Novelist Erdrich will speak at Convocation

by Maura Henninger | 9/23/97 5:00am

The speaker at this morning's convocation ceremony is Louise Erdrich '76, the best-selling author who was divorcing author Dartmouth professor Michael Dorris when he killed himself in a Concord motel room in April.

Erdrich, who will receive an honorary degree in letters, was a member of the first coeducational class in Dartmouth's history. This year Dartmouth is celebrating the 25th anniversary of coeducation.

In a statement, College President James Freedman said, "It will be a delight to welcome back Louise Erdrich, one of our most distinguished graduates, to help us open the 228th year in the life of Dartmouth College, and to help us reflect on coeducation here, which in a relatively short time has transformed that life and greatly expanded Dartmouth's service to society."

As a student at the College, Erdrich was a creative writing major, and she has achieved much success writing about contemporary Native American life and experience. Much of this success she shared with her husband, the other half of the celebrated literary duo.

As a professor at Dartmouth, Dorris founded the Native American studies program. Dorris also held a post in the anthropology department.

Since his suicide, his two adopted children have alleged that he sexually and physically abused them. Dorris's daughter is suing his estate.

College spokesman Roland Adams says Erdrich was not selected base on her connection with Dorris and the publicity his death has generated.

"The two are separate things," Adams said. "Convocation is a time to focus on new things. We want someone to speak who has something interesting and important to say to students. As a very distinguished member of the first coed class, she certainly fills that."

Erdrich and Dorris met when Dorris was establishing the Native American Studies program. Erdrich was a student in his class. It wasn't until after she graduated and returned to the College in 1979 for a reading of her poetry, that they became romantically involved. They married in 1981.

Together they produced a number of novels including "The Crown of Columbus" which, partially set at the College, examines the significance of Christopher Columbus's voyages to America.

Separately, too, they wrote prolifically and continually consulted one another on their writing.

Her first novel, "Love Medicine" received the National Book Critics Circle award. Other novels and collections of poetry followed, including "The Beet Queen" and "Baptism of Desire: Poems." For her writing, Erdrich received numerous honors such as the Best First Fiction Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the Pushcart Prize.

During this period Erdrich and Dorris had three daughters. These three joined a family which already included two of Dorris's Indian children, Sava and Madeline, whom he had adopted in the mid-1970's.

But the relationship soured. In 1995 the two separated and divorce followed. In March of 1997, Sava and Madeline made public accusations of physical and sexual abuse, expanding on previous claims Sava had made in 1993.

Madeline then filed a report with the Hennepin County attorney's office in Minneapolis alleging childhood sexual abuse. These accusations and the acrimonious divorce may have lead to Dorris's April 11 suicide in a Concord motel room.

Madeline is suing Erdrich and the Dorris estate, which is reportedly worth more than $2 million. The lawsuit says that Dorris "regularly and repeatedly engaged in unpermitted, harmful and offensive sexual contact" with his daughter from the ages of 5 to 12. Madeline also claims that Erdrich knew or should have known about the alleged abuse.

Erdrich has denied the allegations, according to the Valley News. An injunction was granted by the judge at the end of May sealing all records on sexual abuse charges being brought against Dorris.

Madeline Dorris is hoping the court will order Dorris's will set, because, she says, her father lacked the mental stability to write his will before his suicide. The lawsuit claims that Dorris was negligent in not pursuing help for his depression and sexual perversions, the Valley News reported.

Michael Dorris left his two adopted children out of the will, leaving most of his $2.4 million estate to his three biological daughters. He left a grand piano and a Venetian vase to Erdrich as well as manuscripts, letters, and other items to the College.

As of June 20, attorneys had 60 days to prepare informational statements for the judge handling the case, and it may take several months before a trial begins. According to the Hennepin County civil records department, there has been little movement in the case since May.

Convocation ceremonies, free and open to the public, will be held in Leede Arena beginning at 11 a.m.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!