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Christine Quintasket, also called Mourning Dove, is credited as one of the first Native American women to publish a novel. Her work documents the practice of assimilation, or the adoption of mainstream habits by people from a minority culture.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Assimilation Policies of the 1880s
The life and works of also called Mourning Dove (Humishuma in her native tongue) point to an extraordinary, although almost unremarked, period in the history of European American settlement, the end of open military conflict with indigenous peoples and the beginning of assimilation policies. The Court of Indian Offenses was established in 1883, making it a crime for Native Americans to speak their own dialects, wear traditional clothing, or practice rituals. The Dawes Act of 1887 began the process of forcing Native Americans to give up portions of their land to white settlers and participate in the practice of monetary exchange for land. It was assumed by supporters of assimilation that no American Indian tribes would survive into the twenty-first century, but would instead adopt a more “civilized” mainstream way of life. It was in this historical context that Christine Quintasket came into the world.
Growing up in the Colville Tribe
According to her writings, Christine Quintasket was born in a canoe crossing the Kootenai River near Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, in April of 1888. Her parents were Joseph Quintasket, an Okanogan from British Columbia, Canada, and Lucy Stukin, a Colville (Salishan) from north central Washington State. Her mother died in 1902; although Quintasket had no children of her own, she was responsible for rearing her younger brother and two younger sisters— Julia, born in 1891, Mary Margaret, born in 1892, and Louis, born in 1896. Two other younger siblings, John and Marie, both died before age five.
In June 1891, Quintasket’s name appears on a tribal census as an eight year old but this is one of several conflicting records of her age. In 1895, Quintasket entered the Sacred Heart School at the Goodwin Mission in Ward, Washington. She could only speak Salishan and the nuns were hard on her for not speaking English. After several months, she became ill from the constant punishment and was sent home. In 1896, she returned to school and remained there until 1899. At that time, U.S. government funding for Indian schools was cut, and all the Indian students were sent to school at Fort Spokane.
Last Wild Buffalo Roundup Leaves Impression
In 1902, Quintasket returned home to care for her brother and sisters after her mother died. When her father remarried in 1904, Quintasket was able to return to school. She enrolled at Fort Shaw Indian School in Great Falls, Montana. While at school, she saw the last roundup of a wild buffalo herd in 1908. This roundup made a strong impression on Quintasket, and she used this event as the basis for her first novel, Cogewea, the Half Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range (1927). Quintasket also met her first husband, Hector McLeod, a Flathead Indian, while she was at Fort Shaw Indian School. They married in 1909 and divorced several years later. His abusive nature led to his shooting death while playing cards in April 1937.
Quintasket worked as a housekeeper to support herself. She was able to purchase a typewriter with money she had saved. In 1912, Quintasket was living in Portland, Oregon, where she began writing her first novel. When she began to write, she used the name Morning Dove, but changed it to Mourning Dove when she saw the name on a bird exhibit at a museum in Spokane, Washington. The Okanogan tribal name for this bird is Humishuma. From 1913 until 1915 she attended Calgary Business School, where she developed a greater understanding of writing styles and typing skills.
Quintasket Meets Lueullus McWhorter
Around 1915, Quintasket went to the Walla Walla Frontier Days Celebration. There she met Lucullus Virgil McWhorter. He was a local businessman and took a serious interest in the Yakima tribe from the central Washington state area. He was an advocate for Yakima rights and ensured that the tribe received compensation for past due government promises. The Yakima tribe held him in high regard and gave him the Indian name of Hemene Kawan, or Old Wolf. He was also called Big Foot because of his size. He befriended Quintasket and helped her with her writing, using his influence to get her first book published in 1927. Fifteen years passed from when she first began writing the novel until its publication. The delay was due not only to endless editing and rewriting, but also to World War I. Criticism by some influential local people, who insinuated that McWhorter wrote the book and Quintasket just put her name on it, also played a part in the delay.
Writing in Spite of Ill Health
In 1919, Quintasket married Fred Galler. He was a Wenatchi Indian from the Colville Indian Reservation in north central Washington State. Their marriage had difficulties, but they stayed together on Colville Reservation.
L.V. McWhorter knew that Quintasket could go to the elders on the Colville Indian Reservation and hear centuries-old traditional stories and legends. He urged her constantly to collect the stories for her book about the tribal heritage. He thought these old stories would soon be lost in the process of assimilation into the white culture. Quintasket found that each family group usually had slightly different versions of the same legend. She heard some of the most influential stories by attending Colville funerals, which would last throughout the night. To help relieve the grief, and to help keep everyone awake during the funerals, the older Indian women would tell the most colorful and humorous of the stories. This was the basis for Quintasket’s second book, Coyote Stories (1933), and the posthumously published Tales of the Okanogans (1976). McWhorter helped her edit and rewrite the legends. In the evenings, despite illness and exhaustion, Quintasket found the energy to type her novels and correspond with McWhorter. She frequently suffered from pneumonia, rheumatism, and general poor health during much of her adult life.
First Publication Yields Tribal Recognition
When Quintasket’s book Cogewea was finally published in 1927, she became a well-known personality in the Washington state area and especially on the Colville Indian Reservation. Quintasket eventually became active in local Indian politics. She joined with other Indian women and started social organizations and handicraft clubs. She began to speak at local gatherings and, on several occasions, went east to lecture. She found these long trips tiring and expensive, since she paid for most of the travel expenses herself.
A Trailblazing Woman
From the late 1920s until her death in 1936, Quintasket was an activist for Indian rights. In 1930, she and others organized the Colville Indian Association. Through their efforts, unresolved land claims, past due payments for lands purchased, and money owed to the tribe on leases for land, timber, and water rights were secured for the tribe. She was the first woman elected to the Colville Tribal Council.
