Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Using the Internet and print sources, find out as much about Montana as possible: pictures, maps, geography, cultural and historical sites. How has the state-particularly its Indian reservations-changed over the last century? How does the “Big Sky” state define itself for tourists? What other impressions of the state can be gleaned from less commercial sources? How does this information about Montana complement your reading of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water?

2. As an experiment, engage a small group of people in a conversation on any subject. Then ask each person to write a description of what happened without consulting the others. How does each person reconstruct conversation differently? What are some of the other differences between each version? What does this experiment lead you to conclude about the ways we remember events, the ways we construct stories? How might these conclusions be applied to this novel?

3. Re-read a chapter from each of the three sections of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, keeping a log of the figures of speech that the characters use. Are the metaphors and similes consistent in any way? Do characters seem to use them in certain situations? Are the metaphors and similes drawn from Native American culture? From women’s experience? What is added by Dorris’s use of these figures of speech?

4. Choose a scene that is repeated in each section of the novel, and re-read each narrator’s version of it. What does each character see that the others do not? Does any version seem truer than the others do? Write an explanation, using specific textual references, of how the same story can be shaped by the teller and her experiences.

5. Using Internet and print sources, find out about the Indian Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. What issues were raised? What were the goals of this political movement? How does Dorris use this movement in the novel?

6. Alcoholism is brought into this novel through the characters of Lecon, Foxy, and Christine, and it is a subject that engaged Dorris extensively. His book The Broken Cord (1989) blends analysis of alcohol abuse among Native Americans with Dorris’s personal story of adopting a son who he later discovered had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a birth defect caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Using print and Internet sources, write a report about alcohol and alcohol abuse among Native Americans.

7. Using your library’s archives or electronic versions available online, find women’s magazines that may have been popular during the time periods of this novel-perhaps one from each decade of the 1930s through the 1980s. Examine the advertisements as well as the articles themselves. Photocopy illustrations, passages of texts, and photographs; construct a collage that visually makes some point about women through these decades. What views of women and their worlds would have been popularized for Ida, Christine, and Rayona? What aspects of their lives seem to be missing from the stereotypical or idealized views of women?

8. Using print and Internet sources, find out about the conflicting views of the Vietnam War among Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Who was opposed to the war? Who was for it? How did these disagreements fall across cultural and generational lines? What perspectives on this controversy does Dorris raise in this novel?

9. One of the startling features of this novel is that although the reader comes to understand some of the motivations and psychological complexities of the narrators, these women do not speak to one another directly about what matters most to them. Imagine how such a scene might work by writing a one-act play or dialogue among Rayona, Christine, and Ida. Where would it take place? What is it that you would want each woman to tell the others? Would each of them tell her secret? How might the others react? How would you keep such a scene from becoming overly dramatic or sentimental?

10. Read at least three biographical sources about Michael Dorris, including an obituary or an encyclopedic entry written after his death. How does some of the information about his life-such as his own mixed racial background, his research in ethnography, his depression, or the allegations of his sexual abuse-affect your reading of an important passage of this book? Write an essay that rereads one or two passages closely through the lens of Dorris’s biography, explaining both the advantages and the limitations of such a reading.

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