he married Joran Birkeland and they had a daughter, Antoinette. During his years in New York, he periodically attended courses at the New School for Social Research and at Columbia. However, he was continually working on his writing. He finished a number of short stories and revised his novel, which was published in 1936 as The Surrounded.

Joins Collier Administration

When the Collier administration took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), McNickle joined the staff as an administrative assistant. During his 16 years with the BIA, he held a number of positions, including field representative and director of tribal relations. He was a tireless advocate of Indian rights, believing in change, but change with respect and Native initiative. By 1944 he was aware of the necessity of unified political action on the part of tribal groups. He cofounded the National Congress of American Indians to create an effective Indian political voice.

In 1949 he published They Came Here First: The Epic of the American Indian, which drew on anthropological sources to chronicle Indian history and the interaction of Indians and settlers. This work initiated a series of publications that included his juvenile novel, Runner in the Sun: A Story of Indian Maize (1954), Indians and Other Americans: Two Ways of Life Meet (1959) with Harold Fey, and Indian Tribes of North America (1962). These last two books reviewed Federal Indian policy and the history of white/Indian interaction so as to explain the clash of values and cultural misunderstanding that have resulted in so much tragedy.

In the early 1950s the federal government increasingly strove for the termination of tribal groups and their relocation to urban centers. McNickle did not agree with the federal goals and resigned from BIA to pursue community development work with the American Indian Development Corporation. He worked extensively in Crownpoint, New Mexico, for a number of years before he moved on to other work with students and Indian communities. He sat on the United States Civil Rights Commission and worked on leadership workshops for Native students.

In 1966 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado. Moving from community work to academia, McNickle accepted a professorship at the new Regina campus of the University of Saskatchewan. He was given the position of chairman and asked to set up a small anthropology department.

In 1971, he published a biography of Oliver La Farge, Indian Man: A Life of Oliver La Farge, which was nominated for a National Book Award; and retired to Albuquerque to work on his writing. He remained on the editorial board of the Smithsonian Institution's revision of the Handbook of North American Indians. He also agreed to serve as founding director of the Newberry Library's Center for the History of the American Indian. During his retirement, he revised two of his books and wrote numerous book reviews and entries, but most importantly he worked on his novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky. In October of 1977, he died in Albuquerque of a massive heart attack.

Further Reading on D'Arcy McNickle

Owens, Louis, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Parker, Dorothy, Singing an Indian Song: A Biography of D'Arcy McNickle, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Purdy, John Lloyd, WordWays: The Novels of D'Arcy McNickle, Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1990.

Ruppert, James, D'Arcy McNickle, Boise, Boise State University, 1988.