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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Reader Response: Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove Session Author and Literary Works: Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

Photo courtesy of Jay Miller

Author Bio

Mourning Dove is the literary name of Christine Quintasket, an Okanogan from the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington state. Born between 1882 and 1888, she is considered one of the first female Native American novelists for her work Cogewea, the Half-Blood (1927). An activist for Indian rights, Mourning Dove wrote that she was grateful to have been born and come of age during the early years of official U.S. Indian Policy; she spent her life writing and working to represent Indian culture to a dominant white world. Scholar Janet Finn writes that Mourning Dove “wrote against the dominant grain of Indian image making” and that her work “challenged the capacity of personal ethnographic accounts to ‘capture’ Native American experience; they countered popular stereotypes of Indian people; and they posed an alternative form for elucidating cultural knowledge.”

Mourning Dove was born in a canoe crossing the Kootenai River in Idaho. She was the daughter of Lucy Stukin, a Colville tribal member, and Joseph Quintasket, an Okanogan. The two tribes were closely related and both spoke the Salish language. Her grandfather was Seewhelhken, who had been the head chief of the Colville tribe for many years. Her mother died when Mourning Dove was 14, and she helped raise her younger siblings. Mourning Dove’s formal education was limited to a few years at a mission boarding school, a few years in Indian schools, and a stint at a secretarial school. She learned to read from a young Irish orphan named Jimmy Ryan, whom her family adopted, and who taught her using “yellowback,” or pulp, novels.

Beset by chronic illness and poverty her entire life, she worked as a housekeeper and fruit picker to support herself and eventually buy a typewriter. In 1912, she began her first novel.

In 1915 Mourning Dove met a white businessman, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, who was an activist working to preserve Indian culture. He became her literary mentor, editing her works — and thoroughly changing them, by some accounts — and using his influence to get her first novel published. According to scholar Kathryn W. Shanley, McWhorter “decided to ‘help her’ with her novel, and what he did to it was turn it into something she didn’t recognize … a kind of pulp fiction that had to do with the issues of half-blood/full-blood, and a romance.”

McWhorter also encouraged her to interview her tribal elders and record their stories for the work that eventually became Coyote Stories (1933), a book Shanley says is “particularly important in her work in the sense that it’s the most genuinely hers.” Though she and her husband at the time earned their living as migrant workers, Mourning Dove managed to continue writing in the various tents or temporary houses where they were living.

As her writings made her well known, Mourning Dove became more active in Native American affairs. She also became increasingly ill. She died in 1936, at the age of 48, from what her death certificate lists as “exhaustion from manic depressive psychosis.” In 1990, 54 years after her death, the University of Washington Press published her autobiography, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. A personal memoir as well as a rich documentation of the Salish people and culture, the manuscript was found in the attic of a friend and collaborator.

Coyote Stories by Mourning Dove: Synopsis

Mourning Dove has written, “No foreigner could possibly penetrate or research [the legends, customs, and theories of my people] because of the effort needed to overcome the shy reluctance of the Indian when it comes to giving information to whites.” Her Coyote Stories set these legends down for a wider world to read.

To understand these Salish legends, one must understand the figure of Coyote. Coyote is a classic trickster figure found in the folklore of many Native American tribes, although various tribal traditions have resulted in slight nuances in Coyote’s qualities and character. Mourning Dove’s Coyote is a cultural hero with a multiple nature: divine, human, and animal. His divine helper, also known as his twin or “dual face,” is Fox. Storytellers use the Coyote tales to provide practical instruction, information about nature and history, and entertainment.

In Mourning Dove’s Coyote Stories, we learn why the spider has long legs, why the badger is humble, and why the mosquito bites. The tales are interesting and psychologically compelling. In her introduction to the tales, Mourning Dove remarks on how she and the other children would listen to the elders tell these tales, unaware of their deeper lessons. Coyote, both foolishly human and powerfully divine, gives humorous voice to impulses that a tribe would need to suppress in order to maintain order.

Teacher Greg Hirst has commented that one can hear a Coyote story as an animal story, a morality story, or an identity story. Every oral literature, he says, needs a trickster figure. Mourning Dove’s Coyote has been particularly popular, he believes, because he has two faces; that is, he is represented by both Coyote and Fox. The “Coyote” side of his nature is a wily trickster; the “Fox” side of his nature is a wise protector. This version of Coyote is popular, Hirst suspects, because we are all two-faced but don’t want to admit it.

