Byron Dorgan saw firsthand the complexities of life on reservations serving as a United States senator and congressman for thirty years. Now he’s released his latest book on a girl who suffered terrible abuse in foster care, "The Girl in the Photograph: The True Story of a Native American Child, Lost and Found in America."
The story delves into the life of Tamara DeMaris, a girl from the Standing Rock Reservation, who was in foster care at the age of two, and suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her foster family. In foster care, DeMaris was beaten extensively by the family, and had received a broken nose and limbs and had had her hair pulled out by the roots. She also suffered from sexual abuse.
In 1990, the Bismarck Tribune posted an article about the plight of DeMaris titled "Foster home children beaten — and nobody's helping." Dorgan learned of the matter and visited the Standing Rock Reservation, where DeMaris, then five, was then staying with her grandfather Reginald Bird Horse.
In an interview with the Tribune, Dorgan said he then “raised a lot of hell” with social services and tribal officials to improve the situation. Dorgan says he also sought federal funding. Over the years, Dorgan sent Christmas gifts to DeMaris, the granddaughter of Bird Horse, but lost touch after Bird Horse died in 1999.
Dorgan’s kindness wasn’t forgotten
What Dorgan didn’t expect is that nearly three decades later, DeMaris would reach back out to Dorgan.
“Twenty-seven years later, she was 33 years old and she contacted me. She was homeless in Minneapolis and went to use a computer at a public library to find any information about her youth. She had PTSD and had almost no knowledge about her youth,” Dorgan said.
“In her search, she found a speech I had given in the U.S. Senate about her and what had happened to her. I had used her name in that speech and that is how she found it in a search. As a result, she reached out to me with an email, and that is how we connected. I met her in Minneapolis and after much discussion over many months, we decided I would do a book about her experiences thinking it would be helpful to other Native American youth.”
As a result, Dorgan worked to write and publish his book, "The Girl in the Photograph: The True Story of a Native American Child, Lost and Found in America." about DeMaris’ life.
“The book is about adversity, homeless, violence, suicide and more,” says Dorgan. “But, in the case of Tamara, it is also about a brave young woman who is resilient, and strong to have survived it all.”
The Tribune wrote that Kendrick Eagle — a Standing Rock youth leader who sits on the youth advisory council of the Center for Native American Youth — commended Dorgan's "passion" for addressing issues facing Indian Country and for helping Tamara.
"Issues like that definitely are important to bring to light," Eagle said.
Dorgan is donating all proceeds to DeMaris and the Center for Native American Youth
Dorgan also said he will not receive any compensation for the book, all proceeds will be split between helping DeMaris, and the organization he founded in Washington D.C., the Center for Native American Youth.
“I have had a long and abiding interest in working to benefit the first Americans. The two stains on the American conscience are slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. I have spent much of my life in public service trying to all that I could to address the issues of education, health care, housing, suicide prevention and so much more,” said Dorgan.
“I am also especially focused on how to address the relentless poverty that exists on so many reservations. Our country needs a new strategy to bring jobs and opportunities coupled with education and skills training to our Native American reservations.”
The book, published by Thomas Dunne Books is available where books are sold including Amazon.
About Byron Dorgan
Byron L. Dorgan served as a congressman and senator for North Dakota for thirty years before retiring in January 2011. He was chairman of Senate Committees and Subcommittees on the issues of Energy, Aviation, Appropriations, Water Policy, and Indian Affairs. Senator Dorgan is the author of the New York Times bestseller Take This Job and Ship It. When he retired from the U.S. Senate, he created the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) to work on teen suicide prevention, education opportunities and more for children living on Indian reservations.