Quintasket continued with her activities and writing while working on her autobiography throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. The combined efforts of writing, activism, and family were a strain on her fragile health, and she became more despondent. At times she became disoriented; on July 30, 1936, she was taken to the state hospital at Medical Lake for treatment. Quintasket died on August 8, 1936; exhaustion from manic depressive psychosis was listed on her death certificate.
Heister Dean Guie, editor of the local newspaper in Yakima, collaborated with Quintasket and McWhorter for many years. The year before Coyote Stories was published, Quintasket had stayed with the Guies. Quintasket wanted Guie to review and edit her autobiography, but the manuscript was stored away. Several years later Quintasket died; Guie’s widow found manuscript pages stored away in a trunk in the home attic in 1981. She turned them over to a scholar friend, who was unable to put the manuscript into any order. The papers were then sent to the University of Washington Press, where editor Jay Miller put the autobiography together. Quintasket’s autobiography, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography was published in 1990, fifty-four years after she died.
Works in Literary Context
Mourning Dove is considered by some to be the first Native American female novelist. Her work was influenced by her contact with elder members of the Colville (Salishan) tribe, the relationships she built with white settlers who had an interest in the preservation of Native American culture, and her struggles as a woman trying to reconcile the cultural differences that existed between her tribe and other Americans.
Racial Identity and Culture Clash
Mourning Dove’s novel, Cogewea, the Half Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range, is semi-autobiographical. Mourning Dove creates a heroine struggling with a mixed-blood identity. Cogewea has been given a white education, but she also retains the knowledge of her own Indian traditions and language. She experiences herself at times in the no-man’s land of interpreter or mediator. She does move easily between cultures but cannot find a home in either world. She values actions based on community needs (the Indian way) and actions guided by individual wants (the white way). She believes, and does not believe, in Native American rituals. Mourning Dove also does not shy away from exploring the poignant aspect of being a mixed-blood, the sexual exploitation of indigenous peoples that often went hand-in-hand with conquest and colonization.
Were it not for the Women’s Movement of the 1970s and the explosion of a stunning series of major American Indian texts, Mourning Dove’s life and works may have been forgotten. Instead, the social activism of the 1960s led to a substantive challenge of the American literature canon as it was then conceived, and precursors of contemporary women writers were sought to recover an historical and literary past. Issues of coming to voice as a Native American woman writer at the turn of the last century, of understanding the settlement of the West from an Indian perspective, and of learning how to read collaborative texts, have drawn considerable attention to Mourning Dove works.
Works in Critical Context
In 1927, the first work of Mourning Dove was published, Cogewea. However, because the publishers did not promote the novel in any way, Mourning Dove made less than twenty five dollars for the publication, and the final settlement between the authors and the publisher gained her only scores of copies of the unsold novel.
Cogewea Debate Continues
Of all who read Cogewea, perhaps Mourning Dove herself was its biggest critic. She received a copy in 1928 and immediately wrote to McWhorter on June 4:
I have just got through going over the book Cogewea, and am surprised at the changes that you made … I felt like it was someone else’s book and not mine at all. In fact the finishing touches are put there by you, and I have never seen it …Oh my Big Foot, you surely roasted the Shoapees strong. I think a little too strong to get their sympathy. Her criticism of McWhorter’s additions were insightful and are at the core of the ongoing interpretive debate about the novel. Some critics argue that the plurality of voices in Cogewea adds compelling complexity to the work. For example, Choctaw-Cherokee novelist and critic Louis Owns writes, ”the reader feels throughout Cogewea the presence of a political disturbance permeating the text as the voices of Mourning Dove and McWhorter struggle to be heard one over the other—with Mourning Dove’s easily winning out.”
On the whole, the published works of Mourning Dove have received favorable appraisal for their contribution to Native American women’s history and writing. Criticism continues to focus on what some scholars argue is an inaccurate and overtly Eurocentric editorializing of her work on the part of contributors, including ethnohistorian Jay Miller and L. V. McWhorter. For example, while commenting on Miller’s editorial contribution to Coyote Stories, Alana Brown argues that Miller ”evidently felt the need to assert male authority over the text and to discredit Mourning Dove even as he brings her to our attention.”
- Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986, pp. 81-84, 151.
- Ammons, Elizabeth and Annette White-Parks. Tricksterism in Turn-of-the-Century American Literature. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 121-122, 136-138, 197-199.
- Dearborn, Mary. Pocahontas’s Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 12-30.
- Fisher, Alice Poindexter. ”The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional American Indian Writers.” Critical Essays on Native American Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985, pp. 202-211.
- Larson, Charles R. American Indian Fiction. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.
- Miller, Jay. Being and Becoming Indian: Biographical Studies of North American Frontiers, edited by James A. Clifton. Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1989.
- Owens, Louis. ”Origin Mists: John Rollin Ridge’s Masquerade and Mourning Dove’s Mixedbloods.” Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman, Okla. and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 32-8.
- Viehmann, Martha. ”Cogewea, The Half-Blood, A Narrative of Mixed Descent.” Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays, edited by Helen Jaskoski. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 204-222.
- Bernardin, Susan. ”Mixed Messages: Authority and Authorship in Mourning Dove’s Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range.” American Literature 67 (September 1995): 487-509.
- Biedler, Peter. ”Literary Criticism in Cogewea: Mourning Dove’s Protagonist Reads The Brand.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 19, no. 2 (1995): 45-65.
- Brown, Alana. ”A Voice from the Past.” The Women’s Review of Books Vol. VIII, 2 (November 1990): 19-20.
- Karell, Linda. ”’The Story I Am Telling You Is True’: Collaboration and Literary Authority in Mourning Dove’s Cogewea.” American Indian Quarterly 19 (Fall 1995): 451-465.
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