|Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on 30 January 1945, Michael Anthony Dorris is of Irish and French
descent on his mother's side and Modoc descent on his father's. When Dorris was two years old, his
father, Jim, an army lieutenant, was killed in a jeep accident near Passau, Germany. Shortly
thereafter, Mary Besy Burkhardt Dorris and her son returned from Germany to Louisville.
She never remarried, and Dorris was raised as an only child in a house full of strong and loving
women. "My role models," he says in The Broken Cord (1989), "were strong, capable mothers, aunts,
and grandmothers." In 1967 Dorris graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in English
and the classics from Georgetown University. After a year in the graduate program of the department
of history of the theater at Yale University, he switched to anthropology, receiving an M.Phil. from Yale
He was an assistant professor at the University of Redlands in California in 1970 and at Franconia
College in New Hampshire in 1971-1972. In 1971 the unmarried Dorris adopted a three-year-old Sioux
boy whom he named Reynold Abel. In 1972 he accepted a position at Dartmouth College in Hanover,
In 1974 he adopted another son, also a Sioux, whom he named Jeffrey Sava after a deceased Native
Alaskan friend; in 1976 he adopted a Sioux daughter, Madeline Hannah. In 1979 he became a full
professor and chair of the Native American studies department. Dartmouth graduate Erdrich returned
to the campus as a writer in residence in 1981, and on 10 October of that year she and Dorris were
married. Together they have had three daughters: Persia Andromeda, Pallas Antigone, and Aza
As an anthropologist Dorris conducted field-work in Alaska, New Zealand, Montana, New Hampshire,
and South Dakota and published Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After (1975) and, with Arlene
B. Hirschfelder and Mary Gloyne Byler, A Guide to Research on North American Indians (1983).
Among his academic articles, "Native American Literature in an Ethnohistorical Context" (1979) is
notable for its call for Native literatures to be considered in their cultural and historical contexts rather
than interpreted from a supposedly "objective" New Critical -- that is, European American --
perspective that conflates hundreds of tribal literatures into the monolithic category of American
Notable also are his many essays and interviews, often addressed to educators, that challenge
stereotypical representations of Native Americans. In a 1989 interview with Bill Moyers, included in
Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris (1994), edited by Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl
Chavkin, Dorris tells an anecdote about being approached by a Boy Scout leader whose "troop
wanted to be absolutely authentic Iroquois, so they were going to go live in the woods for a week."
When asked what he would recommend for the boys to take along, Dorris, considering the matrilineal
traditions of the Iroquois, replied: "Their mothers." The scouts were clearly disappointed, since "they
wanted hatchets or something."
From 1977 to 1979 Dorris served on the editorial board of MELUS: The Journal of the Society of
Multiethnic Literatures in the United States; he has served in the same capacity for the American
Indian Culture and Research Journal since 1974. He received National Institute of Mental Health
Fellowships in 1970 and 1971, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, Woodrow Wilson Faculty
Development Fellowships in 1971 and 1980, a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship and an
Indian Achievement Award in 1985, and a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in 1989. In 1989
Dorris stepped down from his academic position to devote more time to his writing.
Dorris's writing career began in earnest after his marriage to Erdrich. They published several short
stories jointly under the pseudonym Milou North -- the first name combines parts of their first names;
the last refers to the part of the country in which they were living.
The Dorris-Erdrich collaboration has been the topic of considerable curiosity; although they generally
publish a book under the name of whichever of them is the primary author, they collaborate on every
piece. By their own account, they discuss the story and characters long before they begin writing.
After one of them writes the initial draft, the other reads it, offering comments and editorial
suggestions; the originator revises it and gives it back to the reader.
This process may be repeated many times before the work is complete. "We virtually reach
consensus on all words before they go out, on a word by word basis," Dorris explained in a 1987
interview with Hertha D. Wong included in Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.
Dorris and Erdrich insist that their collaboration enhances, rather than limits, their individual creativity,
and that it keeps them from suffering from writer's block.
Although his poetry has been published in such journals as Sun Tracks, Akwesasne Notes, Wassaja,
and Ploughshares, Dorris is best known for his prose. His first novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water
(1987), has received critical praise and is examined in literature courses at colleges and universities
throughout the United States. In this novel, Dorris presents the interrelated but distinct narratives of
three generations of women.
In a typical modernist technique, each of the novel's three sections is narrated by a different
character: the story begins with the fifteen-year-old, part-Indian Rayona; continues with her mother,
Christine; and concludes with Rayona's "grandmother," Ida, who prefers, for reasons that are
surprising and dramatic when they are finally revealed, to be called "Aunt Ida." Each of the narrators
is entirely convincing and engaging, even when she contradicts or quibbles with what the others have
As in Dorris's short fiction, allusions to television abound in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. In the 1987
interview with Wong, Dorris explains that he was "totally weaned on television" and that in the novel
references to television serve as "a marker of time and class." In one comic scene Christine, leaving
Seattle to return to the reservation in Montana to die, stops by a video store to buy a lifetime
membership for her daughter even though they do not own a videocassette recorder and the sound
on their television set is barely audible.
Christine says to Rayona, "It's like something I'd leave you." She checks out two tapes, misinterpreting
lifetime to mean that they can be kept permanently: Christine (1983), a horror film about a vengeful
car that goes on a murderous rampage, and Little Big Man (1970), a movie image of Plains Indians,
are all that Christine can bequeath to Rayona. Such moments led Louis Owens to say that in A Yellow
Raft in Blue Water the video village replaces the tribal village.
Although mixed-blood identity is a common theme in twentieth-century Native American literature,
Dorris is the first writer to present a mixed-blood character who is part Native American and part black:
her father, Elgin, is an African American postal worker. Rayona imagines finding the "exact shades" of
her family "on a paint mix-tone chart. Mom was Almond Joy, Dad was Burnt Clay, and I was Maple
She describes herself as "too big, too smart, not Black, not Indian, not friendly." With Rayona, Dorris
complicates the generic plot of a mixed-blood protagonist torn between two worlds. In his interview
with Moyers, Dorris explains that "Rayona grows up very much an urban, black, Indian kid in a
northwest city." When she ends up on the reservation, she is "inappropriate in every respect": wrong
color, wrong background, wrong language.
Nonetheless, Rayona's search, like the quests of so many other characters in Native American
novels, is, as William Bevis has noted, a search for a home. Rayona can find her identity only by
realizing the inappropriateness of the dominant society -- she finally gives up her fantasy of having a
family like the one the "perfect" Ellen DeMarco has; by returning "home" to the reservation that she
visited only once, as a toddler; and by recovering her family history and learning how she fits into a
much larger story. Although the plot sounds like a romantic search for a lost past, Dorris resists easy
answers: going home does not guarantee a warm welcome or a gift-wrapped Indian identity.
His second novel, The Crown of Columbus (1991), carries both Dorris's and Erdrich's names on the
title page. They planned the novel during a 1988 automobile trip across Saskatchewan; the publisher,
HarperCollins, gave them a $1.5 million advance for the book on the basis of a brief outline. Inspired,
they told Moyers, by a "translation of Bartolomé de Las Casas's sixteenth-century edition of
Columbus's diary" and by the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus's arrival in America, they
planned to take the almost unimaginable leap -- for Native American authors -- of writing the novel
from Columbus's point of view.
Instead, the book turned out to be an Indian version of American history, an ironic counterpoint to
Columbus's "discovery" of the so-called New World, and a satire of academia. The Crown of
Columbus received mixed reviews: some critics exulted over the comic adventure, while others, such
as Nina King in the Washington Post (5 May 1991), criticized the melodramatic and romantic plot, the
confusion of "romance, detective story, thriller, and revisionist history," and the "politically correct"
In this novel two Dartmouth College professors -- the forty-year-old, pregnant, Coeur d'Alene-Navajo-
Irish-Hispanic and Sioux-by-marriage tenure-aspiring assistant professor of anthropology Vivian
Twostar and the stuffy European American poet and tenured professor Roger Williams -- are
researching Columbus. Roger's name unambiguously recalls the seventeenth-century clergyman who
was banished from Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his democratic views in 1635 and, a
year later, founded Providence, the first white settlement in what would become Rhode Island; living
among and preaching to the Indians of the area, he wrote A Key into the Language of America
(1643), one of the first attempts to record a Native language and customs.
