Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket) (ca. 1884-1936)

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 8/07/2010
  • Essay 9512
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Mourning Dove was the pen name of Christine Quintasket, an Interior Salish woman who collected tribal stories among Northern Plateau peoples in the early twentieth century. She described centuries-old traditions with the authority of first-hand knowledge, and also wrote a novel based on her experiences. Like her African-American contemporary Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Mourning Dove’s reputation as a female ethnographer and writer has grown steadily over the past few decades. Her novel, Cogewea, is the first known published novel by a Native American woman.

Growing up at Kettle Falls

One day between 1884 and 1888, according to family lore, a woman of Lakes and Colville ancestry named Lucy Stukin (d. 1902) was canoeing across the Kootenai River in north Idaho when she went into labor. She gave birth while the boat was partway across the river, and wrapped the newborn girl, whom she named Christine, in the steersman's shirt. Although other sources give her birthplace as Boyds, Washington (above Kettle Falls), a canoe birth would have been an appropriate beginning for a woman who would travel restlessly through the Intermountain West and battle against prevailing social, cultural, artistic, and political currents for the rest of her life.  

Christine's father, Joseph Quintasket, belonged to the Nicola band of the Okanagan tribe of British Columbia, but the family lived in Lucy Stukin's homeland on the upper Columbia. Christine spent her formative years with several brothers and sisters near Kettle Falls, where her maternal grandmother taught her traditional Plateau lifeways. She spoke Salish as her first language, and during her childhood joined in the great salmon fishery at Kettle Falls each summer. An older woman named Teequalt, who lived with the family, contributed to her spiritual teachings. An adopted white orphan named Jimmy Ryan taught Christine to read, using dime novels as primers.

Christine entered the Goodwin Catholic Mission near Kettle Falls for formal schooling in 1894, where she later recalled being punished for speaking Salish. Before the school year finished, she dropped out due to illness, then returned to the mission between 1897-1899. When the Goodwin Mission closed in 1900, she attended school at the Fort Spokane agency.

After her mother passed away in 1902, Christine stayed home to manage the household. When her father remarried in 1904, she enrolled in the Fort Shaw School near the home of her grandparents in Great Falls, Montana. There the teenager spent time with her grandmother Maria and witnessed the 1908 roundup of the last free-ranging bison herd, an event which had a profound effect on her. "One magnificent fellow," she recalled in a 1916 interview, "fought like a lion as they tried to crowd his wonderful shaggy head into a box car. In some way he broke through the barriers on the opposite door of the car, fell down between the trains, and broke his neck" (Spokesman).  

Becoming Mourning Dove

In 1909 Quintasket married a Flathead man named Hector McLeod (d. 1937) whom she had met at Fort Shaw. Family members recall them taking a wedding trip by train to Milwaukee, but the honeymoon was short-lived. McLeod’s wild lifestyle -- according to Flathead elder Lucille Otter, McLeod wore a hook because one arm had been shot off by a bootlegger in St. Ignatius -- soon separated the couple. By 1912 she was living alone in Portland, Oregon, and there she began to develop the idea for a novel that combined traditional tribal culture with a romantic story, based around the epic buffalo roundup she had witnessed in Montana.  

While living in Oregon, Quintasket sometimes called herself "Morning Dove." During a trip to the Eastern Washington Historical Society in Spokane, she saw a mount of a mourning dove, and changed the spelling of her name to reflect the mournful nature of the bird. Sometimes she signed her work as hu-mi-shu-ma, an English approximation of the Okanagan word for this dove.

Determined to improve her writing skills, Mourning Dove migrated to Calgary and studied typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and composition at the Calgary College business school. By 1915, she had completed a draft of a novel with a mixed-blood Indian girl named Cogewea as the protagonist. In that same year, she met Yakima businessman and tribal advocate Lucullus McWhorter (1860-1944) at the annual Frontier Day festivities in Walla Walla. McWhorter, a West Virginian who had founded the American Archaeologist and had recently published a pamphlet defending the irrigation rights of Yakama people, encouraged Mourning Dove to tell her people’s stories. They began a correspondence that continued for more than two decades.

We Do Feel

In the spring of 1916, in an interview with a Spokane newspaper, Mourning Dove stated her ambition to shatter white stereotypes of the American Indian. "It is all wrong, this saying that Indians do not feel as deeply as whites. We do feel, and by and by some of us are going to be able to make our feelings appreciated, and then will the true Indian character be revealed." The headline for the interview trumpeted the imminent appearance of her novel, the first ever published by a Native American woman. Mourning Dove described in vivid detail the inspiration she received while watching the buffalo roundup in Montana, and her sadness at the demise of an integral part of the native experience. She also stated that education would be a key element in the future of her people, and spoke proudly of the fact that her stepmother had donated an acre of land from her allotment to provide the site for a schoolhouse for tribal children (Spokesman-Review 1916).

