Known for his writings on the topic of the First Nations people of Canada, he published such novels and short story collections as Medicine River and A Short History of Indians in Canada. The latter work received the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award.
After briefly attending Sacramento State University, he served in the United States Navy and subsequently worked as a New Zealand-based photographer. He later returned to school, graduating from Chico State University before earning a PhD in English from the University of Utah.
For his 1992 and 1993 works, A Coyote Columbus Story and Green Grass, Running Water, he earned Governor General's Award nominations.
He grew up in California in a family of Greek, German, Swiss, and Cherokee descent. His long-term relationship with scholar Helen Hoy resulted in a child named Benjamin.
He taught at the University of Guelph (in Ontario, Canada), a school from which Canadian author Jane Urquhart had earlier graduated.