Although largely unheralded in its time, D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded has become a classic of Native American literature. When the University of New Mexico Press reissued the book in 1978, a year after McNickle’s death, the director of Chicago’s Newberry Library, Lawrence W. Towner, predicted (correctly) that it would “reach a far wider audience.” Within The Surrounded are early stirrings of a literary movement that took flight several decades after the novel’s first publication in the writings of N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gerald Vizenor, among others. All of these Native American authors share with McNickle a desire to present, from a Native perspective, the challenges of establishing identity and sustaining community in a world where indigenous societies must contend with powerful forces of colonization and modernity. Literary critics have offered sharply differing interpretations of the ultimate message The Surrounded conveys about the future of indigenous peoples. Some view the novel as a statement of despair, while others discern McNickle’s confidence in the strength of Native cultures and their capacity for renewal. There is broad consensus, however, that The Surrounded is a seminal work.
What the literary critics have largely overlooked is the novel’s pointed analysis and critique of criminal justice in Indian country. Much of the novel’s plot is driven by acts viewed as criminal by the dominant, non-Native social order. The protagonist, Archilde Leon, returns home to the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, hoping to say a last farewell to his family before making his way as a fiddler in the cities. His relationship with both parents has become strained, following his education in the local Catholic mission school and in a federal Indian boarding school. For different reasons, neither parent wanted him to pursue his ambition of making his way far from home in a big city. Greeting him is news that his older brother, Louis, is hiding in the mountains, accused of stealing horses-conduct outlawed by the local authorities but long carried out by the Salish against their enemies. Archilde’s non-Indian father is so displeased with Louis’s behavior that he has disassociated himself from the other members of his family, living apart from his Salish wife, Catharine, and refusing all contact with Louis. At first, Archilde also feels alienated from the more traditional Salish ways that Catharine, his mother, still practices, despite her long-ago conversion to Catholicism. But as he develops greater appreciation for his mother-through feasts and Salish stories told in his honor by the blind elder, Old Modeste-Archilde agrees to accompany her on one last hunting trip into the snowy mountains. There they first encounter the hostile local sheriff, Sheriff Quigley, and later are surprised to discover Louis. Louis proceeds to shoot a young, female deer. When the local game warden comes upon the group and accuses Louis of violating state game laws, there is a confrontation, and the warden mistakenly believes Louis is about to shoot him. The warden fires his gun, killing Louis, and a furious Catharine steals behind the warden and fells him with a hatchet.