Kathryn W. Shanley Audio Clip 1

The coyote figure, actually, has two aspects to him or her, and that is trickster/transformer. We’re more familiar with the trickster side, and, in fact, coyote tricksters especially get co-opted, like the cartoon Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner. But in Native traditions, there are times when, either purposely or inadvertently, coyote figures transform the world. So, both sides of the coyote figure need to be taken into account.

Kathryn W. Shanley Audio Clip 2

The role of Native American writers in expanding the canon is an essential role, even given all the problems of defining what is Native American, who is Native American. Putting those aside, there has to be that kind of voice in any collective sense of American literature. People can argue what they will about an American literature not really existing or it being generated out of European traditions and not being appropriate for Native traditions, but the fact of the matter is, Native literary voices have to be part of what we study when we study American literature. If we don’t, we haven’t drawn the right picture. It’s like a photograph with big blanks where certain faces must have been, and they’re cut out.

Q & A with Kathryn W. Shanley

Discuss Mourning Dove’s importance in Native American literature.
Mourning Dove is an Interior Salish, Okanogan writer who lived in the last part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. Her Christian name was Christine Quintasket, but she used the pen name Mourning Dove. She was someone who has been credited for writing the first Native American woman’s novel. But an older novel has been discovered written by Alice Callahan called Wynema.

Mourning Dove’s novel, Cogewea, was her first novel. In 1915, she met a man, McWhorter, who was an advocate for the people. He was someone with whom Indian people felt comfortable; he fought for Indian causes and so on. And he decided to “help her” with her novel, and what he did to it was turn it into something she didn’t recognize. She was very gracious to him, but said, “I hardly recognized it.” What he did was turn it into a kind of pulp fiction that had to do with the issues of half-blood/full-blood, and a romance. The plot structure is very much popular fiction. There’s no extant manuscript of any sort to which we can go back and find what she wrote in the first place.

After she died in the 1930s, Jay Miller put together an autobiography from pieces of her writing that were left in her effects. He thoroughly footnoted and created a sense of the tribal context. And that work, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography, is important for contextualizing her life. She was poor all her life; she wrote against great odds. She worked as a migrant farm worker and other things like that that were not conducive to the writing life. Her poverty and being a woman made it harder for her to be a writer. So her work is valuable to us, even though there isn’t a large body of work. Mourning Dove’s collection Coyote Stories is particularly important in the sense that it’s the most genuinely hers. The coyote stories were collected, and she saw the purpose of them. She was an activist. So, they’re important in understanding her life in her work. So, I think that’s one way in which we should honor them. They’re a marvelous cultural artifact.

Describe coyote, the trickster figure about whom Mourning Dove wrote.
Sometimes you know that the version of the trickster tale you are using has lost a lot in the translation. In Mourning Dove’s stories, I have a feeling that they’re fairly full of cultural content. One thing she does is have Coyote is married to Mole, and the contrast between those two characters mythologically is very important. Mole is dutiful to the extreme, almost masochistic, and Coyote is willful and individualistic to the point of almost being sadistic. And so those human traits come together in those stories. But Coyote also has a complementary part, Fox. Coyote and gets himself into trouble a lot. And then something happens to Coyote and he dies. His brother Fox comes along and steps over him four times, and then Coyote comes back to life like a phoenix. But Coyote never thanks his brother Fox. He doesn’t believe he did something so bad that he killed himself or got himself killed or that he needs anybody in the world to help him at all.

Those stories are a lot of fun to teach. It’s easy to bring out laughter and for kids to see meaning in them. Trickster figures are very important in literary studies because people who teach like to have things that entertain their students. As some critics have said, there really is no such thing as a trickster figure. It’s an energy force. And it’s something that exists in social communities. I like to point out to students that trickster figures are generated most readily out of indigenous cultures, and they are generated regionally. So, that energy comes out of a regional experience of living in a particular place. In the southeast of the United States, the trickster figure is a hare; in the northwest, the trickster figure is a raven, and so on.