Around the time of this interview, Quintasket was hired as a housekeeper in Polson, Montana, where she tended six children and complained of painful illnesses. In 1917 she was brought low by "pneumonia and inflammatory rheumatism," and hung near death until an aunt slowly healed her with traditional plant medicines.

Toward the end of World War I, Quintasket took a job as a teacher on the Inkameep Okanagan Reserve near Oliver, British Columbia. She used part of her salary to purchase a typewriter, and continued to correspond with L. C. McWhorter, who became involved in the editing of her novel, delaying its completion by adding new material and "refining" Mourning Dove’s straightforward language to the heightened rhetoric he thought proper to fit her story. McWhorter also searched for a publisher, eventually securing a deal with Four Seas of Boston (he called them Four Puddles). Unsure of any market for such a venture, Four Seas insisted that McWhorter and Quintasket put up their own funds to pay for publication, which led to more frustrating delays. 

In 1919 Quintasket married Fred Galler, an enrolled Colville of Wenatchee and white ancestry. They lived in East Omak, on the Colville Reservation, and worked together as migrant laborers in hop fields and apple orchards along the east front of the Cascades. "We move around so much that I am disgusted getting a frame for my tent and making a comfortable place to live," she wrote to McWhorter. "I am trying to write, but lordy, with all these mountain pests, I get frantic" (Correspondence, July 1919). 

Writing, Being Edited, Being Rewritten

Co-Ge-We-A, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range was finally published in 1927. Quintasket, now often calling herself Christine Galler, apparently did not get to proof the final version of the manuscript before it went to press. As she wrote to McWhorter, 

"I have just got through going over the book Cogewea, and am surprised at the changes that you made. I think they are fine, and you made a tasty dressing like a cook would do with a fine meal. I sure was interested in the book, and hubby read it over and also all the rest of the family neglected their housework till they read it cover to cover. I felt like it was some one else's book and not mine at all. In fact the finishing touches are put there by you, and I have never seen it" (Correspondence, June 4, 1928).

The book as published blended fiction, off-key slang, and McWhorter’s ethnographic footnotes and political statements. Many of its readers found the style awkward, and a local Indian agent accused Quintasket of simply attaching her name to McWhorter’s words. But the ideas, settings, traditional family knowledge, and story line clearly belonged to Mourning Dove, and she doggedly continued to pursue her goal of depicting a mix of cultures as she knew them. For the next six years she traveled with her husband as a migrant laborer, plying the fields during the day and writing at night, always attempting to polish her craft. In the summer of 1830 she wrote to McWhorter, 

"I have had too much to do outside of my writing. We got work apple thinning at Brewster, Wash., and after 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. ... between sand, grease, campfire, and real apple dirt I hope to do the work" (Correspondence, June 8, 1930).

Gathering Tribal Folklore

Ever since she began writing, Quintasket had pointedly gathered what she called "folklores" from tribal people throughout the northern Plateau region. But the fact that she was a Native American did not mean that her questions were always answered. 

"There are some that are getting suspicious of my wanting folklores and if the Indians find out that their stories will reach print I am sure it will be hard for me to get any more legends without paying the hard cash for them. A white man has spoiled my field of work. This Mr. James Teit has collected folklores among the Indians and has been paying five dollars a piece for good Indian legends" (Correspondence, 1918).

McWhorter enlisted a close friend, Yakima newspaperman Heister Dean Guie (1896 – 1978), to help with the shaping of Mourning Dove’s traditional stories. Guie’s wife, Geraldine (1897-1994), happened to be one of the first graduates of the University of Washington’s anthropology program, and her methods may have influenced many of the book’s editorial decisions. Because Guie envisioned the collection as a series of children's bedtime stories, all mentions of sex and violence were eliminated, and most of the legends were simplified and shortened. Mourning Dove and McWhorter, who remained active in the editing process, removed moral points, "superstitions," and creation stories that might bring ridicule from a white audience. When Coyote Stories was published in 1933, it included editing credits to Guie and McWhorter and a foreword by Chief Standing Bear. Many of the stories as published were unrecognizable to the Colville-Okanagan elders who originally told them.  

