Retired Sen. Byron Dorgan and I have kept the same news clipping — a photo and story of an abused little girl — in our top desk drawers for the past 29 years.

That discovery was an “aha!” moment for me in the new book “The Girl in the Photograph.”

I wrote the news story; he wrote the book.

The clipping is “in a little purple folder. Still in the top right drawer,” Dorgan said in a recent interview. “I don’t know what it is … that little girl – that young woman – that photo describes so many young people I’ve met on so many reservations.

“It's like nobody sees them. Nobody sees these children.”

‘Nobody is helping’

The original news story from February 1990 is headlined: “Foster home children beaten – and nobody is helping.”

The book is the story of the youngest child, Tamara DeMaris. By telling Tamara’s story, Dorgan also tells the story of a people and of nations.

Tamara suffered broken arms, leg and nose at the hands of foster parents. Her hair was pulled out at the roots. Her siblings were kept in the basement of the same home with a frightening dog.

“This was a young girl who’s 2 when put in a foster home,” Dorgan said in a phone interview. “She’s completely victimized in a way that’s savage and horrible. None of this was of her doing. It escapes reason that there wasn’t aggressive introspection on the reservation to do things so this could never be allowed to happen again.”

Dorgan flew to Bismarck after reading the story in February 1990. He “raised hell” with people who could have done something to prevent or prosecute the abuse. And he visited Tamara, then 5 and living with her grandparents.

The senator’s new Facebook friend

Dorgan retired from the Senate in 2010. On a lark one day in 2016 he did something he rarely does. He logged onto his Facebook account. A friend request from Tamara DeMaris was waiting. He wondered: Could it be that little girl? It was.

“I said to my wife, ‘Can you believe this girl contacted me after all these years?’ It’s almost serendipitous,” he recalled.

Within a month, he arranged to meet with her in Bismarck. They had so much to talk about that the meeting spanned two days.

A connection was made, and eventually a friendship born. About two years ago he broached the topic of a book with Tamara, explaining her story could help other native children. She agreed.

“When I showed her the manuscript for the book she said, ‘You’ll never know how much this means to me – that my story will help others,' " he said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan's book "The Girl in the Photograph" published Nov. 26.
Sen. Byron Dorgan's book "The Girl in the Photograph" published Nov. 26.

Raw reading: Telling it like it is

You’ll count yourself lucky after reading the book.

You will question how the universe can be so unfair.

And, whether you agree with Dorgan or not, you will understand his frank, honest assessment of how newer Americans have treated the First Americans the past 400 years.

The saga Dorgan brings forth makes for raw reading. Especially raw for me. I was there, uncovering dark details of Tamara’s story before it became a news clipping, writing 29 stories in all about hers and other foster home abuse cases like it. Plus, we reported on congressional and inspector general investigations into foster home problems on Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

The book, Dorgan’s fifth, goes on to deliver revelation after revelation about the little girl – now a 34-year-old woman living on the edge of survival in Minneapolis.

Confronting a racist past and present

The book belongs in the category of required reading because of its honesty about racism in America and in North Dakota, but it certainly is not pleasure reading until perhaps the very end where a sort of redemption is found. That redemption comes in the form of a strong call to action.

The early chapters follow the trajectory of Tamara’s life on the streets of Minneapolis, a journey that mirrors the rough drifting of Native people in a nation that’s turned its back on them. In the closing chapters, Dorgan brings forth stories of young Native people making a difference in their communities.

And he issues a call to action: “I believe that once you become aware of an injustice, you assume an obligation to try to fix it.

“Today, it’s less a case of malice than neglect, but the intent matters less than reality, which is that America’s First People remain America’s Forgotten People. This speaks to who we are as a nation,” Dorgan writes. “Our people need our help. And in the end, for us there will be — if not absolution — maybe forgiveness, a positive turn of the karmic wheel. Maybe we are also saving ourselves.”

Book proceeds will be donated

He convincingly shows that racism is the reason powerful people in North Dakota and elsewhere continue to look the other way while native people suffer. Dorgan offers a tough but fair assessment of why this happened in North Dakota, and that reason, at its root, is racism.

It’s a book and an anti-racist assessment that Dorgan, a Democrat congressman and senator in a deeply Republican state, probably could not have written or said while in office or seeking reelection. In this book, though, we see a very human Dorgan, a man unencumbered by reelection politics … free to say what he truly thinks.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., calls the book “a great civil rights book.”

Proceeds from the book go to Tamara and The Center for Native American Youth. Dorgan founded the center after he retired from the Senate with the idea that America’s First People needed help, and the place to start was with children. The center focuses on suicide prevention and educational opportunities.

The book, published by St. Martin’s and released Nov. 26, sells for $27.99 and is 196 pages long.

Deneen Gilmour, Ph.D., lives in Fargo and is a journalism professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead.