Influential Women of the South Okanagan
Mourning Dove: Chronicler and Champion of the Okanagan People
by John Brent Musgrave
Christal Quintasket (1884-1936) – probably better known today by her pen name Mourning Dove – decided early in her youth that she would devote her life to produce and write stories that accurately portray Indians as people rather than as 'noble savages' or ruthless killers; later during the time she taught at the Inkameep Day School (1917-1919), she also began to collect and record Okanagan traditional stories so they would not be lost to future generations.
The list of Mourning Dove's published works based on these two devotions is impressive, especially considering that much of her writing was done after spending up to ten hours a day employed at hard manual labour picking fruit in the orchards of Washington State. Her Co-ge-wea: the Half Blood, begun in 1912, largely completed by 1916, and printed in 1927, is acknowledged as the first novel written and published by a North American native writer. The issues of racial prejudice brought out in the novel are as significant today as they were a century ago and mirror her own experiences. Her Coyote Stories, a collection of "folklores" – to use Mourning Dove's expression – was published in 1933 and is the source of much of her international fame. Other works, such as her Autobiography, Tales of the Okanagans, and Mourning Dove's Stories, were edited and published well after her death. Fortunately, most of these works have been reprinted and are available today. Other unpublished works, such as her "History of the Okanagan People," wait proper editing. Although she died almost 75 years ago, Mourning Dove is still contemporary. Scholars from every part of the globe continue to discuss her works, and examples of her "folklores" are frequently included in contemporary anthologies of North American literature.
Mourning Dove was born near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, most likely in 1884 and spent most of her life on the Colville Reservation in Washington State. She died at Medical Lake, Washington, in August 1936. While she lived most of her fifty-two years in Washington State, she always had strong spiritual and family connections with the South Okanagan and much of her writing was either done here or incorporates "folklores" she collected while living here. Her connection with the South Okanagan was life-long. In her Autobiography, Mourning Dove tells us, "One trip that my parents seldom failed to make each year was from the Colville winter village at Kettle Falls to S'oo-yoos Lake, British Columbia, in the country of the Upper Okanagan." Given different circumstances, her South Okanagan roots might have been even deeper if her first suitor Pierre Paul, "who came from a very influential family, rich in ponies and good land overlooking Osoyoos Lake," had not frozen to death on a winter hunting trip before they were to marry.
Mourning Dove had many close relations in the South Okanagan. Her father, Joseph Quintasket, was born about 1864 at what is now the Penticton Reserve. Mourning Dove's younger sister Margaret ("Maggie") married Narcisse Bones of the Osoyoos band, and throughout her life Mourning Dove frequently visited them at Inkameep, often when someone was ill in the family or when she herself needed spiritual healing. Her sister was closer to the Indian ways than was she, and as part of Mourning Dove's search to rediscover the past of her people, she also sought wisdom from the woman "considered to be the best medicine maker in the tribe" at Inkameep. Mourning Dove shared in some of her personal correspondence that she would escape to Inkameep "when she needed to get away from the white man's civilization" and heal her soul. During these visits she would join other relations at gatherings including the Indian Village at the International County Fair held annually in Oroville, Washington where she often won the $10.00 grand prize for horse racing – most likely borrowing her brother-in-law's ponies, which also won grand prizes.
During her frequent visits to the Osoyoos Reserve, Mourning Dove's ability to speak both Okanagan and English proved useful to the Inkameep and surrounding communities particularly as official interpreter when the leaders of Inkameep met with the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia at Chief George Baptiste's home in October 1913 – a meeting where the Chief and other members of the band reminded the commissioners of long-held grievances over land rights and promises not kept by governments. Mourning Dove's lengthy battle on behalf of native rights on both sides of the international line can be dated at least as far back as these meetings. During her life, Mourning Dove became increasingly involved in native struggles, bridging the differences between her people and their white neighbors in both cultural and political arenas.
Mourning Dove and Chief George Baptiste developed a life-long admiration, and from Mourning Dove's letters it is clear that the Chief wanted her to become the first teacher at the Inkameep Day School, which opened in 1915. This did not work out, but she did become the second teacher at the urging of the Chief after John Norwood resigned. The two years (1917-1919) that she taught at the school allowed her the time to work to get Co-ge-wea printed and to begin collecting the "folklores" that would eventually be published as Coyote Stories.
After leaving the school in 1919, Mourning Dove continued to visit her sister and continued to maintain contacts with other communities such as Chopaka and Okanagan Falls in the South Okanagan. As she aged, grand prizes in horse racing became grand prizes in traditional basket making – a skill that she was probably better known for locally during her lifetime than she was for her published writing. Soon after she left the Day School, Mourning Dove became increasingly involved in the struggles of the Colville Tribe in Washington State, becoming a leading force in urging local companies to hire Indian labor, particularly when the businesses were located on the Reservation. During the last years of life, she became associated with the efforts of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs to carry out its new "Fair Deal for Indians." In 1935 she became the first woman elected to the Colville Tribal Council.
Mourning Dove rests at the Omak Memorial Cemetery located between Omak and Okanogan, Washington. Her simple marker reads "Mourning Dove - Colville Author 1884-1936." These words are only a dim echo of the life of a woman who is cherished today throughout the Okanagan for her cultural and political achievements on behalf of her people, and a woman whose writings are still admired and studied throughout the world.