A letter of many thanks to Michael Dorris

By Jane

When I was a girl, attending a Portland, Oregon high school, I wept when our then-President John F. Kennedy was shot. I stood among stunned students in the central hall of my school and sang, “Blowing in the Wind.”
I called my Mom at work and wailed, “Mom, I need you. I need answers to this. Will you pick me up. Can we go to church for a while?” She listened to me and told me how she and others were feeling much the same way, and assured me that we would meet later, at home. Then we would talk. It took me days to find any kind of internal resources for handling that deeply personal shock. It took me many more days before I began incorporating national, international, cultural and political meanings and implications of this situation to my understanding and sorrow. I have never forgotten the details of that day, nor that period of time. I never will.
Several years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I wept. I walked. It took me days to begin handling my furies, and I feared the loss of yet another role model.
Tuesday morning, when a friend told me of Michael Dorris’ death, I wept again. I walked around the University. I telephoned various offices and departments to learn whether and when a gathering for this writer, this man, this anthropologist, this father, this befriended of students, this struggling human being would happen.
Today, my hands are tears spilling over computer keys. There are no easy answers, nor can their be. But, for me, a childhood memory and process have come, helping my present mental, physical and spiritual soreness.
As a young child, wanting and needing to learn the ways of thought and action, I loved braiding. My Mom sliced old sheets, coats, clothes and other materials into long, raggedy-edged ribbons. She sewed three ends together into a beginning. This beginning got tied to a dining room chair leg or doorknob. I achieved uninterrupted hours of industrious, happy work.
My hands and mind gained strengths and patience to untangle loose strands and hold braided ones safely in place. They learned when they could or could not tuck in frayed edges or fit different materials together. I discovered how my body paid attention to work and other activities going on around me and my work. I learned how it felt to grow tired and unable to work.
Tuesday I grew tired and unable to hold on to reason or hope. I curled up in a protective ball to sleep and mourn. But my hands remembered the braid.
I am a minority person, a woman with a disability who is now learning to use her writing voice. I value information and peoples’ stories. I am a parent, a student and a former early childhood educator. I am a singer of songs and a teller of stories. Michael Dorris, your life, your articles, books and interviews have spoken to me on all my paths. Your authority as an anthropologist, and the power of your personally told story in “The Broken Cord” challenged me to be the best kind of expert I can be. You showed me how to risk going further than having information for its own sake only — to have information for human good.
Your expertise forced you to risk drawing others’ research, stories and experiences together toward a meaningful, new whole. Your expertise moved you closer to others. Thank you for showing me this terribly risky process.
Today, I am unsure about how to be an ally to you, your family, friends, your many communities and the complex issues that invaded and surrounded you. But, over time, I will follow my heart and find ways.
Jane L. Toleno is a senior in the College of Liberal Arts.