Mourning Dove (Okanogan)
By Kristin Herzog
Mourning Dove was born Christal Quintasket near Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho. Besides her English name, she was given the name Hum-ishu-ma, or Mourning Dove. On her mother’s side she was descended from an ancient line of warrior chieftains, and her paternal grandfather was an Irishman who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. She received some education at Sacred Heart Convent at Ward, Washington, but left school to help care for four younger sisters and brothers. In her later teenage years, Mourning Dove lived with her maternal grandmother and through her developed an intense interest in the oral tradition of her people, the Okanogans, who today live in the western part of the Colville Reservation, near the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers and the Canadian border.
Cogewea, published in 1927, was considered the first
novel written by an American Indian woman until the
discovery of S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the
Forest, first published in 1891. Mourning Dove wrote in
cooperation with Lucullus McWhorter, whom she met in
1914, by which time she had already drafted a version of
the novel. McWhorter, who became her friend and mentor
for twenty years, was a serious scholar of Indian
traditions and had been adopted into the Yakima tribe.
In contrast, Mourning Dove had little more than a
third-grade education and some training in a business
school. Thus she agreed to let McWhorter “fix up” the
story by adding poetic epigraphs and elaborate notes on
Okanogan traditions. His stylistic influence is also
apparent in the often stilted language, including a
self-conscious use of slang, which contrasts with the
simple style of Mourning Dove’s later drafts of some
coyote stories. However, McWhorter knew what a white
readership expected, and he was able, after a delay of
many years, to find a publisher. While the novel is
uneven, it gives an excellent picture of some Okanogan
traditions, and the western romance plot made it
acceptable in its time.
Meanwhile, in 1919 Mourning Dove had married Fred Galler, a Wenatchee. She had no children, and with Galler she became a migrant worker, camping out, working in the hop fields and apple orchards, and lugging her typewriter along to work at her writing. McWhorter failed to mention this part of her life in his preface to Cogewea; instead, he gave a more idyllic picture of the deprivations of her life.
Coyote Stories, also published with the help of McWhorter, was much more Mourning Dove’s own work. She agreed to Heister Dean Guie’s receiving credit on the title page for illustrating and editing. Guie insisted on standardized spellings and verification of Okanogan beliefs. McWhorter mediated between him and Mourning Dove. Unfortunately, neither Guie nor McWhorter regarded Mourning Dove as an authority on Okanogan folklore. A foreword by Chief Standing Bear probably helped sell the book because Standing Bear had published two popular autobiographies during the previous years, and his Land of the Spotted Eagle, focusing on Sioux beliefs and customs, appeared in the same year as Coyote Stories.
The stories give an impression of Mourning Dove’s personality and tradition as well as of the folk material she gathered. Her introduction gives authenticity to her collection by describing her family heritage and the tribal setting in which these stories were passed on for education, entertainment, and social bonding. The story “The Spirit Chief Names the Animal People” exemplifies all of these purposes, but also expresses the spiritual aspect of the coyote tradition by describing the concept of power (squastenk9) and the origin of the Sweat House ritual. Both are central to Okanogan beliefs and indicate an aboriginal insight into the subtle connections between physical and psychological vitality and their grounding in cosmological mystery. Coyote himself is part of this mystery by being laughably human and divinely powerful at the same time.
Mourning Dove’s later years were spent in relative obscurity. Occasionally she traveled to lecture in the East, but she was uncomfortable before strange audiences and could hardly afford the travel expenses. The single honor bestowed on her was her election as an honorary member of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society. Having for years been plagued with various illnesses, Mourning Dove died in a state hospital at Medical Lake, Washington, at the age of forty-eight.