November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
Random header image... Refresh for more!

On Michael Dorris


A Broken Man on Blue Water:

A Conversation on the Life

and Influence of Michael Dorris

Facilitated by John Smelcer 

Michael Dorris (1945-1997) was the award-winning author of numerous books, mostly about the Native American experience, including his popular novel, A Yellow Raft on Blue Water (1987). His influential memoir, The Broken Cord, won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 1989. In 1971, he was the first single man in the United States to legally adopt a child (he adopted an American Indian boy named Abel who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and he eventually adopted two other children). In the fall of 1972, Michael was hired as Director of Dartmouth’s new Native American Studies program, where he met his future wife, Louise Erdrich. Years later, as husband-wife collaborators, they co-wrote The Crown of Columbus, a book that marked the 500th year anniversary of the discovery of America. After a great deal of turmoil in his personal life — including the accidental death of Abel in 1991, divorce, and allegations of abuse — Michael committed suicide in a motel in Concord, New Hampshire, on April 10, 1997. The facilitator of this candid discussion is John Smelcer, Michael’s friend and one-time moose hunting partner in Alaska and one of the last people to speak to him before his lonely death, and three of Michael’s students from the early years at Dartmouth: Tom Sorci, Dave Bonga, and Trudell Guerue.



JS:   It’s been sixteen years since Michael Dorris left us. His death was a profound loss in my life. My younger brother had committed suicide nine years earlier, a few weeks shy of turning twenty-three. Such losses are never easy to reconcile. We live with uneasy doubts and lingering questions for many years afterward, more so than others in Michael’s case. I wonder if we might start by talking about the early days when we all first met Michael.

TS:      I was born to Italian-American parents and was raised in the mid-Hudson valley of New York state, living in both Poughkeepsie and Kingston. When I graduated from high school in June of 1972, I had planned to pursue a career in Environmental Studies. Meeting Michael Dorris and the students in the newly formed Native American Program changed my life.  Michael was one of the first people I met at Dartmouth. His car still had Alaskan license plates with MODOC imprinted on them when he invited all of his advisees to his house on Mascoma Lake during freshmen week. I was living in North Topliff Hall on the same floor as many Native American students. Michael’s office, along with the Native American Program, was located in College Hall where he helped me plan the courses I would take during freshman year. Michael steered me in the direction of anthropology and the newly formed Native American Studies Program. Throughout my four years at Dartmouth, he was a mentor, friend, and confidant. He was instrumental in helping me find internships and employment as well as helping me to find my true calling to a lifelong commitment to Native American education.


Michael Dorris

DB:   I wasn’t on campus during the 1972-73 academic year, as I had transferred to the University of Minnesota to take Ojibwe for my Dartmouth language requirement. I met Michael during the summer of 1973 when I was on campus for my Dartmouth Plan summer. I didn’t take any of Michael’s classes, but I did do a Native American Studies project for academic credit during my fall 1973 term on the Standing Rock Reservation under Bea Medicine, who Mike had invited to be a Visiting Professor. I returned to Dartmouth for my senior year. Michael was excellent as the initial Director of the Native American Studies Program. He was able to work closely with Dartmouth academics to advance acceptance of Native American Studies as a viable academic field. Michael was also a friend and supporter of students, who also happened to be a single parent with a special-needs son.

TG:    I was in the first cohort of the Native Studies program at Dartmouth; must have been 1971-1972. There were fifteen of us in that first class. There were about six or seven Indians there already, but it wasn’t an organized program then. I took off after the first year and went bumming around Europe with a friend. When I returned in the fall of 1973, the college had hired Mike Dorris. So, some of the other guys might have known him for a year longer than I did. I was as old as or older than Mike. I had served in the Army before college, so I was older than the other students. I really enjoyed Mike’s teaching. He opened my eyes to a lot of Indian literature. I was also in Dr. Medicine’s class.

TS:   Mike also introduced me to Beatrice Medicine. I had embarked on a William Jewett Tucker Foundation internship to Ronan, Montana during the summer of 1974 to work as a G.E.D. instructor at the Kicking Horse Civilian Conservation Center for the Confederated Tribes of Salish and Kootenai. It was my introduction to Job Corps and to working directly with students on a reservation. Meeting Beatrice Medicine would have a profound effect upon my education and career choices. After returning from Montana, I immersed myself in the study of anthropology, Native American Belief Systems, and Lakota language. I also visited Professor Medicine’s home in Wakpala on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. By this time my interest in Native American Studies was extensive and far-reaching.

