Byron Dorgan knows how to write a good book, whether it’s a best-selling critique of U.S. trade policy or his fiction high-tech thrillers set in western North Dakota. His latest effort is his most important. “The Girl in the Photograph” is, as the subtitle reveals, “the true story of a Native American child, lost and found in America.” The book tells a story of tragedy and triumph that is not yet finished, in the context of civil rights denied, a history of injustice, and present-day conditions for native children that are horrific.
Dorgan is an expert in all things Native American. During his 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, he was one of a handful of leaders that made native affairs a priority. He chaired committees charged with native matters, and frequently lead the frustrating work of advocating for legislation to address needs on the nation’s reservations. Dorgan retired from Congress in 2011, but his passion for addressing the plight and respecting the culture in Indian communities did not diminish. His work with the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth has enabled him to devote more time and effort to the factors and forces that conspire to destroy hope for native young people. His latest book is a manifestation of that commitment.
The genesis of the book was a 1990 photograph by Bismarck Tribune photographer Tom Stromme, of a native girl named Tamara, that illustrated an article about the abuse of native children in foster homes. The picture is a haunting image of a five-year-old girl, a tear spilling from her eye, who had been abused in the foster care system at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Her face reveals fear, sadness and hopelessness. Dorgan arranged a meeting with her. A connection was established, lost, then found. The book chronicles Dorgan’s attempts to get answers about the failures of the foster care program. “... there were no good ones,” he writes. Meanwhile, he tried to discover Tamara’s fate. He had lost touch with her when her grandfather died. No one seemed to know what became of her.
The senator never forgot. In the framework of the failures of U.S. policy toward native people, Dorgan relates the heartbreaking story of how, 27 years later, he and Tamara found each other again. It’s not a fairy tale. Tamara’s story into her adulthood is rife with tragedy. It is distressing and hopeful, troubling and resilient. There is no cliched happy ending. Her story is still unfolding. Dorgan writes she has not yet moved from “survival mode” to thriving. But now she has the hope that had eluded her for most of her life.
Tamara’s saga binds the book together. Along the way, Dorgan exposes the injustice and racial prejudice that has been visited upon native communities for 200 years. He devotes a chapter to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 in which he says propaganda perpetrated by the pipeline company and parroted by North Dakota media was a modern-day example of misrepresentation of legitimate native concerns.
It’s a good read. Thoughtful North Dakotans will take its message to heart.