Mourning Dove (Okanogan) (1888-1936)

    Contributing Editor: Kristin Herzog

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students tend to see these stories as folklore, not realizing their complexity and philosophical background. They cannot measure the difficulty of translating a corporate tradition into the narrative voice of an individual writer. They will wonder for what audience the stories were written.

    Consider approaching Mourning Dove from the world of American Indian spirituality, especially since the sweat-house tradition is still alive in some tribes.

    In order to teach the excerpts from Coyote Stories, a basic understanding of the trickster figure in the legends of various tribes is necessary. Though the trickster's shape can be Raven, Blue Jay, Raccoon, Crow or Spider, and though his function differs in detail, he is most frequently Coyote, the creature of playful disguises and clever self-seeking, the breaker of taboos, teller of lies, and creator of possibilities. He is the restlessly moving, ever-changing, indomitable spirit of survival. Coyote is always at the mercy of his passions and appetites; he holds no moral or social values, yet through his actions all values come into being. Trickster tales give humorous vent to those impulses that the tribes had to repress in order to maintain social order.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Mourning Dove had to surmount almost incredible obstacles to become an author, and she personifies the ambivalent position of many ethnic women writers. Besides the lack of education and the ordeal of daily life in migrant labor camps, she had to contend with suspicious members of her tribe who did not see any purpose in giving away their sacred stories or who expected payment for telling them, since some ethnologists had established that custom.

    She also had to deal with the two men who made her publications possible: Lucullus McWhorter and Heister Dean Guie, the former an eminent scholar and faithful friend, the latter a journalist who wanted to establish a reputation as illustrator and editor. Both badgered her continually with questions of verification for certain customs' names or spellings. Both considered themselves authorities on the selection of stories "proper" for a white audience and on the addition of notes. Guie decided to eliminate at least ten tales from the final manuscript because they dealt with subjects like incest, transvestism, and infanticide. Donald Hines has retrieved these stories from Mourning Dove's manuscripts and has restored all the tales as closely as possible to her original version.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Most difficult to grasp for the white reader is probably the concept of power. Usually an individual's power derived from or was related to an animal to which he or she felt kinship. Power for the Okanogans is not identical with what we call the mind or the soul, but instead is more like the Christian concept of a guardian angel--a force that protects and leads. When a young girl or boy received power, they also received a "power song" that was their very own. Thus power is immediately related to words.

    Original Audience

    When the oral tradition entered the literary mainstream, it first had to take on the conventions and proprieties of white literature. Only decades later was the mainstream audience able to understand orality "in the raw." In Mourning Dove's time, the often bizarre or obscene behavior of Coyote could easily be understood as reflection on Okanogan morals. Besides, Coyote Stories was written first of all for children.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Compare with Zitkala-Sa in terms of "translating" tribal traditions into white western narrative form.

    On the surface, of course, the story of "The Spirit Chief Names the Animal People" is simply entertaining and educational. But, like any creation myth, it expresses a complex "philosophy." The animal people's need for "names" points to the coming of humans with a new kind of speech. But there were "tribes" already inhabiting the earth together with the animal people, and they were threatened by "people-devouring monsters." In a type of "Fortunate Fall" parable, it is the Coyote, the bragging, bungling fool, who by divine mercy is given the task of conquering these monsters. His special power may at times falter, but if he dies, his life can be restored by his twin brother, Fox, or by "others of the people."

    The reader trained in the Judeo-Christian tradition may want to compare this story with biblical images and concepts. The Spirit Chief is "an all-powerful Man Above"--as McWhorter's note phrases it--but he has a wife who could be compared to the Sophia of the Hebrews: she participates in the creation and is the human, commonsensical aspect of the divinity who knows what the people need.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. Compare the creation myths of various world religions or of various American Indian tribes. What do they have in common?

    2. In what sense did Mourning Dove herself become a "trickster"? How do these stories compare with fairy tales and fables?


    Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. 81-84, 151.

    Astrov, Margot. American Indian Prose and Poetry. Quoted in Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture, edited by Mary V. Dearborn, 28. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Fisher, Alice Poindexter. "The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala-Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional Writers." Ph.D. Dissertation, City University of New York, 1979. 36. On the quality of the passage on hair cutting.

    Fisher, Dexter. "Introduction." In Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range, by Hum-ishu-ma, v-xxix. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

    Hines, Donald M. ed. Tales of the Okanogans, Collected by Mourning Dove. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1976. 14.

    Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956; rpt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

    Schöler, Bo. "Introduction." In Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization. Aarhus, Denmark: Department of English, University of Aarhus, 1984, 9.

    Yanan, Eileen. Coyote and the Colville. Omak, Washington: St. Mary's Mission, 1971. 29.