JS:    I wasn’t one of Mike’s students, per se, though for years he guided my independent readings in Native Studies, especially in Indian literature. I met him in the early 1980s when I was an undergraduate studying anthropology, linguistics, and Native Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Mike came to campus to speak, and I was invited to a luncheon in his honor. During lunch, I mentioned that I was going moose hunting, and Mike enthusiastically voiced his desire to go with me. He said he had taught in an Alaskan village (Tyonek) before he was hired at Dartmouth and that he’d gone moose hunting. We left early the following morning. I took him to Lake Louise, about forty miles west of Glennallen. On the way there we stopped at my village to visit my Indian relatives. We took my green johnboat through three connecting lakes back to Tyone Lake, where there was an old, abandoned village from my tribe. I hunted back there with my dad and uncles since I was a little boy. The first time must have been in 1971. Herds of caribou migrate through the region. I’ve seen hundreds of caribou swim across the lake, just their antlered heads sticking out from the water. It was a cold and drizzly fall day. At the end of the lake, where the Tyone River begins, we saw a two-year-old bull moose. I had a harvest tag for a bull moose or caribou. Naturally, Mike didn’t have a license or anything, so I shot it.


John Smelcer with young bull moose (photo by M. Dorris)

We butchered the moose and carried the quarters back to the boat through a kind of boggy area. We each carried a bulging game bag against our chest, full of shoulder, neck, and back-strap meat, as well as the heart and the liver for my great aunt, Morrie Secondchief, who lived nearby. We also cut off the nose to make moose-nose soup, a delicacy among elders. It took two trips to carry out everything. By the time we were done packing out the meat, our feet were soaked, and we couldn’t feel our toes. I kept my rifle with me at all the time. Grizzly country, you know. We had seen bear tracks along the shore back at the boat. The hundred-pound hindquarters we were carrying would be temptation for any hungry bear dreaming of hibernating soon. We were both wearing raincoats over our jackets. I was experienced enough to know enough to unzip both coats so that I wouldn’t overheat and sweat. But Michael didn’t know better. Soon, he was sweating from the hard labor—his wet clothes robbing him of body heat. By the time we finished packing the meat back to the boat, Michael was shaking uncontrollably. We built a large campfire to warm up and to boil water for coffee. We even roasted a chunk of moose meat on sticks. In what other ways did Mike influence your life?

DB:     During the Spring of 1973, I applied for a position in the Native American office as the liaison with the Native American Council. I didn’t get it, so I went home to Washington State to attend the University of Washington Law School in the fall of 1974. During the summer of ‘74 Duane Bird Bear (‘72) asked me to take his job in Denver with the United Scholarship Service, which I did as I had planned to attend law school in the future. I believe it was in March of 1975 that Michael called me and asked me to return to Dartmouth to work in the Native American Office. I accepted and moved back to Hanover. As the Coordinator of the Native American Office I assisted NAP students with support services to create an atmosphere on campus that allowed students to be academically successful and encouraging students to take advantage of Dartmouth and become engaged in off-campus programs that allowed them to continue their academics, but also to spend time off campus that at times was a hostile environment. Michael strongly supported the off-campus activities and established NAS internship programs. In addition, Mike encouraged the development of cultural support programs for NAP students and strongly supported the actions of the Native American Office. Michael also continued to develop the NAS that was gaining a positive national reputation. However, I was disappointed that Mike was not a frequent visitor to the NAD house or many NAD activities. At the time, I was unaware of his home issues involving the children he had adopted as a single parent. It wasn’t until his book, A Broken Cord, was published that I realized how challenged and occupied Michael was with raising his three children who were FAE and FAS.  Once I understood Michael’s predicament and the enormity of the issue in Indian country, I became an advocate of trying to address issues associated with FAE and FAS children and how the actions of their parents were the cause of the children’s problems. It became apparent to me that such parental actions threatened the very existence of viable Native communities and their success in dealing with all other issues. The issue of substance abuse and the destruction of Native Ways has affected the way I look at the development of Tribes that involve all aspects of tribal life.  Michael’s struggles and his book encouraged many of us to look outside the box and to think of new ways to address tribal issues. That has directly lead to the Kalispel Tribe’s successful Northern Quest Casino and Resort that was developed to fund the CamasPath program that is a holistic approach to the development of healthy, educated, and successful Kalispel Tribal members.

TS:  With Michael’s blessing, I landed an internship at Americans for Indian Opportunity in Washington, D.C. working for LaDonna Harris and Maggie Gover on national issues. I had developed strong friendships with many Native American students, one of whom I had dated for some time. When I graduated in June with a major in Religion and a minor in Native American Studies, Michael wrote me a letter of recommendation and steered me to my first job as a linguistic consultant for the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Colville Tribes in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. I lived with a Yakama family in Wapato, Washington and worked for the Johnson O’Malley Consortium for nine months before returning to Dartmouth to work as the Assistant Regional Director for the A Better Chance (ABC) Program. My goal was to increase the number of Native American students in private and public schools throughout the Northeast. In the fall of 1979, I enrolled in graduate school to study linguistics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was interested in Native Language revitalization and helped to establish the first Siouan languages conference. Later that year I married Vivian Blackgoat, a Diné woman whom I had met at Dartmouth. Our daughter was born at the Tuba City Indian Hospital in 1980, and our son was born at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital in 1982. In the meantime, I had taken a job as an instructor at Navajo Community College (its name later changed to Diné College) in Tsaile, Arizona where I taught for four years before accepting a position as teacher, coach, dorm parent, and advisor to Native American students at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. For the next nine years, I lived and worked extensively with Native American students from all over the country and kept in touch with the Dartmouth Native American community. Both Michael and Dr. Medicine visited our family at the school. By then, he and Louise had achieved fame for their various publications.

