Mourning Dove was a woman ahead of her time, a determined and progressive thinker. She is credited as being among the earliest Native American women to publish a novel. Her book, Cogewea, shares the oral tradition of the Northern Plateau people and her life experiences inside the Interior Salish culture.
The name Mourning Dove continued to surface during my recent research of birds by the same name. The countenance of her photo was familiar to me and for good reason. A few days earlier, I’d added her photo and biography to my Woman I Wish I’d Met board on Pinterest. The synchronicity of these events was too much to ignore.
I began reading with the sole intention of celebrating Mourning Dove’s belief that an ethnography would create a bridge of understanding and compassion for Native peoples. What courage and strength of spirit it must have taken for a woman in 1927, to push back against the weight discrimination!
Another nuance soon captured my attention. The content of her writing was diluted by the involvement of well meaning people, without whom, her work may never have been published. And so, two more names join the narrative: Lucullus Virgil McWhorter and Heister Dean Guie.
Mourning Dove was born in a canoe on the Kootenai River in north Idaho, in 1884. Education, whether through the traditional Native teachings or mission schools, was an important part of her life. The summers of her childhood were spent working at the Kettle Creek salmon fishery and in her teen years, she witnessed the round up of Montana’s last free range buffalo herd. In 1912, the idea for a novel swam through her mind. She would write stories based on her life experiences. Mourning Dove, born Christine Quintasket, empowered herself further with studies of composition, typing, shorthand and bookkeeping. By 1915, she had completed her first draft of Cogewea: The Half Blood. She encountered Lucullus Virgil McWhorter at a Frontier festival and began a professional relationship that would span two decades.
“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.”
~ Mourning Dove in 1916 interview with Spokane newspaper
Virginian farmer and frontiersman, Lucullus McWhorter was a self taught man with a passion for civil rights advocacy and Native American peoples. While his contemporaries regarded his recording of North Plateau and Yakima people’s histories as amateurish, modern day cultural anthropologists value his contribution. McWhorter encouraged Mourning Dove to pursue her writing, with offers to edit her work. It was agreed that he would write introductory inserts for each chapter and notes expanding on key cultural points. In the end, his edits to her work were infused with his rage against Christian hypocrisy and unjust acts by the government. Mourning Dove’s Cogewea became the soapbox from which he preached and her protagonist’s authentic voice was lost. By today’s standards, the language he chose for the foreword of the book are not words he would have used in a more modern time.
“She was made to understand and to believe in the mysterious and sacred power of the sweat house …”
“The wild girl was endowed with a primitive sense of security not born to her civilized-reared sister.”
“Years of tutelage in the teepee of the primitive minded …”
~ Lucullus McWhorter quotes from the foreword of Cogewea
Heister Dean Guie , McWhorter’s close friend, became an integral part of the mission to publish Mourning Dove’s traditional stories. His wife Geraldine, one of the first graduates of the University of Washington’s anthropology program, may have influenced the editorial process. Guie’s motivation lay in publishing a fairytale book of Native American folklore — something for parents to read children at bedtime. He advised the removal of any sexual reference or act of violence. Legends were streamlined and any superstitions or moral points were cut. Also removed from the draft were any creation stories that may raise guffaws from a white audience. Mourning Dove was not permitted to proof the final version of her Cogewea manuscript before it was published. This and subsequent stories were altered to the point that they became unrecognizable to the Colville-Okanagan elders who originally told them. (The illustrations preceding and following this paragraph are as seen in the novel.)