Critics of D’Arcy McNickle’s acclaimed novel The Surrounded (1936) have focused on its pondering of Indian identity and its rooting of that identity in oral storytelling. McNickle, who would later take over forty years to write Wind from an Enemy Sky (1978), spent nine years writing and rewriting The Surrounded. He finally chose its storytelling scenes, John Purdy implies, as a way to Indianize the modern novel; with this suggestion, Purdy picks up on the novel’s and its represented culture’s concerns with cultural and racial identity and neatly observes how McNickle translates those concerns into narrative structure. In a sense, even on that broadly cultural scale, McNickle’s innovation worked—eventually. For many of the patterns laid down by The Surrounded and its immediate predecessor, John Joseph Mathews’s Sundown (1934), reappear over three decades later in such landmark novels of the American Indian Renaissance as N. Scott Momaday’s House [End Page 898] Made of Dawn (1968) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), especially the pattern of the angst-filled, mixed-blood young man (often—though not in The Surrounded—a war veteran) returning to the reservation and struggling to find his place among its traditions and the pressures to acculturate. 1
Even in the short history of Indian novels, The Surrounded’s interest in storytelling was not new. Storytelling also figures largely in Mourning Dove’s Cogewea, The Half-Blood (drafted by 1914, revised by Lucullus Virgil McWhorter and published in 1927), a western romance probably unknown to McNickle even though it is set on the same Montana reservation as The Surrounded. Although many critics have fixed on the role of oral storytelling as a defining interest of Indian written literature in general and of Cogewea and The Surrounded in particular, not only Indians tell oral stories. Even The Surrounded juxtaposes scenes of white storytelling with scenes of Indian storytelling. And the Indian oral stories in The Surrounded usually tell about contact with whites—an unsurprising choice but hardly an adequate model for the future of Indian novels. Indeed, as Mourning Dove and McNickle turned to oral stories to pin down the Indianness of their novels, other American novelists were also turning to oral stories to render into written fiction the roots of other American ethnicities, from Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and Charles Chesnutt to many of Mourning Dove’s and McNickle’s more immediate contemporaries, such as William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Henry Roth. Like these novelists, anthology editors in the 1930s—just after the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance—connected non-Anglo ethnicity to storytelling and the “folk,” while anthropology—then at the academic center of what has since been reinvented as American Indian or Native American studies—approached the apogee of its rush to “salvage” a supposedly vanishing Indian America in part through transcriptions of oral storytelling. 2
Salvage anthropology and the modernist fascination with ethnicity and folk culture encouraged and responded to the two most momentous legislative initiatives in the history of post-removal federal Indian policy: the Dawes Act of 1887, which tried to enforce assimilation, and the anti-assimilation Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. As the Dawes Act assumed that Indians would die off or fade away and tried to speed up their exit by hurling them off reservations and into a voracious, white-dominated market economy, salvage anthropology tried to [End Page 899] preserve the supposedly vanishing cultures, but to preserve them in formaldehyde, as museum relics disconnected from the present. Then, as modernists rediscovered and reimagined the contemporaneity of non-Anglo ethnicities and folk culture, reformers put through the Indian Reorganization Act, trying to reverse the Dawes Act by recognizing reservation sovereignty and the ongoing life of indigenous cultures, while often imposing federally sponsored reorganization; so that in the guise of putting an end to enforced assimilation reformers sometimes substituted one kind of assimilation for another. In these ways, Mourning Dove’s and McNickle’s investments in ethnic particularity tie their work to a broader cultural project, a project that was laid out for them at the same time that they also had to choose it themselves.