American Literature Mourning Dove (Syilx Okanagan)
Victoria Lamont
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0181


Mourning Dove (Syilx Okanagan, b. c. 1882–1888–d. 1936) was the second Indigenous woman in the United States to publish a novel, and she is a foundational figure in Indigenous American literature. Her novel Cogewea introduced what are now prominent themes in Indigenous writing: the mixed-blood figure poised between Indigenous and white cultures, critique of the trope of the “disappearing Indian,” and affirmation of Indigenous culture in the face of government policies designed to eradicate it. Mourning Dove lived during a period of profound dislocation for her people. At the turn of the twentieth century, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee was in recent memory, Indigenous tribes were forced from what remained of their traditional territories and confined to reservations, and children were sent to schools designed to assimilate them. Ironically, the very education Mourning Dove received at these schools enabled her to become an important activist and advocate for Indigenous people and their culture. Not surprisingly given colonial conditions, basic biographical details about Mourning Dove are uncertain. Records and family accounts give competing birthdates between 1882 and 1888. Her English name was Christine Quintasket, her Indigenous name was Humishuma, and her pen name was Mourning Dove. She grew up on the Colville reservation in Washington State and identified with the Syilx Okanagan tribe, whose traditional territory spans the US-Canada border. While historical documents suggest she was of wholly Indigenous ancestry, she identified herself as mixed blood. Mourning Dove attended both mission and BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools, as well as a clerical college in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where she studied typing and English language. To support herself, she worked primarily as an agricultural laborer. Determined to be a writer, Mourning Dove managed to produce a novel, a collection of traditional Okanagan narratives, and an autobiography despite poverty, chronic health problems, and two difficult marriages. Her first work, the novel Cogewea, was written between 1912 and 1914, and it likely would not have been published without the assistance of Lucullus McWhorter, amateur ethnographer and activist for Indigenous people. The two met in 1914 and became close friends and collaborators. With McWhorter’s help, Cogewea was finally published in 1928, followed by Coyote Stories, a selection of traditional Okanagan narratives, in 1933. Mourning Dove’s autobiography was published posthumously in 1990. In addition to her writing, Mourning Dove was active in tribal politics and advocacy for Indigenous people. She died in 1936.

General Overviews

Because no book-length monographs on Mourning Dove are available, researchers need to assemble an introduction to Mourning Dove from a range of essays and book chapters. Collectively, these works represent an evolving and still debated approach to Mourning Dove, whose work challenges many of the assumptions and categories of traditional literary study. Her English usage was influenced by nsyilxcən (Salish) idiom and grammar, and considered by the dominant, colonial culture to be unfit for publication. Fisher 1981, Brown 1989, and Sligh 2003 are somewhat apologetic for Mourning Dove’s “lack” of literacy and her “flawed” writing; however, Janiewski 1998 positions Mourning Dove as an innovator who destabilizes colonial discourse. Brown 1993 demonstrates how a string of different editors have imposed their own values and assumptions on Mourning Dove’s published work, impeding rather than supporting her message.

  • Brown, Alanna Kathleen. “Mourning Dove (Humishuma) (1888–1936).” Legacy 6.1 (1989): 51–58.

    A useful introduction to Mourning Dove with a focus on Cogewea and Coyote Stories and on her collaboration with Lucullus McWhorter. Considers Coyote Stories most representative of Mourning Dove’s voice because of its more straightforward prose style.

  • Brown, Alanna Kathleen. “Looking through the Glass Darkly: The Editorialized Mourning Dove.” In New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism. Edited by Arnold Krupat, 274–290. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

    Excellent case study of approaches to editing Mourning Dove’s work. Reveals how shifts in editorial practice reflect “changing currents” in the dominant culture’s thought about Indigenous people and their writing. Analyzes and compares the approaches of five different white editors to Mourning Dove’s work, arguing that they “help to obscure the image and to erode the cultures [they] believe [they] convey” (p. 288).

  • Fisher, Dexter. “Introduction.” In Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range. By Mourning Dove, v–xxix. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

    Although additional biographical documents have been uncovered since this essay was first published, it is still a reliable source for biographical and contextual information, including a detailed account of Mourning Dove’s collaboration with McWhorter, the publication of her major works, and the influence on her work of Okanagan cultural practices, such as spirit power, the sweathouse, and oral tradition.

  • Janiewski, Dolores E. “‘Confusion of Mind’: Colonial and Post-colonial Discourses about Frontier Encounters.” Journal of American Studies 32.1 (1998): 81–103.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021875898005817

    Discusses Mourning Dove’s oeuvre in the context of postcolonial representations of the frontier by a cluster of women writers. Traces the intersection between feminist and Indigenous activism in Mourning Dove’s writing and activist work.

  • Sligh, Gary Lee. A Study of Native American Women Novelists: Sophia Alice Callahan, Mourning Dove, and Ella Cara Deloria. Native American Studies 11. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2003.

    Includes Mourning Dove in an overview of three early Indigenous novelists. Identifies motives, practices, and themes that connect the work of Indigenous women from different contexts, suggesting that they should be understood as a “community of women” rather than as individuals. Analysis is unsophisticated but a useful introduction to early novels by Indigenous women.

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