Michael Dorris was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1945. His heritage was mixed, as he was descended from European ancestry and from the Native American Modoc Tribe of California. Dorris spent his childhood in Kentucky but made frequent visits to reservations in the Pacific Northwest.
Later in life Dorris noted that, as a child, he never encountered Native American literary characters with whom he could identify. So after graduating cum laude from Georgetown University and earning a master’s degree at Yale University, Dorris began writing, hoping to create such characters himself. He was a prolific author, publishing fourteen books and over one hundred articles between 1977 and his death in 1997. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, published in 1987, was Dorris’s first novel. During his writing career, Dorris remained heavily involved in academia, starting the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth College, where he taught intermittently for twenty-five years. At Dartmouth, Dorris also met his future wife and literary partner, the novelist Louise Erdrich. She too is of Native American descent, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe of the Midwest.
Dorris and Erdrich had three children together, who joined the three children whom Dorris had adopted prior to his marriage. Dorris’s adopted children, who were born on Native American reservations, all suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, a variable group of birth defects that can occur in the children of women who consume large quantities of alcohol during pregnancy. One of Dorris’s best-known works, The Broken Cord (1989), is based on the troubles and triumphs he experienced in dealing with fetal alcohol syndrome in the older of his two adopted sons, Abel.
Although the press frequently idealized Dorris’s relationship with Erdrich as a literary marriage of the highest sort, the two gradually grew apart and separated. The rest of Dorris’s personal life began to splinter as well: in 1991 Abel was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and in 1994 another of his adopted children, Jeffrey, accused both Dorris and Erdrich of abuse and brought a lawsuit against them. Dorris and Erdrich also began to bump heads over custody of their natural children. With his personal life already under considerable scrutiny, Dorris faced increased pressure as accusations that he had sexually abused a child leaked to the press in December of 1996. Formal charges were never brought against Dorris, but he began to suffer from severe depression from the thought that they might be. Apparently fearful of the prospect of a feeding frenzy by law enforcement officials and the media, Dorris killed himself in a motel room in Concord, New Hampshire, on April 10, 1997.
Although his tumultuous personal life and tragically short career have at times threatened to overshadow his literary accomplishments, critics acknowledge Dorris as a highly original voice in modern Native American literature, the peer of other prominent writers such as N. Scott Momaday, Sherman Alexie, and Leslie Marmon Silko.