Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

9. Christine Quintasket (Mourning Dove or Humishuma)

Christine Quintasket, who wrote under the pen name Mourning Dove (Humishuma in the Salish language), was the first Native American woman to publish a novel. Born in northern Idaho in 1880, Quintasket was the daughter of Joseph Quintasket (Okanogan) and Lucy Stukin (Colville). She received a sporadic formal education and spent many years working as a migrant field laborer around the Pacific Northwest. Quintasket’s first marriage failed, and by 1912, she had settled in Portland, Oregon, where she would begin her efforts to write a western romance novel loosely based on her own life. Three years later, she met a Yakima-area rancher and Indian-rights advocate named Lucullus Virgil McWhorter at a Frontier Days festival in Walla Walla, Washington. McWhorter’s friendship, encouragement, and service as literary agent would lead to the publication of Quintasket’s novel. His changes and additions to Quintasket’s manuscript would make that novel partly his own.

Quintasket had completed a manuscript (no longer extant) before she met McWhorter, but the cattle rancher, twenty years Quintasket’s senior, worked with the writer during the winter of 1915-16 to revise it. He urged Quintasket to include more material inspired by the history and folklore of her people, and he helped Quintasket polish her writing. By the 1920s, McWhorter had begun submitting the manuscript for publication, but he also continued to edit and add to it. Finally, a small Boston firm, The Four Seas Company, agreed to publish the work if McWhorter and Quintasket helped finance it. The book, Cogewea; The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range, appeared in 1927.

The plot of the novel was inspired by the Okanogan short story, “Chipmunk and Owl Woman," which Quintasket later included in her collection of traditional Salish tales, Coyote Stories (1933). In this story, Chipmunk (Kots-se-we-ah) is a mischievous young girl who scampers around in a carefree manner until trouble appears in the form of Owl Woman, who captures children and eats them. Chipmunk fails to outwit Owl Woman and ends up fleeing to her grandmother for protection. Owl Woman finds Chipmunk and kills her, but Meadow Lark helps bring her back to life. Coyote then plots Owl Woman’s death, and he frees the children who had been captured.

In Quintasket’s novel, Cogewea is a young, spirited, mixed-blood woman who has returned to her brother-in-law’s ranch in Montana from the Carlisle Indian school. She soon finds herself torn between two forces: the traditionalism of her grandmother (Stemteemä) and the modern ways of Alfred Densmore, an Easterner who courts Cogewea because he believes, mistakenly, that she is wealthy. Cogewea respects her grandmother’s adherence to Native customs, but she falls in love with Densmore. Once the Easterner realizes that he’s been caught by a cowboy hoax, he abandons Cogewea—taking with him a thousand dollars she had set aside for their honeymoon. Stunned and embarrassed, Cogewea turns to Jim, the mixed-blood ranch hand who loved her all along. The novel concludes with Cogewea’s marriage to Jim.

We have included here two excerpts from Cogewea. The first, Stemteemä’s recounting of the Okanogan story “The Dead Man’s Vision,” reflects Quintasket’s efforts to incorporate aspects of Native culture into the novel. The second excerpt reveals the collaborative nature of the work. Although it is impossible to unweave Quintasket’s from McWhorter’s writing, Dexter Fisher has pointed out that Quintasket’s other writings are in a direct and simple style and that she constantly struggled to translate into English what she knew in Okanogan (Fisher 1981:xvi). The pages of the second excerpt (a heated conversation between Cogewea and Densmore) contain material that McWhorter likely inserted after Quintasket had given him the manuscript. Mourning Dove is credited and remembered as the author of Cogewea, but the authorship of one of the most historically significant Indian novels ultimately remains as complicated as that of other Native stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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