Mourning Dove (c. 1888–1936)

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Mourning Dove (c. 1888–1936)

First Native American woman to write and publish a novel. Name variations: Christal Quintasket; Christine Quintasket; Humishuma. Born in 1888 (some sources cite 1882, 1884, or 1885), near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho; died of influenza on August 8, 1936, in Medical Lake, Washington; daughter of Joseph Quintasket and Lucy (Stuikin) Quintasket; attended Sacred Heart convent school; attended business school, 1913–15; married Hector McLeod, in 1909 (marriage ended); married Fred Galler, on September 8, 1919; no children.

Made first communion (1899); death of mother (1902); began using pen name "Mourning Dove" (1912); met Lucullus V. McWhorter (1914); taught school in British Columbia (c. 1917); published first novel (1927); founded Colville Indian Association (1930).

Selected writings:

Cogewea, The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range (1927); Coyote Stories (1933); Tales of the Okanogans (1976); Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography (ed. by Jay Miller, 1990).

Mourning Dove, who also used the Salishan version of her name, Humishuma, was a pioneering folklorist and novelist of the Inland Northwest. She is widely hailed as the first Native American woman to write a novel, but her literary collaboration with a white archaeologist, as well as her protribal political activism, earned her enemies who disparaged her work. Still, Mourning Dove lived and wrote in an era when the aggressive imposition of white culture was rapidly eradicating much of Native American life, and her works preserve some of that era for posterity.

Mourning Dove spent much of her life in an area that now straddles the U.S.-Canadian border: presentday British Columbia, Washington state, Idaho, and Montana. She was listed on an 1895 census as being eight years old, but she was taller and larger than her classmates, so she actually may have been close to ten. Mourning Dove later said her birth had occurred on a canoe crossing the Kootenay River; her father was of Okanogan and Irish ancestry, while her mother was a full-blooded member of the Confederated Tribes of Colville; both were of the Salishan language group. Because of this mixed heritage, Mourning Dove never felt entirely at home in either Native or white culture. She was keenly interested in Colville history, as told to her by her beloved grandmother.

Sent off to a convent school, Mourning Dove suffered greatly when she was punished by the (native French) nuns for being unable to speak English. She returned home but later completed about three years of formal education at the Sacred Heart School, where she also became a practicing Roman Catholic for a time. She moved to Montana to teach on a reservation school, in part because the place offered proximity to her grandmother. It also presented her with a unique opportunity to witness the roundup by the U.S. government of the last remaining herd of wild bison, in 1908, an experience which had a marked impact on her and would appear in her later novel. In 1909, she married Hector McLeod, of Montana Flathead heritage, and they journeyed to Milwaukee by train for their honeymoon. McLeod gambled and was probably abusive, and their marriage was short-lived; he was shot to death many years later at a card table in Nevada.

Around 1913, Mourning Dove enrolled in business school in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, primarily after deciding to become a writer and realizing that she needed typing skills. In 1914, she met Lucullus V. McWhorter, an archaeologist and scholar of Native American culture, at the Walla Walla (Washington) Frontier Days celebration. The meeting launched a lifelong friendship and literary collaboration, and McWhorter enthusiastically encouraged her to write both Okanogan folktales for posterity as well as fiction. She began with fiction, but incorporated folktales into her story of a woman of mixed ancestry, like herself, who struggles to cope with a changing world while retaining a sense of tribal identity.

Mourning Dove finished Cogewea, The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range in 1916, but its publication was delayed well over a decade, first because of World War I and later due to McWhorter's difficulty in finding a publisher. Finally it was issued by a Boston house, Four Seas, in 1927. The book's jacket credited Humishuma as the author, but noted it was "given through Shopowtan," otherwise known as McWhorter. For this, the work has been criticized, because McWhorter revised her first manuscript with a heavy hand, using the stilted, high-blown language common to 19th-century literary English. He also inserted extensive footnotes, epigraphs from white writers, and passages from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha. Mourning Dove's own style was simple and direct, like the Salishan language itself, and her actual story of Cogewea remains exemplary as a romance of Native America told through the perspective of a Native American; as such, it was a groundbreaking literary event. (It is considered the first novel written by a Native American woman, although E. Pauline Johnson had previously published poetry and Gertrude Simmons Bonnin had published short stories.) Cogewea, of mixed heritage, has two sisters; one remains on the reservation and leads a traditional life, while the other marries a white rancher. When Cogewea herself marries, it ends disastrously. The theme of the betrayal of Indian women by white men is pervasive (the author's own paternal grandfather was Irish, and had married her grandmother under false pretenses), but concludes with Cogewea's spiritual reconciliation through a romance with a man of mixed heritage like herself. The roundup of the last free-range bison herd is also an integral and symbolic part of the story. Woven throughout the narrative are Okanogan tales Cogewea has learned from her grandmother.

Mourning Dove's next book, also written and published with the strong support of

McWhorter, was a collection of Okanogan folk tales, Coyote Stories (1933). The coyote is the "trickster" figure in Native American tradition, and the stories she collected and transcribed over the course of several years feature the characteristic clever twists of plot. Yet even before the 1927 publication of Cogewea, Mourning Dove had already faced hostility from some in the Native American community, in part because of what was considered a transgression of the boundaries that kept Native culture and folktales sacred and inaccessible to whites. Later, however, she become somewhat of a literary celebrity and well-known figure among the Native communities of the Inland Northwest. She also became an activist, at which point a few of her detractors claimed she had not really been the author of her books. In 1930, Mourning Dove founded the Colville Indian Association, which worked to resolve land claims and extract promised compensation from lumber companies and other white businesses. It also took an active role in fighting the abuses of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that controlled Native American life. She was elected to the Colville Tribal Council in 1936.

Mourning Dove had remarried in 1919 to a Wenatchee named Fred Galler. They lived for most of their married life as migrant laborers, without a home, and she collected her folklore in the evenings after working long days in the fields. She carried her typewriter everywhere. It was a difficult life; in a 1930 letter to McWhorter she noted: "I have had too much to do outside of my writing…. [A]fter working for ten hours in the blazing sun, and cooking my meals, I know I shall not have the time to look over very much mss…. [B]etween sand, grease, campfire, and real apple dirt I hope I can do the work." She also suffered a number of serious illnesses throughout her life, including rheumatism, pneumonia, and black measles. Mourning Dove died in August 1936 of severe influenza in a state hospital, probably at the age of 50. A trunkful of papers she left after her death was edited by Jay Miller and published in 1990 as Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography.


Bataille, Gretchen M., ed. Native American Women. NY: Garland, 1993.

Fisher, Dexter. "The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional American Indian Writers," in Critical Essays on Native American Literature. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1985.

Miller, Jay, ed. Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Mourning Dove (Humishuma). Cogewea, The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range. Boston, MA: Four Seas, 1927, rep. ed. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

——. Coyote Stories. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1933, rep. ed. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.


A number of Mourning Dove's letters to Lucullus McWhorter are held in the McWhorter Collection, Holland Library, Washington State University.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan