Michael Dorris was born in Louisville, Kentucky to Jim and Mary Besy (Burkhardt) Dorris. His father died before Dorris was born (reportedly by suicide during WWII), and Dorris was raised as an only child by his mother, who became a secretary for the Democratic Party. It has been reported that two maternal relatives also help raise him, either two aunts, or an aunt and his maternal grandmother. In his youth he spent summers with his father's relatives on reservations in Washington and Montana. In an article published in New York magazine two months after Dorris's death, a reporter quoted the Modoc tribal historian as saying, "Dorris was probably the descendant of a white man named Dorris whom records show befriended the Modocs on the West Coast just before and after the Modoc War of 1873. Even so, there is no record of a Dorris having been enrolled as an Indian citizen on the Klamath rolls." The Washington Post provides a contrary report of Dorris's descent: "Dorris' father's mother, who was white, became pregnant by her Indian boyfriend, but, the times being what they were, she could not marry him. She later married a white man named Dorris."
He received his BA (cum laude) in English and Classics from Georgetown University in 1967 and a Masters degree from Yale University in 1971 in anthropology, after beginning studies for a theater degree. He did his field work in Alaska studying the effects of off shore drilling on the Native Alaskan communities. In 1972, Dorris helped form Dartmouth College's Native American Studies department, and was its first Chair.
In 1971, he became one of the first unmarried men in the United States to adopt a child. His adopted son, a three-year-old Lakota boy named Reynold Abel, was eventually diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. Dorris' struggle to understand and care for his son became the subject of his work The Broken Cord (in which he uses the pseudonym "Adam" for his son). Dorris adopted two more Native American children, Jeffrey Sava in 1974 and Madeline Hannah in 1976, both of whom also likely suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. In 1975, he wrote the text to accompany the photographs of Joseph C. Farber in the book Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After. He was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1977 for his work in Anthropology & Cultural Studies. In 1980, he and his 3 adopted children left their home in Cornish, New Hampshire to spend a year's sabbatical in New Zealand.
After returning to the United States, in 1981 he married Louise Erdrich, a writer of German-American, Métis and Anishinaabe descent, whom he had initially met ten years earlier while he was teaching at Dartmouth and she was a student. During his sabbatical in New Zealand, Dorris and Erdrich had begun corresponding regularly by mail. After their marriage, she adopted his three children and eventually gave birth to their three daughters: Persia Andromeda, Pallas Antigone, and Aza Marion. Erdrich and Dorris contributed to each other's writing and together wrote romance fiction under the pseudonym Milou North to supplement their income, with many of their works being published in the British magazine Woman Erdrich dedicated her novels The Beet Queen (1986) and Tracks (1988) to Dorris. The family lived in Cornish, New Hampshire.
While teaching at Dartmouth, Dorris frequently mentored other students and was part of the successful effort to get rid of the college's Indian mascot. In 1985, after the couple had received major grants, the family moved for a year to Northfield, Minnesota.
Beginning in 1986, his son Sava was sent to boarding school and military school. Madaline began going to boarding school when she was 12. After the success of The Broken Cord in 1989, and an advance of $1.5 million for the outline of Crown of Columbus, Dorris quit teaching at Dartmouth to become a full-time writer. In 1992, his oldest son Reynold Abel was hit by a car and killed. Dorris, Erdrich and their three daughters moved to Kalispell, Montana, allegedly because of death threats that Sava had made towards them. They later moved back to New Hampshire in 1993, and then to the Piper Mansion in Minneapolis.
Sava sent a letter to the couple in 1994 threatening to "destroy their lives" and demanding money. Dorris and Erdrich took Sava to court for attempted felony theft. The first jury deadlocked, and the next year Sava was acquitted of the charges.
The couple separated, and Dorris went for treatment of alcohol abuse at Hazelden. Dorris and Erdrich divorced in 1996, Dorris considered himself "addicted to" Erdrich and fell into a depression.
Madeline and two of his biological daughters made allegations of abuse against him. Dorris made a failed suicide attempt in March 1997. On April 10, 1997, Dorris used a combination of suffocation, drugs, and alcohol to commit suicide in the Brick Tower Motor Inn in Concord, New Hampshire. In conversations with friends, Dorris maintained his innocence and his lack of faith that the legal system would exonerate him without him "demolishing" his wife and children in a "vicious" court trial. With his death, the criminal investigations into the sexual abuse allegations were closed.
Dorris is the author, co-author, or editor of a dozen books in the areas of fiction, memoir and essays and non-fiction.
His Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987) has been named among the "finest literary debuts of the late 20th century." It tells the story of three generations of women in a non-linear fashion from multiple perspectives, a technique that Dorris would frequently use in his later writings as well.
His memoir The Broken Cord is credited with bringing "international attention to the problem of fetal alcohol syndrome". The book won a number of awards including the Christopher Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for General non-fiction. The book is credited with inspiring Congressional legislation on FAS, and was the basis for a made-for TV film, with Jimmy Smits playing Dorris. In an essay originally published in the Wicazo Sa Review, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn criticizes Dorris and Erdrich (who had written the Foreword), claiming that they are calling for the jailing of alcoholic Native mothers during their pregnancies to forestall fetal alcohol syndrome.
When he and Erdrich co-wrote The Crown of Columbus (the only fiction that they officially share credit, although they frequently stated that they collaborated on many of each other's works), each would individually produce a preliminary draft of each section. Within the novel, various characters are writing collaborators, and the work has been identified as an autobiographical representation of creative "pleasure and problems" Dorris and Erdrich shared.
His 1997 Cloud Chamber continued the story of the families introduced in Yellow Raft in Blue Water; telling "the hard story of hard people living difficult lives with much courage" (LA Times Book Review) and is written with "evocative prose" (Publishers Weekly).
Dorris published three works for young adults during his life, and The Window was published after his death. Like his other work, the novels explored issues of identity, as well as sibling rivalry.Native Americans Five Hundred Years After (with photographer Joseph Farber, 1975)
A Guide to Research on North American Indians (with Mary Byler and Arlene Hirschfelder, 1983)
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987)
The Broken Cord: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Loss of the Future (1989)
The Crown of Columbus (with Louise Erdrich, 1991)
Route Two and Back (with Louise Erdrich, 1991)
Morning Girl (1992)
Working Men (1993)
Rooms in the House of Stone (1993)
Paper Trail (essays, 1994)
Sees Behind Trees (1996)
Cloud Chamber (1997)
The Window (1997)
The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading, edited (1997)