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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

Article abstract: Writer and educator Michael Dorris had a significant impact on Native American studies as an academic discipline and on the general public's awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

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Michael Dorris's involvement with Native American affairs came quite naturally. The only child of a non-Native American mother and a Modoc father, Dorris spent childhood vacations with relatives who lived on reservations in Montana and Washington. His disdain for being called a Native American writer stemmed from these early experiences; he learned to think of people as human beings rather than as members of particular ethnic groups.

After his father's death, Dorris was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandmothers. The result of this feminine influence is apparent in his novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), a story about three generations of women, narrated in their own voices.

In 1981, Dorris married Louise Erdrich, another author of mixed ancestry. Dorris attributed much of his literary success to Erdrich, making her another of his women-as-mentors. Dorris and Erdrich collaborated as they wrote, producing works that authentically showcase Native Americans.

After his adopted son, Abel, was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, a preventable but debilitating condition caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy, Dorris began writing The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (1989). The book includes a touching autobiographical account provided by Abel.

The Broken Cord's focus on alcohol abuse reflects Dorris's concern that U.S. government policies are driving Native Americans into a health and education crisis. While a professor at Dartmouth, Dorris founded the Native American Studies Program and was recipient of the Indian Achievement Award. His empathy for Native Americans is apparent in his literary characters, who dramatize the often difficult living conditions of contemporary tribal members.

Despite the focus on Native Americans in his works, the common experiences of humanity fueled Dorris's passion for writing. As an anthropologist who valued differences, Dorris used his literary voice to promote acceptance of diversity, touching on the basic elements of life that connect all people.

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Dorris's first novel, chronicles incidents in the lives of his three women narrators. Readers have embraced the book, finding the story to be a compelling look at mothers and daughters. The novel opens with Rayona, a fifteen-year-old girl who is part Native American and part black. When her mother moves her to Montana to stay with her grandmother on a reservation, Rayona's mixed heritage makes her the target of prejudiced teens, damaging her already fragile self-esteem.

Eventually Rayona leaves the reservation and meets an understanding couple, who invite her to live with them. In Sky and Evelyn's modest home, Rayona feels accepted and begins to value commitment, self-sacrifice, and honesty as prime ways to define oneself. By the novel's end, Rayona develops the confidence and self-respect she needs to function in the tribal community and to be accepting of its diverse members.

In 1995, Dorris and Erdrich separated after their children brought sexual abuse charges against Dorris. The allegations were never proven, but Dorris committed suicide in 1997.

Further Reading

Beattie, L. Elisabeth, ed. Conversations with Kentucky Writers. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, eds. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Rosenberg, Ruth. Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Weil, Ann. Michael Dorris. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

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