Most of D’Arcy McNickle’s short fiction was published posthumously in a 1992 collection titled “The Hawk Is Hungry” and Other Stories, yet McNickle is still seen as an important and influential person in American Indian literary studies. His most widely known work of fiction, his novel The Surrounded, was published in 1936, and he was also the author of important works dealing with American Indian culture, including his popular work titled Native American Tribalism (1962). It is impossible to date the story “Hard Riding,” but it made its first appearance in print in the 1980s. The story concerns the experiences of Brinder Mather, a government agent living on the reservation of a fictional tribe called the Mountain Indians (McNickle often used fictional tribes in his work). Specifically, the story focuses on Brinder’s attempt to convince the tribal elders to set up a tribal court to prosecute and punish those on the reservation who have been stealing cattle. He had previously convinced the tribe to establish a “stock association,” whereby all members of the tribe contribute to the work of raising and selling cattle and all benefit from the profits. However, there are some who will not do their share of the work and steal cattle instead. His goal is to convince the tribe to take this matter into their own hands by establishing a court that will punish those offenders. Most of the story’s plot concerns the meeting he has with the Tribal Council, which basically ends with the Indians’ making a fool of Mather.
Brinder Mather represents a stock character found in many examples of American Indian writing. He is the semisympathetic white, and in this case, he is a sympathetic white government official (similar to the agent in McNickle’s novel Wind from an Enemy Sky). He seems to want to work with and help the tribe that is his responsibility. For example, his convincing the tribe to set up a stock association so that the tribe can be financially responsible for itself does not seem to be a bad idea. The problem, though, with many of the sympathetic whites like Mather and even those in real life is that they lack a true understanding of American Indian ways of life. To Mather, and others like him, the concept is simple: Join the mainstream white culture by pursuing economic interests, leave the reservations and go to the cities to find jobs, learn English, learn a trade—the list goes on and on. But the fact remains that many of the ideas of the mainstream culture do not gel with tribal culture.
It is true that Mather has had success reaching out to the Mountain Tribe. In order to persuade them to form a stock association, he pretends to understand their culture. He tells them: “Indians don’t know, more than that don’t give a damn, about dragging their feet behind a plow. Don’t say as I blame ’em. But Indians’ll always ride horses. They’re born to that. And if they’re going to ride horses they might as well be riding herd on a bunch of steers. It pays money” (5). Thinking that Mather is on their side, the Indians are willing to go along with his scheme. But his idea of a tribal court, which will try and prosecute other Indians, fails miserably because it runs counter to the Indian sense of community.
Thus the title, “Hard Riding,” becomes important. Mather is known as a person who pushes his horse too hard when he rides, as McNickle points out: “It was a habit with the rider” (3). And the story begins with Mather riding hard on his way to the meeting with the Tribal Council. But his attempts to push his way of thinking by riding over the tribe do not work. The tribe cannot be tricked into giving up their native traditions. Mather knows that when they are presented with a new concept, the Indians will take their time absorbing and considering it, will ask questions, and will attempt to stall the process. And he attempts to push his agenda quickly this time, telling himself not to stall and give them the upper hand. Ironically, he begins the meeting by telling the tribe that they “have learned a lot since I been with you” (5), but Mather himself has not learned. Once they are presented with the idea of the court, the tribe begins to ask questions, and he knew, or at least thought, “that they hadn’t the least idea what he was driving at” (7). The tribal elders then speak, and they slowly begin to undermine his idea. The basic problem they have is deciding who would serve as a judge on the tribal court. The real problem may be that the idea of prosecuting someone for stealing cattle instead of starving does not make sense to them. Finally, the tribe presents their nominees for judges: “an aged imbecile dripping saliva,” another who is “stone deaf and blind,” and another who is “an utter fool, a half-witted clown, to whom no one listened” (10). Mather realizes then that he is the butt of a joke. With all his experience dealing with Indians, he has let this group fool him. In a classic example of the Indian sense of humor, Mather’s idea falls apart.
But it fails, not because the Indians are vindictive, but because Mather’s idea is one that is alien to their culture. Mather has good intentions, but that is not enough. What he lacks is understanding.
Allen, Paula Gunn. “Whose Dream Is This Anyway?” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
McNickle, D’Arcy. “Hard Riding.” In “The Hawk Is Hungry” and Other Stories, edited by Birgit Hans. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
Owens, Louis. “Maps of the Mind: John Joseph Mathews and D’Arcy McNickle.” In Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.