Perfect opposites -- she is vivacious, he is quiet; she is passionately down-to-earth, he is coolly
intellectual; she is flexible, he is fastidious -- Vivian and Roger are the mismatched parents of Violet,
who represents the new generation of Indian-white relations. When Roger criticizes Vivian for having
an underdeveloped sense of history, employing sloppy research methods, and being too emotional
for "objective" and rational scholarship, the reader is presented with a recapitulation of Indian-white
contact stories in which cross-cultural communication is nominal at best. In addition, Dorris and
Erdrich seem to be criticizing the academic battles about gender, race, and ethnicity and the politics
of supposedly objective scholarship.
The chapters are narrated alternately by Vivian and Roger, a technique that, as Thomas Matchie
argues in the North Dakota Quarterly (Fall 1991), "resembles a point/counterpoint debate." The plot
moves on two levels: as King notes, the story is "a contemporary romance" and "a historical mystery"
linked by "the contemporary couple's attempt to solve the old mystery."
A key theme is the search for Columbus: who was he then? Who is he now, five hundred years later?
In a 1991 interview with Douglas Foster, included in Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael
Dorris, Dorris explains that "Columbus is a metaphor"; he "stands for a notion of encounter of the
unexpected." The novel is, thus, about unanticipated encounters: Vivian and Roger must open their
minds and hearts to discover Columbus and each other. With their exaggerated differences, their
stormy relationship becomes a metaphor for Indian-white interaction. Violet, the offspring of the two
races, offers the promise of a better future.
Spending a night accidentally locked in the Dartmouth library, Vivian finds some clues about
Columbus that she decides to follow up. Financed by a wealthy businessman with greedy motives,
Vivian travels to Eleuthera in the Bahamas accompanied by Roger, her teenage son Nash, and the
baby Violet. Outrageously dramatic scenes abound: the unscrupulous capitalist attacks the karate-
kicking Vivian on his yacht; the helpless baby Violet floats alone on the ocean in a deflating raft; the
stuffy, self-important Roger sacrifices himself to save the baby and, as in classical mythology,
descends to the underworld -- in this case, an underwater cave -- where he gains self-understanding.
All of these moments clarify what is truly important -- not academic stardom but love, relationships,
The Crown of Columbus is a significant departure from the kind of writing Dorris and Erdrich have
published independently, although it retains elements of their previous work: the dominant ironic
vision, the emphasis on love and family, and the large-spirited humor. In addition, both A Yellow Raft
in Blue Water and The Crown of Columbus dramatize a quest for personal identity and historical
accuracy through remembering the past and imaginatively reconstructing it in the present.
Working Men (1993) is a collection of fourteen short stories, ten of which were published previously.
The stories are narrated by diverse voices -- Indian and non-Indian, young and old, gay and straight,
male and female -- and are set in locales as various as the states of Washington, Montana, New
Jersey, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Alaska. Most of the characters are going about their jobs as
flight attendants, pharmaceutical salesmen, disc jockeys, pond designers, or snowplow drivers when
something happens to trigger a self-revelatory moment.
These are not grand experiences of enlightenment but tiny flickers of illumination. The minute and
predictable rhythms of everyday life reflected in work patterns are jostled, transporting the characters,
if only momentarily, from the ordinary to the extraordinary or revealing the remarkable within the
In typical Dorris style, the tone of the stories is often wry and the narrative voice naively self-reflexive.
Humor abounds, even in the midst of pathos. Dorris never condescends to his down-to-earth
characters, but part of the humor hinges on the gap between the readers' perspectives and those of
the narrators, who are often not entirely conscious of their motives or feelings. In "Oui", for instance,
Dwayne drifts from experience to experience, finally running off to Montana with a woman who
happens to drive by and getting a job as a high-school French teacher even though the only word of
French he knows is oui.
Dwayne interprets his dream of "a man and a woman standing on a sticky bun, their feet planted in
the icing" as an omen that he and his lover, Cecille, are "destined to get married. . . . There was no
mistaking that breakfast roll, plain as a three-tiered cake." His interpretation is not only comic, it is
conveniently pragmatic, since marrying Cecille solves his problems of a lack of lodging and
employment. The supposedly clear borders between absurdly naive interpretations and brilliance,
between chance and destiny, between true love and crafty self-interest are revealed to be ambiguous
In "Earnest Money" Sky Dial, the draft-dodging hippie turned gas-station owner from A Yellow Raft in
Blue Water, provides a good example of Dorris's one-liner humor: "Without Dad around, Mom was
horsepower with nothing to move," he comments; later he says, "Mom was in a condition of mental
arrest, the two causes for it tied for number one." Similarly, Sky describes the wedding reception when
he marries the older Evelyn: "From the point of view of the guests it was a mixture of 'too bad' and 'it
could be worse' with a little bit of 'what the hell' thrown in on the side." Dwayne, Sky, and many of the
other characters in the stories have deep feelings but lack the ability to articulate them, even to
themselves, except in simple language and prepackaged images taken from popular culture,
especially television programs.
Only two of the stories, "Groom Service" and "Shining Agate", are explicitly about Native Americans.
The first story is about the traditional courtship practices of an unspecified matriarchal community. In
"Shining Agate" Dorris uses a translation of a Native Alaskan tale as the starting point for a story
about an anthropologist's fieldwork in the Native Alaska community of Suscitna. The tale provides an
interpretive context for the contemporary story of the anthropologist, who does not fit into the
community -- he endures "ritual avoidance" -- but finally gains some insight into the people he is
studying and, more important, into himself.
In an ironic turnabout, at the end of the story Sergei Mishikoff, a Native Alaskan informant, tells the
anthropologist: " 'I'll explain you your story.'"
Throughout these stories, Dorris is sensitive to common people of every sort, to lives lived within
narrow constraints, to insights filtered through the popular media, and to the telling detail. In the short
story "The Benchmark" the protagonist is a man who builds ponds. The pond designer, who reads the
lay of the land, becomes a metaphor of the writer/anthropologist, both careful observers and shapers
of experience. Elsewhere Dorris has compared the positions of writers and anthropologists to those of
mixed-bloods who find themselves outsiders and mediators. As a mixed-blood anthropologist writer,
Dorris is particularly mindful of his role as one who observes and translates.
In his award-winning novel Morning Girl (1992), aimed at young adult readers, Dorris imagines life
among the pre-Columbian Taino Indians. Chapters are narrated alternately by twelve-year-old
Morning Girl and her ten-year-old brother, Star Boy. Opposites in every way, Morning Girl and Star
Boy at first antagonize each other as only siblings can: "I don't know how my brother came to see
everything so upside down from me," says Morning Girl. But their relationship grows into friendship,
and Star Boy gives his sister a new name: The One Who Stands Beside.
The novel concludes with Morning Girl meeting a boatful of strange visitors speaking a strange
language, whom the reader knows to be the so-called discoverers of America. In Dorris's treatment,
however, it is really Morning Girl who discovers the strangers, and she heads for home to arrange for
her family to welcome the newcomers with proper graciousness. The book closes with an ominous
epilogue: an excerpt from Columbus's journal for 11 October 1492.
As in Morning Girl, in Guests (1994), another novel for young adults, Dorris offers a new perspective
on a familiar American theme -- in this case a Native boy's view of Thanksgiving. Also like Morning
Girl, Guests is both a children's coming-of-age story and a contact narrative.
Dorris's The Broken Cord was named the Best Nonfiction Book of 1989 by the National Book Critics
Circle and the Outstanding Academic Book by Choice; it also received the Heartland Prize and the
Christopher Award. It is the story of Abel, Dorris's adopted son -- called Adam in the book -- who was
diagnosed as suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome.
Because of his "defensive optimism," it took Dorris a long time to realize that "the poor hearing, the
convulsions, the hundreds of repetitions of even the most basic instructions, the abbreviated attention
span, the many minor, dismissible incidents, mistakes, and shortfalls" were not the aberrations of a
healthy child but the incurable condition of a child poisoned by alcohol in his mother's womb.
In his essay collection Paper Trail (1994) Dorris writes that after twenty years of wavering between
hope and despair, denial and acceptance, anger and understanding, he came to the conclusion that
he "could not affect Abel's life, but [he could] document it"; so he wrote The Broken Cord. The book
was made into an ABC television movie starring Jimmy Smits that aired on 3 February 1992.
As would be expected with such a painful and controversial topic, not all reviewers agreed with
Dorris's condemnation of pregnant women who drink. Katha Pollitt, for example, accused him of
blaming women -- especially single mothers -- who were themselves victims of oppressive social and
economic conditions and consequent lack of medical care. Margit Stange claims that "the strain of
antidisease logic" displayed in writing about fetal alcohol syndrome and alcoholism generally "enables
a healing discourse to become an antiwoman discourse."
