Michael Anthony Dorris was born on January 30, 1945, in Louisville, Kentucky, although some biographical sources indicate Dayton, Washington. His father, Jim Dorris, was part Modoc; his Irish and Swiss mother was Mary Besy Burkhardt Dorris. Dorris married novelist Louise Erdrich in 1981, and they were parents to six children, including an adopted son named Abel, who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and died in 1991. This son was the subject of Dorris' award-winning book The Broken Cord: A Father's Story
(1989). After learning that he was the target of a sex abuse investigation in Minneapolis, based on accusations by two of his adopted daughters, Dorris apparently committed suicide on April 11, 1997, in a Concord, New Hampshire, motel.
Dorris earned a bachelor of arts degree from Georgetown University in 1967. He graduated cum laude. In 1970, he earned a master's degree in philosophy from prestigious Yale University. Immediately following his graduation, Dorris began teaching at the University of Redlands, Redlands, California, as an assistant professor. He moved back to the east coast in 1971 and served as an assistant professor for two years at Franconia College, Franconia, New Hampshire. In 1972, Dorris began a long and fruitful stint at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. That same year, he founded and chaired Dartmouth's Native American Studies Program. At Dartmouth, he served as an instructor (1972-76), assistant professor (1976-79), associate professor (1979), professor of anthropology (1979-88), and adjunct professor (1989). It was also at Dartmouth that he first met Louise Erdrich.
Dorris received various awards and prizes throughout his life. He was awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship in both 1967 and 1980. He also received fellowships from the National Institute of Mental Health (1970 and 1971), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1978), the Rockefeller Foundation (1985), the National Endowment for the Arts (1989), and Dartmouth College (1992). Other honors include the International Pathfinder Award, World Conference on the Family (1992), and the Award for Excellence, Center for Anthropology and Journalism (1992), for essays on Zimbabwe.
Dorris' publishing career is as varied as his teaching career. His first two books, Native Americans: Five Hundred Years After (1977) and A Guide to Research on North American Indians (1988), coauthored by Arlene B. Hirschfelder and Mary Gloyne Byler, were nonfiction studies of Native-American tribes, including their cultures, lifestyles, and eventual demise. In 1987, Dorris published A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, his first novel. The nonfiction The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (1989), with a foreword by Erdrich, was groundbreaking in that it brought media attention to the debilitating syndrome that affected Dorris' first son, whom he adopted in 1971; Dorris was one of the first American bachelors to adopt a child. The book was republished as The Broken Cord: A Father's Story, which won a National Book Critics Award for general nonfiction. Dorris continued a long-lasting writing venture with Erdrich, begun ten years earlier, and in 1991, they published their coauthored Route Two and Back, a travel memoir, and the novel The Crown of Columbus. Dorris' young-adult novel Morning Girl was published in 1992. In 1993, Dorris wrote a series of essays published as Rooms in the House of Stone and a collection of short stories titled Working Men. A collection of essays, Paper Trail: Collected Essays, 1967-1992, was published in 1994. The following year, Dorris again concentrated his energies on young-adult fiction and wrote Guests. Early in 1997, Dorris published his novel Cloud Chamber to rave reviews; his young-adult novel The Window was published posthumously in October 1997 with equally enthusiastic reviews.