The eldest of seven children of an Ojibwe mother and a German American father, Louise Erdrich explores Native American themes in her works, with major characters representing both sides of her heritage. Raised in North Dakota, Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Anishinabe (Ojibwe, or Chippewa) people, of which her grandfather was once tribal chairman. In four of her novels, Erdrich explores both Native American and white families losing faith in Christian and Native American religious traditions. And because Christianity was imposed on Native Americans, they suffer doubly, estranged from traditional shamanism and warped by an often distorted Catholicism.
In 1972, Erdrich began attending Dartmouth College, a member of the first class of women admitted to the previously all-male institution. On the same day, Michael Dorris, who was partly of Modoc descent, arrived to teach in the anthropology department. Although they knew each other, their romantic relationship did not begin until several years after Erdrich graduated. In 1981, after conducting poetry workshops in North Dakota and winning awards for her poetry, Erdrich was named writer-in-residence at Dartmouth and became involved with Dorris, who was then director of the Native American Studies Program. When they married in October 1981, Erdrich became the mother of three Native American children Dorris had adopted earlier as a single parent; together, they had three more children.
Both writers claimed in many interviews that their writing was collaborative, although they would publish a work under the name of the one who wrote the first draft. The single exception is The Crown of Columbus (1991), a book they published under both names and one that allowed both writers to retire from teaching.
In 1992, the couple quietly split up temporarily, and in 1995 Erdrich left the marriage for good, again quietly, sharing custody of their three daughters.