Dorris is acutely aware of the history of Indian-white relations, including the introduction of alcohol to
Native people. He points out that "socio-economic deprivation" affects Indian alcoholism and that
"alcoholism, over the past 150 years, had become so absorbed into the social systems of many
American Indian groups that it could not be easily excised." Even so, dealing on a daily basis with the
tragic consequences of a biological mother's alcoholism leads Dorris to present an impassioned,
unromantic, and uncompromising denunciation of maternal drinking. Reynold Abel Dorris was hit by a
car -- a direct consequence of the diminished capacities produced by fetal alcohol syndrome -- and
died two years after The Broken Cord was published.
Because of The Broken Cord, Dorris is often invited to serve on national and international committees
and boards devoted to children's health and welfare. He was a member of the board of directors of
the Save the Children Foundation in 1991-1992 and now serves as an advisory board member; he
became a member of the U.S. Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality in 1992. As a part of his work for
the Save the Children Foundation, Dorris visited drought-ridden Zimbabwe, where thousands of men,
women, and children die from lack of water, food, and medicine.
To publicize the situation in Zimbabwe, Dorris wrote Rooms in the House of Stone (1993). The essays
in the book address the burnout of donors, the alternation of the press from sensationalism to silence
("Is it a sexy drought?" one reporter asks him before agreeing to cover it), and the needs of those
who are still alive in Zimbabwe. Dorris concludes: "We must give as if to ourselves.... To be fortunate
is, in a deep moral sense, to be obliged."
Still relatively young, Dorris has written an impressive collection of fiction and nonfiction, much of it
focused on identity formation, family ties, and setting the record straight about Native American
history. He acknowledges diverse influences on his writing, from family storytelling and Native
American oral traditions to the highly literary work of Albert Camus, Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison,
Gloria Naylor, Barbara Pym, Paul Theroux, John Updike, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Tennessee
Williams; but he insists that the single most important influence on his writing is his wife.
In intimate collaboration with Erdrich, Dorris combines everyday words into simple sentences that
evoke a sense of the extraordinary, juxtapose simplicity and surprise with a sense of the mysterious,
and seduce readers into fresh ways of perceiving the world.
In 1995 Michael Dorris's study of fetal alcohol syndrome, The Broken Cord (1989), was made into a
movie for television. It starred Jimmie Smits as Michael Dorris. It was shot in Toronto with the academic
scenes made on campus at the University of Toronto. Dorris's book was received with rave reviews for
its pioneering study of fetal alcohol syndrome (it was a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner in
the same year).
However, the book also was a thinly-disguised autobiography of Dorris and his family, which included
Louise Erdrich, the Native American writer. After the book appeared, Dorris went to Hollywood and
sold the rights for the television movie. In so doing, he publicly exposed himself and his family and
thereby set in train a series of events which went from language into light--from the language of the
book into the light of the movie. Concomitantly, this trail led him into a family and personal situation
which led from light in to darkness--into the death of his son, the separation and break-up of his
marriage to Louise Erdrich, and eventually his suicide in 1997.
The movie led directly to a downward spiral in his life from light into darkness. These events can be
traced by examining the circumstances of the film as well as the language of Dorris's works in The
Broken Cord and his Cloud Chamber, his last novel, published early in 1997, just a few months before
he committed suicide. The events took place and showed that Michael Dorris was not who he said he
THE BROKEN CORD--THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE
Dorris's The Broken Cord outlined his search to discover the reasons for his son Adam's fetal alcohol
syndrome, which was a result of the drinking of his mother, a Lakota Sioux, during her pregnancy
before he was born in 1968. There is no doubt that the publication of this book was a significant event
in drawing national recognition of the syndrome and we have much to thank Dorris for the writing of it.
And we do gain insights into the effects on their family in both the "Foreword" to the book written by
Erdrich and chapter 15, "The Adam Dorris Story by Adam Dorris," in which the sensitive Adam
portrays what it was like to grow up with these physical and mental impairments.
One could also argue that Dorris went way too far, and compounded his own and his family's troubles
by using and publicizing them. He crossed the line of no return when he sold the rights for a made-for-
TV movie to Hollywood immediately after the book was well received, and thereby exposed himself
and his family to disastrous public scrut iny.
