Since his death in 1997, Michael Dorris’s life has been the subject of many articles, conjectures, and controversies. What one discovers in reading the range of biographical sketches is a man whose public image-as successful anthropologist, educator, writer, activist, husband, father-was sustained despite severe depression that lasted for years. Writer Louise Erdrich, whom he married in 1981, told The New York Times after his death that Dorris had “descended inch by inch, fighting all the way.”
Dorris was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 30, 1945, the son of Jim and Mary Besy (Burkhardt) Dorris. Descended from French and Irish ancestors on his mother’s side and Modoc ancestors on his father’s side, Dorris grew up on reservations in Montana and Kentucky and was raised Catholic. Standard sources note that Jim Dorris, an army lieutenant, was killed in an accident in World War II. However, Dorris himself-in a Parents’ Magazine article about fatherhood-wrote that his mother was widowed when he was two years old (clearly after the war), and an April 1997 Newsweek article revealed that Dorris’s father committed suicide after returning from World War II. Young Dorris was raised by his mother and two aunts-Marion Burkhardt and Virginia Burkhardt-who he thanked in his first novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. These women “gave me good reason to listen and the words to speak,” he wrote, acknowledging them for filling his childhood with books and storytelling. In a column for Booklist, Dorris explained that his Aunt Marion also provided him with a model for reading, a way of seeing into texts and the cultures they reflect. Such a model became a critical underpinning for much of Michael Dorris’s adult life, reflected not only in his 1975 study, Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After and his 1983 Guide to Research on North American Indians, but in his fiction and a collection he co-edited, The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading (1997).
Dorris studied theater, English, and classics at Georgetown University, earning a B.A. cum laude in 1967. He studied in the graduate theater program at Yale University for a year, then shifted his interests to anthropology. After he received a Master’s degree in anthropology from Yale in 1970, he accepted faculty positions in California and New Hampshire and later instituted a Native American Studies Department at Dartmouth College in 1972. While doing fieldwork in Alaska the previous year, Dorris decided to adopt a child and, after a series of legal battles, became one of the first single men in the United States to adopt legally. The three-year-old Sioux child whom he named Reynold Abel had been born to an alcoholic mother on a reservation in South Dakota; Dorris’s gradual realization that his son’s medical and developmental problems were linked to his mother’s drinking are chronicled in his 1989 book, The Broken Cord, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. This memoir, later developed into an award-winning television movie, drew national attention to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect and helped urge Congressional legislation on warning pregnant women about the effects of alcohol. While he was still single, Dorris adopted two other children, Jeffrey Sava in 1974 and Madeline Hannah in 1976.
On October 10, 1981, Michael Dorris married Louise Erdrich, a Dartmouth graduate also of mixed Native American ancestry, who had returned to Hanover, New Hampshire, as a writer in residence. Independently successful and respected, Dorris and Erdrich became known as one of the most accomplished and interesting literary couples, a two-part voice on multicultural literature. Sources as varied as teen magazines and literary journals published interviews with the attractive husband and wife team who acknowledged their interdependence and collaboration on every word that each wrote. Articulate and photogenic, they appeared on television talk shows. Erdrich was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984 for her novel, Love Medicine, and she is well known and respected for her other works of fiction (The Beet Queen, 1986; Tracks, 1988; The Bingo Palace, 1994) and her volumes of poetry. Dorris dedicated A Yellow Raft in Blue Water to her-“Companion through every page, / Through every day / Compeer”-and ten years later dedicated Cloud Chamber, his last novel, to “Louise / Who found the song / And gave me voice.” Erdrich described Dorris as “Complice in every word, essential as air” in her Beet Queen dedication. They recorded, in alternating chapters, an audiocassette of Tracks. They wrote stories together using the pseudonym Milou North (a combination of their names and the region where they lived) and in 1991 published two books with both of their names on the covers: The Crown of Columbus and Route Two and Back. Their books focus on Native Americans, and they wrote and spoke extensively about providing historical and cultural contexts that teach readers to see beyond stereotypes. Many of their views on writing, parenting, collaboration, and multicultural issues are evident in a 1994 collection, Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, and in other published interviews.
Erdrich adopted Dorris’s three children, and their family expanded to eight with the birth of three daughters: Persia Andromeda, Pallas Antigone, and Aza Marion. With the success of The Broken Cord, Dorris became a full-time writer. He published several poems, but is best known for his fiction. His first novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, is considered by most critics to be his best work. With the publication of Morning Girl in 1992, Dorris directed some of his efforts toward writing for children and young adults. This historical novel, as well as Guests (1994) and Sees Behind Trees (1996), rely on his ethnographic research on Native Americans and their interactions with early European settlers. Both the adult novel Cloud Chamber (1997) and the young adult novel The Window (1997) focus on the same characters as those he brought to life in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.
A series of events brought Michael Dorris’s personal life to a crash in 1997. Erdrich told The New York Times that few people glimpsed the man beneath the congenial, optimistic veneer: the public figure “was only the third floor of a building with a very deep basement,” she said, and “his friends would be very hard pressed to believe the amount of pain he was in at times.” Their oldest son, Abel, required careful supervision even into adulthood, and he was killed, at age 23, after being hit by a car in 1991. Jeffrey and Madeline, with recurring problems that had them in and out of institutions, became estranged from their parents, and Jeffrey was jailed in Denver on charges of beating his girlfriend. In 1989, according to published reports, Jeffrey had begun threatening the couple with violence, prompting the family to move from New Hampshire to Montana and then to Minneapolis. In 1995 Jeffrey was unsuccessfully tried for attempting to extort $15,000 from his parents. In 1996 Louise Erdrich moved out of the couple’s home with their three youngest daughters, and divorce proceedings were underway. Dorris learned that Hennepin County, Minnesota, authorities were considering criminal sexual conduct charges against him involving one of one of his daughters. After a suicide attempt in New Hampshire on March 29, 1997, Dorris was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Vermont. When he was released on a one-day pass, he checked into a hotel, wrote a note declaring that he was “desperate,” that he loved his family and friends, and died of suffocation with a plastic bag on April 11, 1997. He was 52.
Dorris’s death was described in many sources as an “ugly shock,” and details about depression and sexual abuse allegations spawned a range of responses and controversies. Erdrich obtained a restraining order to keep the files confidential, arguing that the media should not try a person after his death. The question of whether the character of an author can or should be separated from his works was raised in literary circles and public debate, particularly when Dorris’s books are read and admired by so many children and young adults.
Dorris leaves behind a thoughtful, poetic body of works with characters who seem real and whose stories about Native American culture and identity matter. He was a gifted storyteller who, in the end, may simply have run out of stories he could tell himself.