(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Dorris 1945–1997

American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and author of books for children.

One of the most renowned Native American writers, Dorris promoted understanding of the Native American community and awareness of its burdens through his award-winning books. The Broken Cord (1989), his best known and best-selling work, tells the story of his own adopted son's battle with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a debilitating consequence of excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy that was found to be disproportionately common among Native Americans. Granted the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction and made into a television movie, The Broken Cord garnered widespread accolades for Dorris's intimate storytelling and statistical accuracy, and attracted international attention to the problem of FAS. Dorris collaborated with wife Louis Erdrich, also a noted author, to produce The Crown of Columbus (1991), a novel about Christopher Columbus and his impact on the contemporary world, particularly on Native America. Dorris's other novels, generally concentrating on the quest for an authentic Native identity, include the best-selling A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), which relates the experience of Native American women across three generations, and the enthusiastically received Cloud Chamber (1997), which traces the mixed-blood paternal family lines of Rayona, a character from A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. In his fiction for young readers, Dorris explored notable historical events from a juvenile Native American perspective, including Columbus's arrival in America in Morning Girl (1992) and the first American Thanksgiving in Guests (1995).

In an interview with Rick Lyman shortly after Dorris's death, Erdrich, who married Dorris in 1981, reported that she had known he was suicidal "from the second year of our marriage." He fought a constant battle with depression, although to friends he never failed to present a facade of happiness. His second suicide attempt succeeded on April 11, 1997, shortly after he learned that he was the subject of an investigation for the possible sexual abuse of one or more of his children. At the time of his death, Dorris and Erdrich were in the process of divorcing. Erdrich declined to discuss the case, stating, "I don't agree with trying a man in the press after he is dead and judging him guilty or innocent." A number of Dorris's friends spoke out against the charges, citing Dorris's reputation as an outstanding father and advocate of children's rights. Douglas Foster, former editor of Mother Jones magazine, reported that Dorris had told him the charges were false but that he "didn't know how to fight without making things worse. And he had a realistic idea that no matter how baseless the allegations were, they were going to have a strong negative effect on his family and his work." Dorris held degrees from Georgetown University and Yale University and worked as a professor of English and anthropology at Dartmouth College. Perhaps his greatest achievement in the world of education was the Native American Studies department at Dartmouth, which he founded in 1972 and chaired until 1985. The Associated Press reported that Dartmouth President James Freedman said Dorris "was beloved by a generation of Dartmouth students, whose lives were touched with his humanity and his idealism. The Native American Studies program will stand as one of his enduring contributions to Dartmouth and to American higher education."