When I was growing up — as a person of mixed American Indian and European ethnic heritage, who, more than anything else, loved to read — I rarely encountered Native American fictional characters with whom I could identify.
The native peoples I read about in books always seemed to be performing rather dull crafts — sort of like earnest Boy Scouts — or riding around on ponies bareback, whooping it up. On the other hand, tests of courage regularly presented themselves, and those guys always ultimately passed with flying colors — and never even bragged about doing so. In short, they weren't like anybody I knew, and I didn't think I'd get along with them very well... or vice versa.
The Indians I knew were neither noble nor savage most of the time. They had no natural sense of direction; they dressed in regular clothes; and they didn't talk constantly in poetic metaphor. They tended to laugh a lot and to make jokes whenever possible, even when things weren't going their way.
I decided that if I was going to write stories about children who happened to be Indians, the characters would have to — in addition to being Indians — also be fully invested children.
In the characters of Morning Girl and Star Boy, as well as in the narrator of my book Guests, I allowed myself to speculate freely, to invite onto the page children who are curious, self-analytical, strong, moving toward independence. Their flaws are the flaws of youth: redeemable with wisdom and maturity.
Too often, I think, when we reflect on the sweep of history, we fail to see the individual tree for the forest. The people who met the Europeans become the Taino or the Wampanoag instead of Morning Girl and Star Boy; their parents; She Wins the Race and Speaks to Birds; the grandfather whom they remember fondly; the new sister who never got to be born. For convenience, all distinctions — because distinctions are necessarily complicating, implicating — are swept aside in favor of lump category.
It's an efficient process, and we value efficiency. But happily, it's not a rule that a writer must follow. Alone before a page, in the quiet of early morning, anything seems possible. Dream children can come to life, and talk to one another in argumentative, demanding voices. They assert themselves, expect to be heard.
More About the Author
Michael Dorris, of French, Modoc, and Irish ancestry, grew up in Kentucky and spent time with his father's family in Tacoma, Washington, and on various reservations in the Pacific Northwest. The first member of his family to attend college, he graduated from Georgetown with honors in English and received his graduate degree in anthropology from Yale. In 1972, he founded the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College and taught there for fifteen years.
Dorris's first novel for young readers, Morning Girl (1992), was the winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. It was the number one best-seller in the Younger Readers category of Publishers Weekly, which also selected it as one of the Best Books of 1992. Dorris's second novel for young readers, Guests (1994), was designated an ALA Notable Book of the Year. Sees Behind Trees, his latest novel for young readers, was published in 1996.
Michael Dorris died in April 1997.