Last Years

Mourning Dove was very well known as a writer by this time, admired by some and criticized by other members of both the white and tribal communities. Beginning in 1930, she tried to bridge the gap between the two cultures by speaking to such groups as the Omak Commercial Club, the Campfire Girls, and the Brewster Women’s Christian Temperance Union. For three years she was president of the Wild Sunflower Indian Women's Club in Omak, dedicated to the preservation of tribal artwork, history, and traditions. She also remained politically active, lobbying for fair tribal employment at an Omak lumber mill and speaking out for a greater tribal voice in the administration of Indian affairs. In 1935 she became the first woman elected to serve on the council of the Confederated Colville Tribes.

By then, however, Quintasket’s physical problems and what she called her "nervous disposition" had taken their toll. In late July of 1936, she became so disoriented that family members took her to the state hospital at Medical Lake. She never recovered, passing away on August 8 from what the coroner termed "exhaustion from manic depressive psychosis" (Autobiography, xxvi). "Her death is a shock to Spokane," Mary Lloyd, a well-known Spokane tribal member, was quoted as saying in one of Mourning Dove's obituaries. "The northwest has lost a most valuable citizen" (Spokesman Review 1936). 

Although Christine Quintasket did not have a registered birth certificate, and different accounts list different birth dates, she was about 50 years old when she died. She was buried in a plot she had purchased in a cemetery in Okanogan, beneath a marker that read "Mrs. Fred Galler." Some time later, a new marker was added to her tombstone, with an image of a white dove flying over an open book and the inscription "Mourning Dove, Colville Author, 1884-1936." Many relatives and friends among the Confederated Colville Tribes continue to keep her memory alive.

Mourning Dove's Work and Legacy 

Mourning Dove left behind 20 folders of miscellaneous writings in the care of Heister Dean Guies, and after Guies’s death, his wife Geraldine discovered that they included many autobiographical fragments. After some attempts to organize the pages, she turned them over to respected scholar and ethnobotanist Erna Gunther (1896-1982) of the University of Washington. Gunther spent time on the texts, but returned the folders to Geraldine Guie without making significant progress towards a workable manuscript. In 1981, at Gunther’s insistence, Geraldine Guie showed some of the pages to the University of Washington Press. Reorganized and edited into thematic and grammatical consistency by researcher Jay Miller (b. 1947), who had worked with many elders on the Colville Reservation, these writings appeared in 1990 as Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. 

Even though her miscellaneous writings were stitched together and somewhat modified to form the book, Mourning Dove’s autobiography brings her unique voice to life. Her description of the fishery at Kettle Falls, for example, gives an insider's perspective of a scene often depicted in accounts of early fur traders, missionaries, and travelers. Mourning Dove recounts visiting a variety of families at their traditionally established campsites. She details the exact materials used to fashion the basket traps and spears that men used to capture the fish, and recalls the specific jobs of women and girls in preparing the catch. She describes the buzz of yellow jackets around the drying salmon, and the joy of dancing, athletic contests, and children playing around the tents. Her sure sense of place provided a springboard for a host of contemporary Native artists, male and female, whose creative work weaves an individual vision into the rich history of their peoples.

Like her African American contemporary Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Mourning Dove’s reputation as a native female ethnographer and writer has grown steadily over the past few decades. Donald Hines (1931-1998) re-edited some of her collected Okanagan "folklores" in 1971, and a new edition of Cogewea: The Half-Blood appeared in 1981. Mourning Dove’s political standing, creative output, and editorial process have been the subject of numerous academic studies and essays, some of which can be viewed at

Sources: Nelson Ault, The Papers of Lucullus V. McWhorter (Pullman: Friends of the Library, State College of Washington, 1959); "Colville Indian Girl Blazes Trail to New Conception of Redmen in Her Novel, 'Cogewea,' Soon to Be Published," Spokesman Review, April 9, 1916, part 5, p. 3; "Indian Woman Leader Taken," Ibid., August 15, 1936, p. 3:5; Jay Miller, "Mourning Dove: The Author as Cultural Mediator," in Being and Becoming Indian: Biographical Studies of North American Frontiers (Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1989), 160-182; Mourning Dove, Co-Ge-We-A, the Half-Blood: A depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range (Boston: Four Seas, 1927); Mourning Dove, Cogewea (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981); Mourning Dove, Correspondence with McWhorter, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington; Mourning Dove, Coyote Stories ed. by Heister Dean Guie (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1933); Mourning Dove, Tales of the Okanogans  ed. by Donald M. Hines (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1976); Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography ed. by Jay Miller (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).

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