Dottie Susag

Humanities Montana is proud to present this year's One Book Montana discussion moderator: Dottie Susag.

Dorothea M. Susag (Dottie) grew up in suburban Chicago, attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and graduated from Montana State University with a B.A. in English and Speech Education. In 1992-93, she received the Christa McAuliffe Fellowship for Montana to write a curriculum for using Native American Literature. Concentrating on Native American history and literature, she earned an MA in English (Literature) and an MA in English (Teaching) from the University Montana. Dottie is the author of several published essays and the 1998 NCTE publication, Roots and Branches: A Resource of Native American Literature Themes, Lessons, and Bibliographies. She conducts classes and workshops for teachers at conferences and in schools across Montana in Writing Assessment, Technical Writing, and K-12 American Indian Literatures and Resources. Dottie currently works part-time for the Montana Office of Public Instruction, Indian Education division, to help meet the goals of “Indian Education for All” in all Montana classrooms. This includes units she’s written for OPI’s Indian Education Language Arts curriculum. Dottie lives with her husband, a retired school counselor, on a small ranch in central Montana.

In The Surrounded, Archilde, a young man of dual cultural identity—Salish/Spanish—returns to the Flathead Reservation to say his last good bye after attending an Indian boarding school and working in Portland. There he finds himself caught in conflicts between family members, the church, the law, and other non-Indian outsiders, as well as his own conflicts with his past and present experience. By the novel’s end, Archilde has redefined his identity. After reading this novel, an eleventh-grade student wrote: "I believe the closeness Archilde feels toward his fellow people is something that he could not experience in the white world. Despite the internal closeness to his people, Archilde is disrespectful of many views and actions. He wants the best of both worlds...and is hopelessly caught...At the end, these conflicts remain unresolved" [excerpted from Susag, Dorothea M. Roots and Branches: A Resource of Native American Literature Themes, Lessons, and Bibliographies. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1998. (169-170)].

According to Dr. Jim Rains essay “'He Never Wanted to Forget It': Contesting the Idea of History in D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded," “It is a Native-authored text that attempts to address what the author perceives to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Native American people. It is a book about history: how Native American cultures have been constrained and limited by conventional histories and how they as distinct cultures perceive and practice history differently from Euro-Americans.” (143)

Rains also suggests that the audience for The Surrounded was non-Indians, the people McNickle intended to reach with the truths, as he knew them, of the Indian culture and experience in 20th Century America. According to Rains, several themes appear in The Surrounded. Each and al will serve as sources for discussion and further investigation: assimilation, culture, history, religion, language, genre (Western), place (West), Identity, cosmology, community, destiny, tragedy, American Indian Experience, American novel. With issues of bicultural Americans, the novel demonstrates the profound difficulty in living with forced assimilation, and McNickle’s work must be contextualized within the genre of the American novel. McNickle was a man of his time. “The tragic end is inevitable because the genre demands it.” (From a lecture at the Helena Book Fest, September 24, 2009)

In October 2005, Dave Walter wrote the following letter to Kirby Lambert at the Montana Historical Society in Helena.

"I would like to nominate D’Arcy McNickle (1904-1977) for inclusion in the Montana Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol.

“...D’Arcy was born and raised on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. From the beginning, he faced the dichotomy of living in two different cultural worlds. That background infused his life, his career, and his writing. McNickle left the reservation to attend the University of Montana in Missoula (1921, sold his allotment and withdrew permanently in 1925 to attend Oxford University.

“McNickle proved a man of many talents: public official; historian; Indian Rights advocate; novelist. Through his writing and years of tireless public and personal service, he influenced the history of white/Indian interaction—an interaction that was the focus of his energies and intellect. Today many scholars consider him the grandfather of modern native American literature and modern Native American ethnohistory.

“Best known for his autobiographical novel The Surrounded (1936), McNickle authored a number of pieces of fiction and nonfiction that delineate the cultural problems faced by Indians in modern America. His reputation has only grown since his death in 1977.

“D’Arcy McNickle is a native who richly deserves inclusion in the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans.”

(This letter is in the vertical file at the Montana Historical Society library)

For more information about The Surrounded, check out One Book Montana: Resources.

In this discussion, I will post some general questions that you might respond to. But each week I will post additional broad questions and an excerpt from a chapter—“Words for Thought.” You may want to post questions yourselves. Also, if you want to discuss the novel as you read each chapter, you might refer to these discussion questions.