The movie deal was made by Dorris, who was a relentless self-promoter, Erdrich, and his family in
Hollywood. The same day he signed the movie contract, his son committed suicide. Dorris never
recovered from that event and what he had done. He sank into depression, drank heavily, and lost his
marriage and his family over the course of the next seven years.
Often movies contort and distort the truth of historical events. The language of the text is lost in the
process of light--of the making of the movie. In this case, the opposite is true. Light changed the
language into truth and into darkness. The movie itself is ironically closer to the truth of Michael
Dorris's life than his book. The movie presents Dorrisaccurately as promoter, control freak, and
abusive father and husband. Whatever one thinks of Jimmie Smits as an actor, David Norwell (the
irony in the name is not lost on the viewer) is closer to Dorris than Dorris portrayed himself in his own
Sadly, Dorris is seen as someone who, like the references in his Broken Cord and Cloud Chamber, is
the "little engine that could," on a relentless search for material wealth and corporate acceptance. In
this personal search, through his son's education and behavior, in the movie he sacrifices his
relationship with his son and his family in the name of progress. As Susanne (Louise Erdrich) says to
him, after he has abused his son repeatedly, "you are trying to be the father that you never had."
Dorris's father was killed at the end of the Second World War and Dorris never knew him. He only
found out that he was not a Modoc at some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The deception, at
least in the beginning, was not of his own making.
In retrospect, Dorris should never have opened his son and his family to such public scrutiny. He
increased his error, abusing his son, his memory, and his family by making a movie deal for television.
After his deathDorris left in his will no monies from his estate to Erdrich or any members of his family.
(These are not the marks of an Aboriginal person or Aboriginal spirituality. Yet they left an enormous
and negative legacy on him and his family.)
AN ALIEN VOICE
During the course of writing a book with Ute Lischke about spirituality and gender in the writings of
Louise Erdrich a number of years ago, I began by reading everything that she had written. I began to
hear an alien voice in her early fiction in particular of the 1980s.
Next I looked at her poetry and this non-spiritual/non-Aboriginal voice was not present; neither did it
appear in her more recent novels, Tales of Burming Love (1996) or The Antelope Wife (1998), much
less The Birchbark House (1999). 1 was suspicious and began to read more especially about how
Erdrich worked closely with her then husband and literary collaborator. Then I began to readDorris's
works and discovered that the alien voice was his own.
This conclusion is significant in three ways. It impacts on our knowledge of Dorris as a Native
American writer, which he was not, as well as on our understanding of Erdrich's early literary works. It
significantly points to the non-Aboriginal influences that Dorris had on Erdrich's fiction in particular.
The issue of their collaboration is much more complicated than Dorris set Out in the many interviews
he had with Erdrich on this subject.
Secondly, it is important to reassess Dorris's own writings as a non-Aboriginal person. His works,
some of which became best-sellers, are still regarded as Indian. Lastly, Dorris's works are almost
wholly a complex paper trail and a mixing of fiction and autobiography--fiction in his autobiographical
works such as The Broken Cord and autobiographical in his fictional works such as Cloud Chamber.
In spite of the darkness left by this paper trail, it is important to begin to understand Dorris's literary
work on its own terms, based on who he was rather than on the character whom he presented as
himself. Dorris was himself a victim of the racism of American society.
THINGS ARE NOT ALWAYS WHAT THEY APPEAR TO BE
Aboriginal elders have said that things are not at all what they appear to be. The elders also say that
things always happen for a reason.Michael Darns published his novel Cloud Chamber in January
1997 just a few months before his suicide in April. He entered into a world of light-a cloud chamber-
from a journey of darkness.
A self-styled Aboriginal person--reputedly a descendant of the Modoc Captain Jack, apparently on his
father's side of his family--Dorris revealed publicly, not for the first time, that he may, in fact, not have
been an Aboriginal person at all. Until the 1990s he did not know who he was much less where he was
going. He never visited or told about the specific place where he was from; indeed the idea of place
held virtually no part in his life. He had no concept of Aboriginal sense of place or of time. He had little
or no idea of the notion of Aboriginal spirituality like most of his contemporary Native American writers
such as N. Scott Momaday or Louise Erdrich.
Cloud Chamber, as a novel, is an autobiographical narrative about the relationship between Michael
Dorris and his family, specifically the father whom he never knew. It is a sad story filled with longing,
regret, power as well as tragedy for his family. There are also issues of bisexuality and even possibly
sexual abuse of his children.