JS:    For me, Michael wrote one of the recommendations that helped land my job as co-chair of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1993. My co-chair was a Tlingit woman named Elaine Abraham who was from Yakutat in southeast Alaska. I think she told me she was a member of the Frog Clan. Mike later provided a recommendation when I applied to be executive director of my tribe’s Heritage Foundation. I got the job and spent the next three years working on oral history projects, archaeological surveys, and a dictionary of our language. Isolated as I was in Alaska, Mike was one of a few Native writers who helped me develop as a fiction writer. James Welch also helped me a great deal. They both encouraged me to join Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers as one of its earliest members. How did each of you learn of Mike’s death and how did the news affect you?

TS:    I was teaching Ancient History at the Kent School in Connecticut when Dr. Bea Medicine telephoned to tell me the sad news. Needless to say, I was shocked by his untimely death. I was upset at myself because I knew that Michael had been receiving treatment for his severe depression, and I wished I could have reached out to him to prevent him from taking his own life. Later that spring, I drove past the motel in New Hampshire to say a prayer and pay my final respects to a professor who had taken a keen interest in helping me in both my collegiate and professional careers. My life has taken many twists and turns since then. After finishing a three year stint as principal of St. Michael’s Indian School on the Navajo Nation, I have moved to Anchorage, Alaska to lead a small school of 87 students in grades 7-12. As I travel the state, I often think of conversations I had with Michael about his fieldwork in Alaska over forty years ago and thank him for pointing me in this direction.

DB:   I was driving to work when I heard the news on the radio. When I got to the office I checked the internet to see if it was really true. And there it was. I was really sad to hear how he had died.

TG:    One of the guys from our class, I think it was Mike Hanitchak, called to tell me. I had been feeling very, very bad the previous day . . . and I didn’t know why. I just had a bad feeling. I have a number of relatives and friends who killed themselves, and when I see them all I’m going to kick their asses for doing what they did. One thing I know about Mike—about Mike’s suicide—is he had been destroyed. After all the things he had done, the allegations were such that no matter what happened he was destroyed. If ever a person wanted to hurt another person, making that kind of allegation [as were made against Mike] . . . that’s it. There were even allegations that Mike may not have been Indian. I think that Mike Dorris made a huge difference in the lives of not just to those who had the opportunity to be in his classes, but to the Indian world—in the Indian world—he made a difference. He believed very strongly in the tribes, and that’s a hard thing because the Indian world is so divided. You come from this tribe or that tribe, or you come from the reservation or you don’t. Growing up on a reservation, I know how people from the reservation see Indians who have never been there. Indians from the reservation belong to a tribe, while urban Indians see themselves as pan-Indian, often picking and choosing appealing customs and spiritual beliefs from a variety of tribes. I’m not saying I agree with this. I’m just saying that’s the way it is. I’m Lahkota. I don’t use Chippewa customs in my life, nor Navajo, Apache, or Seneca. I thought of Mike Dorris as one of my friends. I deeply regretted that he didn’t call me toward the end because I thought that maybe I could have talked him into doing something else. It still bothers me that I didn’t have a chance to talk with him.

JS:    Mike and I had spoken many times during the months before his death, mostly about how his life was falling apart and how he felt so alone. The last time we spoke was the day before he killed himself after moving into that motel in Concord. He called me at my tribal office in Glennallen. I think he used an outside pay phone because I remember he called collect and I could hear traffic in the background. We spoke for a long time, maybe half an hour. He never actually said he was going to harm himself, but there was a tone in his voice that alarmed me. I could tell he had given up. My brother had committed suicide nine years earlier, so you’d think I would have recognized the signs. I didn’t in either case. Mike was gone hours later. I must have been one of the last people he ever spoke to. I remember crying in my office with the door closed after I heard the news. Michael was a good man, a good role model, and a good friend. He deserves to be remembered for the positive influence he had on so many lives, like ours.


About the participants:

Tom Sorci is currently headmaster at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage, Alaska.

Dave Bonga (Ojibwe) is an attorney for the Kalispell Tribe in Washington.

Trudell Guerue (Lahkota) is a former lawyer who has no desire to be a lawyer again.

John Smelcer (Ahtna) co-edited Native American Classics (2013), an anthology of 19th and early 20th century Native American literature and Durable Breath: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1995). Michael Dorris edited many of the stories in John’s ALASKAN: Stories from the Great Land (2011).