Tags: literature, one book montana

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Welcome to this dicussion of The Surrounded, a good choice for One Book Montana ! To begin our conversation, I'd like to open with four questions that you might consider: What Disturbs, Interests, Confuses, or Enlightens you about a character, a situation, an idea or something a character says or does?
If you are just beginning to read the novel, you might click on the chapter-by-chapter questions as indicated under "Discussion Questions."
What are the questions you want answered about this novel?
I look forward to hearing from you over the next few months. If you know any students who are reading this novel, it would be great to involve them in the conversation as well.
Dottie Susag
Thanks for serving as the moderator for this discussion, Dottie. To get things started, I'd like to share a commentary I heard in Havre from Bill Yellowtail. He worries that "The Surrounded" encourages pessimism, even despair in its readers, particularly its native readers, and so he suggested that "we" must move beyond this novel to emphasize individual initiative, the ability to change our lives through choice and action. I wonder if others share Bill's perspective or would like to take issue.
Welcome Ken --
Bill's comment reminded me of a situation that happened in my classroom several years ago. We were reading poetry, almost all dealing with death -- John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud," for one. Sitting in my class was a young man who's mother had passed away the month before. So engaged with the literature and my curricular goals, I had forgotten the terrible grief he brought to class everyday. Two days into the unit, he told one of my colleagues, "Please tell Mrs. Susag I just can't read that poetry. I just can't read it."
Dottie, thanks for moderating this discussion of The Surrounded. In considering Bill Yellowtail's remarks I recall when I first read the work over ten years ago. I felt dread from the get-go - McNickle's careful detail keeps that mood to the unrelenting finish. So, I can understand why the words "pessimism" and "despair" are used. And why some might feel concern about that if that's what we are left with ... What I wonder is are times different now than they were for the character of Archilde in the '30s? If the story were set in the year 2009, what would be different for Archilde?
That's a good question. Regarding current facts about the Flathead Reservation and the Salish/Kootenai people today, it is useful to look at the videos on Montana State Superintendent Denise Juneau says:
"The Rez We Live on is a valuable and innovative tool to learn more about the complex and often misunderstood relationships between tribal and non-tribal entities on the Flathead Reservation.
One of the significant strengths of The Surrounded is that it goes far beyond the historical moment and squarely confronts the universal and timeless issues of interpersonal miscommunication, assumptions, distrust, and open conflict that occur over and over again, not just between Indian and white, but even with the most important of these—the parent-child—relationship. Archilde prevails and rises above these conflicts through his openness to reconciliation with both his mother and his father and all they represent, despite the preponderance of injustice and fate, perhaps.
Winter In the Blood would be The Surrounded set in contemporary time. Archilde may become more numbed with time. I love your question: what really has changed? Is there any progress we can measure? One of McNickle's most remarkable accomplishments, in my mind, is his ability to weave philosophy/spirituality/religion into the story so smoothly. Few authors could manage such a feat without edging toward preachiness or sentimentalizing. I felt the despair, but never felt pessimism from Archilde. Even facing a difficult fate in the end, I never felt complete hopelessness. And thank you, Dottie, for moderating this discussion. I plan to include The Surrounded in my curriculum next year. And thank you, Rick, for the invitation to take part in Humanities Montana Chat.
Welcome, Tom, and thanks for joining the discussion! Considering Archilde and the protagonist in Winter in the Blood , could you compare/contrast them more specifically? If The Surrounded is regarded as a classical tragedy, as LaFarge may have suggested, is there a tragic flaw? And if so, what is it?
Archilde and the protagonist of Winter in the Blood both find themselves out of place in the worlds they are born into. Neither can escape his heritage, and each attempts to reconcile his situation by seeking to balance the old with the new, the traditional life with the substitute life that’s been foisted upon them. The old ways come closest to answering their questions, but the answers are unsuitable for the new world. Archilde’s fatal flaw is his acquiescence, his failure to take control of his destiny as it spirals out of control. The same flaw condemns the protagonist in Winter in the Blood to his aimless existence. Both books end with enough ambiguity, however, to leave the reader (at least the optimistic reader) with hope that their protagonists may still achieve a measure of fulfillment that will enable them to live in the new world by using lessons taught by their traditional elders.
Thanks for this, Tom. I appreciate your optimism inspired by the "ambiguity" of the novels' ends because that's how I wanted to read them both.
I tend to think that literature is the perfect place for us to entertain tragedy. Any tragedy, all tragedy. In my mind, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be optimistic in life and community and politics. I think it would be very hard to start cutting the herd when it comes to tragedy in literature, in favor of non-tragic or more redemptive or more hopeful work. It is true that some books may not advance individuals or movements or causes or ... anything. But there seems to be a reason for people turning to tragedy over and over again, since the stages of ancient Greece.
Hi Ken,
You raised a very good issue. I'd like to take a philosophical approach and ride the fence. When You take the perspective that life imitates art (and I believe it does) I agree with Bill Yellowtail. I think it is critical to provide positive examples of Native Americans in all forms of media in order to instill a message of hope. However, art also imitates life. It is up to us as whole society to act in more positive and proactive ways in regard to Native Americans. So, given both the title and the tragic ending of The Surrounded, one might think the message pessimistic. However, we could also take it as a challenge to rectify those situations where despair does exist. Acknowledging the reality that Native American people are "surrounded" - literally - in almost every way imaginable - geographically, culturally/socially, civically, etc. - we should take it as a challenge to overcome those barriers, begin a discourse that identifies those areas of need in order to support and nurture Native American people and culture and thus, change the message from one of despair to hope. When I read the book, the tragic ending inspired me to want to be part of a change for the better regarding present day problems, which are not so different from the problems that existed in the time of the book. The book was not "hopeful" but it made me want to create hope. It identified some of the major areas where there is a need to reach out, understand, learn and overcome the cultural differences in order to heal and provide hope.
Several folks who have been reading the book are curious about a statement made in the discussion guide by Lowell Jaeger. Jaeger says that McNickle was "kidnapped by whites" when he was a child. Does anyone out there have any clue about this? Like a source? There are several resources out there, but i haven't seen any others that corroborate this.

Dottie -- looking forward to meeting you this week at the Festival of the Book!


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