D'Arcy McNickle (1904-1977)
Contributing Editor: John Lloyd Purdy
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Like so much of McNickle's fiction, "Hard Riding" is a deceptively simple story. As in the verbal arts (such as story-telling), it implies and suggests more than it states. Students often accept the "joke" played upon the Agent, and then dismiss it as clever but relatively insignificant. However, McNickle will work on them even after they have done so.
In his first novel, McNickle shows the effect of an evening of storytelling on his young protagonist, Archilde, who considers himself a "modern man" (an assimilated Indian who no longer believes as his mother and her people believe) and who easily dismisses "the old stories" they tell. On the night of a feast, however, he is captured by those same stories and taken to a new level of awareness in which he becomes an "insider" and sees his people's lives in new ways. They are no longer the residue of the old bowing under the new, but the bearers of a dynamic and important culture. In short, McNickle consistently attempted a similar end for non-Native readers, using a written medium.
Since the story "Hard Riding" is presented from Mather's point of view, one can examine what his thoughts and reactions reveal about his character at the outset. For instance, does the opening simply establish "setting" or does it enlighten an important aspect of Mather's nature, as he spurs his horse on to the meeting? Also, he is, literally, a mediator: He represents the modern, the progressive, and therefore he possesses many of the same feelings and beliefs as McNickle's intended audience. Moreover, he is privy to knowledge of "Indian ways" that he shares with us, revealing what his years of experience have taught him about the people he has been sent to manage. He becomes, at least initially and momentarily, the expert, the authority.
The story obviously hinges on the thwarted efforts of that authority, so the conclusion needs careful examination, not only as it pertains to what precedes it, but also in how we, as readers, respond to Mather's failure to have his way, that is, to spur the men "below" him to accept a new way of "justice." We are never involved in the debate that takes place among the Native American characters; instead, the action is filtered through an interpreter and the Agent himself, yet we become "insiders" when we reflect upon the implications of the maneuvering: that the orders of the "dominant society" have been followed, in form but certainly not in principle. Do we applaud, condemn, or dismiss the actions of the tribe?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In 1934 McNickle took a job on the staff of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, who reflected the New Deal ideals of the Roosevelt administration. It was Collier's belief that, as much as possible, tribes should be allowed to direct their own affairs, using traditional, rather than Euro-American, governmental frameworks. McNickle subscribed wholeheartedly to this ideal, which in turn directed his work for the remainder of his life. We can see that concept in this story. When a federal functionary attempts to impose a new way, a way he and the readers may consider wholly logical and in the best economic interests of his charges, he is not only frustrated but humiliated. However, the significance of this dramatic crisis lies not in its overt political statement, but in its demonstration of the efficacy of traditional Native economic systems and governments in contemporary times.
As McNickle well knew, the survival and renewal of Native cultures rest in the communal aspects of tribal life perpetuated through ceremonialism and literature. Community, rather than alienation and individuality, is a major thematic concern in both, and in the writings of McNickle and those who followed him. This communalism calls for sharing hardships as well as bounty (that is, the cattle), and it is maintained through the ability to reach consensus through group reasoning and discussion, a governmental form McNickle's audience may uphold as an ideal of democracy, but fail to recognize in practice in the story. The Indians whom Mather addresses work in concert and exert control over their own affairs. In a word, they are empowered by their communal presence, their group identity as "insiders." This, again, is a recurrent theme in McNickle's fiction, and his scholarly writings. (See also the "Original Audience" section below.)
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
McNickle was fond of the juxtaposition of very divergent points of view. For instance, in his last novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky (1978), he often uses chapter breaks to move from his Native American to his Anglo characters. Given his subject--American Indian perspectives--and his non-tribal audience, this is an understandable technique. He forces readers to assess what they believe about American Indians, by consistently undermining those beliefs with culture "shifting" and therefore ethnographic revelation. His humane handling of cross-cultural explorations creates moments of crisis.
In "Hard Riding," this can be seen in the final passages, where the primary point of view, that of the Indian Agent, is somehow inverted, or shifted, as readers move from "listening" to Mather's narrative to trying to understand what has happened beyond it, and how he has been duped.
McNickle also makes suggestive use of descriptions as a means of shaping an audience's preparation for events. More than simply foreshadowing, this technique often works as a symbolic subtext. For instance, in the opening ride he describes the time of day, noting the "crimson flame thwarting the prismatic heavens." This may be dismissed by students bred on stark realism as merely flowery prose; however, in discussion it could also be considered as a preface to what follows. Mather is thwarted at story's end. Considering the idea of a prismatic effect, and McNickle's perspective on the religions that had subjugated Native America, one might be able to go further with the discussion. In fact, it may not be too difficult to question the use of the name "Mather" for the main character. McNickle was an avid reader in all disciplines, including colonial history, in which the Mather family and their ethnocentric beliefs figure prominently. McNickle played with language and its allusive qualities in some interesting ways.
McNickle's audience changed dramatically over his lifetime, which makes him, once again, a significant figure for study. Today, his books have been continuously reprinted since the mid-seventies and remain popular because they reflect what many have come to understand as a revised and therefore acceptable image of contemporary Natives and tribal issues. When this story was first written, however, history books and novels by non-Native writers still proffered as fact the popular stereotypes we have come to recognize and reject: Native Americans as either Noble Savages or savages; as the remnants of a dying race, on the brink of extinction; as the dull and sullen subhuman at a loss to deal with civilization; and so on. They also devalued Native cultural achievements, pre-Columbian populations, and the ill effects (and the morality) of European colonization. Moreover, the ideal of assimilation--the "melting pot" of America--was equally prominent. It is little wonder that McNickle's early works, although well-received by critics, were not widely popular; he presents Indians who exert a degree of control over their lives and who take pride in their tribal identities. He presents a very different American dream than his popular contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, do.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The anthology provides ample points of comparison and contrast. McNickle's work can be placed, in some ways, in the context of other writings from the 1930s, writings by non-Native writers; it can also be compared or contrasted with writings by Native Americans produced before 1935. For instance, Whitecloud's "Blue Winds Dancing" (published in the same year as McNickle's first novel, The Surrounded) possesses some of the same issues of community and commercial America. Most profitably, however, one can compare the ways that his work anticipates later works by Native writers. There is a great deal of "resonance" to be found here.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Is Mather's proposal a logical one? Why or why not? On what basis is that logic built?
2. Is the group's alteration of Mather's plan a logical one? Why or why not? On what basis is its logic built? (McNickle offers another "logic," the logic of communal needs and obligations over financial expediency, and the latter is proffered as a distinct and viable alternative to that of "modern, commercial America.")
3. What is the significance of the title? How does McNickle's description of Mather's riding style reflect or imply the author's evaluation of governmental policy-making?
The four books on McNickle and his writings are John Purdy, The Legacy of D'Arcy McNickle: Writer, Historian, Activist (1996); Dorothy Parker, Singing an Indian Song: A Biography of D'Arcy McNickle (1992); John Purdy, Word Ways: The Novels of D'Arcy McNickle (1990); and James Ruppert, D'Arcy McNickle (1988). General criticism about McNickle's works can be found in several journals, including Studies in American Indian Literatures and Western American Literature.