A Native Vision of Justice

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.