Mourning Dove (Hum-ishu-ma / Christine Quintasket)

Photograph of Mourning Dove taken in the author’s later years. She is wearing traditional Native American apparel and holding a woven basket. 1925. Lucullus Virgil McWhorter Photographs at Washington State University Libraries’ Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC). pc085b05f71_95-131

Native American (Okanogan and Arrow Lakes), Ethnography, Literature

Mourning Dove (Hum-ishu-ma / Christine Quintasket)


Mourning Dove was an ethnographer of Okanagan/Colville Nation folklore and one of the first Native American novelists.   

According to legend, Christine Quintasket was born in the 1880s while her mother was crossing the Kootenai River in north Idaho in a boat. Her mother was Lucy Stukin, an Indigenous woman of Lakes and Colville ancestry from the Colville Reservation on the upper Columbia River in eastern Washington. Her father was Joseph Quintasket, from the Okanagan tribe of British Columbia. Various records indicate that either or both of her parents were bicultural with European lineage, and she grew up in a bicultural environment as her family practiced Native kinship by adopting tribal members as well as a white orphan from whom Mourning Dove attributed her learning to read and write English. As a young girl, she also learned storytelling from her maternal grandmother, and spiritual teachings from Teequalt, an elder who lived with her family.

Once she became a writer, she used her Indigenous name, Mourning Dove, as her literary pen name. Among the generations of Native American children forced to attend boarding school, she wrote about the loss of identity and unfair treatment experienced especially by “mixed bloods.” While in school, she read The Brand: A Tale of the Flathead Reservation (1909) by Theresa Broderick. With its derogatory perspective of Native peoples, this book inspired her to write so that she could provide an accurate counter narrative.

Mourning Dove wrote when she could, through poverty and physical hardship while earning her living as a vegetables and fruit picker and she drew on her experiences to write about the period of conversion and assimilation of Native Americans. By 1915, she had drafted her first novel, and is credited with publishing one of the earliest novels by an Indigenous person, Cogewea, the Half-blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range (1927). Seeking to publish her book, she found Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, a white businessman, who became her editor and mentor, and encouraged her to publish her writing. In championing her first novel, Co-Ge-We-A, McWhorter rewrote several passages to make them sound more “sophisticated”, inserting some of his own ethnographic observations and political statements under her name. Mourning Dove acknowledged the publication but noted that some of her words had been changed without her permission. 

While a migrant worker, Mourning Dove also collected several traditional Okanogan stories from her grandmother and other tribal elders that were eventually published as Coyote Stories (1933). She wrote that she was most grateful for being born “long enough ago to have known people who lived in the ancient way before everything started to change.” A final edited collection of fragments of her writings published posthumously, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography (1990), more clearly displays her autoethnographic voice.

After employment as a housekeeper, a teacher in British Columbia, and a school matron at Indian schools, she worked actively to bridge the cultural gaps between white and Native people by speaking to local women’s civic groups. She was an advocate for the preservation of tribal artwork, history, and traditions, for consideration of tribal voices in the administration of Indian affairs, and lobbied for fair employment for Indian workers at the Omak lumbermill. In 1935, she was elected to be the first woman to sit on the Confederated Colville Tribes Council.  

Among her many publications of interest to folklorists:

Coyote Stories (1933)

Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. Edited by Jay Miller (1990)

Susana Grajales Geliga