Things were never in his life as they appeared to be. There are hints of Dorris's identity in the
language and themes of Louise Erdrich's writings, especially of abandonment and return. She styled,
in part, her biography of him in the character of "Jack Mauser"--meaning Jack the Mouser--in her
Tales of Burning Love, who betrays his six wives and himself and who has a trapdoor in his soul. This
metaphor of the European stage invention of the trapdoor is well-suited to explain Michael Dorris--the
person who exhibited one thing in his public life (on stage as it were)--as a successful writer and
academic as an Indian and quite another person in his private life once the trapdoor closed under the
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
• Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After, photographs by Joseph C. Farber (New York: Crowell,
• A Guide to Research on North American Indians, by Dorris, Arlene B. Hirschfelder, and Mary Gloyne
Byler (Chicago: American Library Association, 1983).
• A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (New York: Holt, 1987; Bath, U.K.: Chavers, 1987).
• The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (New York: Harper &
Row, 1989; London: Futura, 1992); republished as The Broken Cord: A Father's Story (New York:
• Route Two and Back, by Dorris and Louise Erdrich (Northridge, Cal.: Lord John, 1991).
• The Crown of Columbus, by Dorris and Erdrich (New York: HarperCollins, 1991; London: Flamingo,
• Morning Girl (New York: Hyperion, 1992).
• Rooms in the House of Stone (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1993).
• Working Men: Stories (New York: Holt, 1993).
• Paper Trail: Essays (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
• Guests (New York: Hyperion, 1994).
• Sees Behind Trees (New York: Hyperion, 1996).
• Cloud Chamber (New York: Scribners, 1997).
• The Most Wonderful Book (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1997
• The Window (New York: Hyperion, 1997).
• Arlene B. Hirschfelder, ed., American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children, introduction by
Dorris (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982).
• "The Indian on the Shelf," in The American Indian and the Problem of History, edited by Calvin
Martin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 98-105.
• "Why I'm Not Thankful for Thanksgiving," in Books Without Bias: Through Indian Eyes, edited by
Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale (Berkeley, Cal.: Oyate, 1989), pp. 17-20.
• "Rayona's Seduction," in The Lightning Within: An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian
Fiction, edited by Alan R. Velie (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pp. 131-161.
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS--UNCOLLECTED
• "Change of Light," by Dorris and Louise Erdrich, as Milou North, Redbook, 158 (March 1982): 78-79.
• "Hard Luck," Seventeen, 46 (March 1987): 262-263.
• "The Best of Pen Pals," Seventeen, 46 (August 1987); 272.
• "The Queen of Christmas," Seventeen, 46 (December 1987): 128-129.
• "The Bench Mark," Mother Jones, 15 ( January 1990): 19-21, 47-48.
• "Native American Literature in an Ethnohistorical Context," College English, 41 (1979): 147-162.
• "The Grass Still Grows, the Rivers Still Flow: Contemporary Native Americans," Daedalus, 110
(Spring 1981): 43-69.
• "Cows, Colleges, and Contentment," New York Times, 3 August 1986, X: 37.
• "Why Mr. Ed Still Talks Good Horse Sense," TV Guide, 36 (28 May-3 June 1988): 34-36.
• "Who Owns the Land? Chippewa Indian and the White Earth Indian Reservations," by Dorris and
Louise Erdrich, New York Times Magazine, 4 September 1988, p. 32.
• "Rite of Passage: A Man's Journey into Fatherhood Echoes His Son's Entry into Adolescence,"
Parents' Magazine, 64 ( June 1989): 246-248.
• "A Desperate Crack Legacy," Newsweek, 115 (25 June 1990): 8.
• "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome," Parents' Magazine, 65 (November 1990): 238-245.
• "The Minnie Mouse Kitchen," Parents' Magazine, 65 (December 1990): 234-235.
• "Ode to an Author Escort," Publishers Weekly, 238 (7 June 1991):34.
• "What Men are Missing," Vogue, 181 (September 1991): 511
Weil, A. (1997). Michael Dorris.
Chavkin, A. (1994). Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.
McNab, D.T. (2005). Of Beads and a Crystal Vase: An Exploration of Language Into Darkness, Of
Michael Dorris's The Broken Cord and Cloud Chamber.