Mourning Dove (Humishuma)

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Born April 1882 (possibly 1888), near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho; died 8 August 1936, Medical Lake, Washington Daughter of Lucy Stuikin (Colville Tribe) and (father or stepfather) Joseph Quintasket (Okanogan, Nicola, and Arrow Lakes Tribe); married Hector McLeod, 1908; Fred Galler, 1919

Mourning Dove is a grandmother of the Native American Renaissance in literature. Among the first generation to live their entire lives on a reservation, Mourning Dove balanced assimilation pressures with the need to comment on her times through fiction and recollection, as well as to record the Okanogan legends of her people. Her final manuscripts, published as Mourning Dove, a Salishan Autobiography (1990), include stories of her early childhood when the family followed traditional migration routes, to her experiences of being sent off to mission and then Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A.) schools, to the settlement of Indians onto farm plots, and a mineral rights and homesteaders' run on the Colville Reservation. Her novel, Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range (1927, reprinted 1981), one of the first by a Native American woman, explores young adulthood for a mixed-blood on the Montana frontier during the first decade of this century, and her collection of tribal legends, Coyote Stories (1933, 1990), is an important act by a Native American storyteller to preserve some of her cultural heritage in the face of what then appeared to be inevitable cultural genocide.

It is crucial to know the history of the Northwest and the assimilation period from the background to appreciate Mourning Dove's achievement. In the decade before her birth, Custer met his death (25 June 1876) and Chief Joseph fled to Canada (1877). The massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota (December 1890), followed her birth. Moreover, in 1883 the federal government established a Court of Indian Offenses which made it a crime for Native Americans to speak their own languages, to practice traditional religious rituals, even to wear traditional dress. By 1887 the General Allotment or Dawes Act opened up reservations to white settlement and initiated an even more intense period of suppression of Native cultures. Children were removed from their homes and sent to mission and government schools to eradicate their Indian ways and to teach them to imitate the dominant culture.

Mourning Dove received such an education, attending the Goodwin Mission School from 1895 to 1899; she was transferred to the Fort Spokane School for Indians in 1899. She pursued a white education of her own volition when she became a matron of the Fort Shaw Indian School in exchange for classes (1904-07), and she attended a secretarial school in Calgary, Canada, from 1912 to 1914. Yet she ultimately chose to use this education to preserve the knowledge of her people and her times. She also became a recognized elder of the Colville Reservation.

Three events triggered her life's work: witnessing the last roundups of the buffalo on the Flathead Reservation in 1907; the loss of her unborn baby because of battering (and possibly subsequent sterilization, a common medical practice on Native American women at the time) in 1912; and meeting L. V. McWhorter, a father figure who became her mentor, collaborator, and friend, in 1914. When she met him, Mourning Dove already had the rough drafts for Cogewea and 22 legends. Enthusiastic about her writing, McWhorter worked tirelessly to edit her Indian English and to add the ethnographic and historical information to "enhance" the novel. He went too far, however, and the novel is torn by two voices: Mourning Dove's story about the dilemma of being a half-breed woman on the Northwest frontier, and McWhorter's diatribes against the greed and Christian hypocrisy of his own people. Yet the work is important: it conveys both white and Native American concern about the racism and exploitation in the settlement of the West.

McWhorter's editorial work on Okanogan Sweathouse, which came to include 38 stories, is restrained, and thus the work remains Mourning Dove's. It is a rich collection of Okanogan tales. Dean Guie, who joined the project in 1928, is responsible for reducing the number of stories and editing the selections toward a juvenile audience. The manuscript was retitled Coyote Stories.

Unfortunately, as Mary Dearborn explains in Pocahontas's Daughters (1986), women of color have often come to print through white male editors who "interpret" and "alter" the material to make the texts palatable to publishers and the dominant culture. Jay Miller continued this role in his edition of Mourning Dove, a Salishan Autobiography (1990). Nonetheless, Mourning Dove's storytelling gifts are powerful enough that her core themes survive and direct readers to the devastating impact of Manifest Destiny on Native people's lives.

But her works are not just important for the historical depth they add to our understanding of the impact of conquest and settlement on naive peoples. She is a gifted storyteller, and her writings are imbued with the rhythms, humor, dramatic presentation and world view of her Salish oral tradition. Moreover, to study Mourning Dove's primary works is to confront the complexities of Red English, the dialect of Native and English language patterns and pronunciation. If her English is "corrected," the word choices and punctuation changed, then much is lost from her oral tradition and from an understanding of what native students actually learned in the BIA and mission schools, and how they struggled to make sense of a very difficult situation in a new language. Mourning Dove is interesting in and of herself—eclectic, intelligent, playful, and surprisingly insightful about her times. Her reflections on and responses to the pressure of hothouse assimilation are the most thorough accounts we have by a native woman of Mourning Dove's time. Hers is a precious and rare voice.

Late in her life Mourning Dove achieved recognitions that meant much to her: she was the first Native Americanto be made an honorary member of the Eastern Washington Historical Society (1927), and later a life member of the Washington State Historical Society. Moreover, she was the first woman elected to the Tribal Council on the Colville Reservation (1935).

Other Works:

Tales of the Okanogans (1976).

Most of Mourning Dove's unpublished letters are included among the Lucullus Virgil McWhorter collection, Holland Library, Washington State University. Her final manuscripts are included in the Erna Gunther materials, Archives Division, of the University of Washington. Information is also available from tribal enrollment records, marriage licenses, allotment records, and from family descendants who live on the Colville Reservation, Washington, and on reserves around Penticton, British Columbia. Mourning Dove appears under the name Christal Quintasket in some references.


Ammons, E., and A. White-Parks, eds., Tricksterism in Turn-of-the-Century American Literature: A Multicultural Perspecitve (1994). Clifton, J. A., ed., On Being and Becoming Indian: Biographical Studies of North American Frontiers (1989). Dearborn, M., Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture (1986). Fisher, A. P., "The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala-Sa (Bonnin) and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional Indian Writers." (dissertation, 1979). Krupat, A., ed., New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism (1993). Muldrum, B. H. ed., Old West-New West: Centennial Essays (1993). New, W. H., ed., Native Writers and Canadian Writing (1990). Wiget, A., ed., Critical Essays on native American Literature (1985).

Reference works:

DLB (1997).

Other references:

American Indian Culture and Research Journal (1995). American Indian Quarterly (Fall 1995). American Literature (Sept. 1995). Canadian Literature (Spring-Summer 1990, Spring 1995). Plainswoman (Jan. 1988). Legacy (Spring 1989). Studies in American Indian Literatures (Summer/Fall 1992). Wicazo Sa Review (Fall, 1988). WRB (Nov. 1990). Reference works: FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).