January 4, 2024

Elder Profile: Dr. Carma Corcoran

Our History Influences Our Future


Dr. Carma Corcoran (Chippewa-Cree), director of the Indian Law Program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., has built her career around the issue of incarceration of Native people. Corcoran applies her own research on Native traditional ways of knowing to Gentle Action Theory. She combines this with her personal experience dealing with members of her birth family being incarcerated and wrapped up in the criminal justice system, to inform her approach.

Her Life’s Work

Dr. Carma Corcoran stands next to a poster of her latest book The Incarceration of Native American Women: Creating Pathways to Wellness and Recovery through Gentle Action Theory, outside her office where she serves as the director of the Indian law program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. on Nov. 27, 2023.
(Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Corcoran is in her mid-sixties with long, thick hair, framing her wide smile and black-rimmed glasses. She wears a brightly colored necklace of gemstones cut into the shape of horses, intermingling with light-colored heishi shells. 

She has a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on cross cultural conflict and resolution. Her book, “The Incarceration of Native American Women: Creating Pathways to Wellness and Recovery through Gentle Action Theory,” was published in June and brings awareness to the increase in Native women incarcerated across the country. It espouses the concept of Gentle Action Theory, an approach intended to address societal issues in creative ways, rejecting Western linear approaches and allowing dialogue and time for creativity in exploring solutions. Corcoran combines this with Native ways of knowing and being as an approach to healing for incarcerated Native women.

She also teaches primarily race, social justice, and Native American studies courses at Portland State University. She even provides various workshops and helps run ceremonies for women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and moonlights as a cultural expert consultant, largely for Native nations and law firms when they have a Native client. 

In the past, Corcoran was board chair of Red Lodge Transition Services and has served on the board of the Native American Student and Community Center at PSU. Today, she serves on the boards of the Women’s Justice Project, the Law Enforcement Contacts Policy and Data Review Committee, and Transforming Justice for Victims and Survivors through Victim Assistance and Restorative Justice Partnerships

Her Life’s Purpose

Dr. Carma Corcoran, Chippewa-Cree, director of the Indian law program at Lewis & Clark College, is the author of The Incarceration of Native American Women: Creating Pathways to Wellness and Recovery through Gentle Action Theory, which draws attention to the increasing number of incarcerated Native women across the country.
(Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Corcoran’s work is meaningful to her, but the most important thing to Corcoran is her family. She and her husband, Donald, have been together for a whopping 43 years. She says he is supportive of her career. Her 20-year-old grandson, Jaron, stays with Corcoran and her husband from Tuesday to Saturday. Corcoran and Jaron love to cook together, and Jaron cooks dinners twice a week for his grandparents while he is there. He loves to grill. Corcoran calls him a “master of seasonings” and raves about his homemade mac and cheese and wings.

Corcoran was also close to her grandfather when she was young. She looked up to him.

“Growing up in an adopted family, my grandparents were very important to me,” Corcoran said. They had 8 grandchildren, and she was the only adopted grandchild. With her grandparents, Corcoran felt secure and safe to be authentic. 

“My grandfather always wanted my perspective and always supported and validated my feelings,” Corcoran continued.

When she got older, Corcoran became close to her birth grandfather. He was forced to go to a boarding school at Chemawa. The painful traumas he suffered at the boarding school as a young man resulted in him struggling with alcoholism. However, he pushed past the trauma of his youth in hopes of creating better for future generations of his people. He was even elected to tribal council in 1941.

“He used to ask me, ‘Have you helped the world today, or have you harmed it? And if you’ve harmed the world today, you need to talk to Creator and figure out what you need to do to fix it,’” Corcoran shared. “He taught me to value owning up to one’s stuff, having the ability to have clarity about yourself.”

“One day, I was rude to the cashier at Fred Meyer so that night, getting ready to go to sleep, I was thinking about the day and thinking about how I behaved,” Corcoran said. “I told myself that if I ever saw the woman again, I would apologize.” The next time she went to Fred Meyer, Corcoran saw the cashier and apologized. The cashier confided that she had never had anyone apologize to her, ever. Now they recognize each other and greet each other whenever Corcoran shops there.

“I just wanted to take ownership,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran’s experience as an adopted child and being in foster care has shaped her life and career. Until age four, she lived with her birth parents and siblings on Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana. She was taken from them to live with her foster family from age four to six. She says the time she spent living with her foster family was the safest she ever felt, so she has always kept in touch with them. When she moved to live with her adopted family, her foster family kept her updated on her birth family. Her birth brothers were in and out of incarceration throughout her life.

“Our family just imploded when we were growing up,” shares Corcoran. “We were taken away from our parents young.” Corcoran has a huge extended family. She is one of 18 children, but only Corcoran and one sister and brother, who were twins, share the same mother and father. Corcoran and the twins—Donna and David—were split up when they were removed from their birth parents' home and were raised with different adoptive families. They did not have contact again until Corcoran was 30 years old, but still became very close. 

Unfortunately, David passed away less than a year ago. Donna traveled with Corcoran to Montana, where Corcoran’s last living brother, Larry resides. It was a homecoming for Donna and the first time that Donna and Larry had met.

“My sister told me that she finally felt like she belonged,” said Corcoran. “It’s complicated, but I feel really grateful that I can have all these connections with my people. I get a lot of people who really want to find their people, so I just feel really blessed to have this huge family and to be a part of them. That’s why I do the work that I do. My family is greatly affected by incarceration…my brothers, nieces, and nephews…it’s sad how much incarceration has affected my family and my tribe. I’m working on it every day, to break those cycles and approach.” 

Corcoran knows that education is a pathway to breaking those cycles. Currently, American Indians and Alaska Natives comprise only 1% of the U.S. undergraduate population and less than 1% of the graduate population. Corcoran is passionate about changing those statistics, starting with her grandson. Following in his grandmother’s footsteps, Jaron is passionate about writing. The two are working on a choose-your-own-adventure book.

“We already have 11 chapters!” exclaims Corcoran with pride.

As for what’s next for Corcoran, she is looking forward to a class she’s teaching in spring of 2024 at PSU. In addition to Introduction to Native Studies, she’s teaching a class on Contemporary Issues in Indian Country.

“I feel just beyond grateful because not everyone gets to do what they love.”

Lead image: Dr. Carma Corcoran’s life's work is influenced by her lived experience as a youth in the foster care system, in addition to her family members who have been incarcerated. She has dedicated her life to breaking traumatic life cycles with holistic approaches aimed at healing. Her book, The Incarceration of Native American Women: Creating Pathways to Wellness and Recovery through Gentle Action Theory, suggests combining Gentle Action Theory with Native ways of knowing and being as an approach to healing for Native women who have been incarcerated.
(Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

About the author

Leah Altman

Leah Altman, Oglala Lakota, is a Native American adoptee and was raised in the Portland area. She has written for local and national publications, including Portland Monthly, Oregon Humanities, Portland State University's Metroscape magazine, Parents.com and Indian Country Today. For over a decade, Leah has also worked for Native and BIPOC-led environmental and community organizations, including the NAYA Family Center, Verde, Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council.