Coyote is a figure that’s become somewhat generalized. And literally, coyotes are in every state of the union. They didn’t used to be. So, the literal coyote has moved around and so has the trickster figure; and he — and it’s usually a he, sometimes it’s a she — is but showing up in a lot of traditions. One of the things that I think is kind of interesting is that Interior Salish have traditional trickster figures such as Raven. And if Raven and Coyote appear in the same trickster story, Coyote tends to be the worse behaved of the two. The Raven does some bad things, but isn’t as thoroughly corrupt. So those are kind of interesting features that suggest to me that he’s an import. In terms of the difference in trickster figures in one area versus another, there are some anthropologists who have suggested that the more sedentary a group is, the more likely it is that their trickster figure is a bad guy; in other words, clearly someone you would not want to emulate.

I see that some traditions, for example, Hopi, tend to kill off Coyote at the end of every tale. What he does gets him trouble, and so he dies. But in other traditions, he goes on to another adventure; he doesn’t stay in one place. Sometimes he’s overwhelmed with a sense of wanting to belong somewhere. And in some stories he will have lived among a group of humans for 20 years or 30 years. So, the traditions are varied. There have to be teaching tools to help people understand the range of possibilities of behavior. Ultimately they are for social control, but they’re also there to break social control, to create humor around those urges that we have.

The coyote figure actually has two aspects to him or her: trickster and transformer. We’re more familiar with the trickster side, and, in fact, coyote tricksters especially get co-opted, like the cartoon Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. And it becomes kind of trite and stereotypical. But in Native traditions, there are times when coyote figures transform the world. They may transform the world by stealing fire, because the people don’t have fire, or by slaying the monsters. It isn’t a sense of outrage that Coyote feels when he sees those things. It’s a sense of ego, like, “The monsters are slaying and eating people. Well, now, what can I do about that?” But he isn’t a crusader activist — not in the more traditional sources I’ve read. So, both sides of the coyote figure need to be taken into account, the transformer and the trickster.

How might a teacher use clans and totems appropriately in the classroom?
Among indigenous peoples, there are many forms and types of organization. Many cultures tend to organize around clans. You’re usually born into a clan or marry into a clan. Clans have a kind of totem — the eagle clan or the buffalo clan or the wolf or the snipe. These are energies in the world. There is a fox energy; there is an eagle energy or grizzly bear energy. In Salishan cultures, they have longhouses where the clans would get together. And for Salishan and other groups on the Northwest Coast, totem poles identify families who are owners of particular longhouses. So, to set up a lodge in a playful way in a classroom and have students serve in particular clans enables them to see how these units would function in a Salishan culture. So using that as a teaching tool is a fine thing to do, if you make it clear to the students that it’s something that they should respect.

One of the risks of taking Native organizational structures — like clans or tribes — and trying to duplicate them in a classroom is making these categories a little oversimplified. Clans do usually have a totem, but it wouldn’t mean necessarily that the grizzly bear is only known for its strength, or the eagle is known for its wisdom flying above and so on. To take them too literally would be equivalent to imagining the coyote trickster figure is embodied in every coyote you see.

So using the kind of categories in Native cultural and social groups to organize a classroom can be valuable, but you have to watch out for the pitfalls of having people over-literalize what that means.

I think that it’s important for a teacher of Native American literature to recognize the popular images the student brings into the classroom, Native and non-Native, and to allow for that, like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner. People who don’t know anything about trickster traditions or storytelling traditions will know of that cartoon. So, there are other things, too, that they will know, like Tonto and the Lone Ranger. So, they’re carrying some kind of baggage about what they think Native oral traditions are. Teachers have to be aware of that and work around it, tease it out, get them talking.

Talk about the relationship between the Native writer and the audience.
There’s a different, very keen sense of audience with a Native writer, because the Native writer knows that the public carries within its repertoire some of the Westerns and a lot of bastardization of Native cultural beliefs. The writer knows that he or she has a responsibility to represent even as he or she is just trying to express something. It’s quite an intimidation factor, but important. It’s important for there to be a body of work. Having many voices speak out of Native American experiences is important both for Native American traditions and for American literature in general, or American culture in general. The more voices that are out there, the more likely it is for people to see the rich and varied traditions that exist, and the less able they’ll be to generalize.

Sherman Alexie talks about this quite frequently. To be an Indian writer, you’re expected to be from a horse culture. He jokes like that. In a multicultural society of its own, Native American cultures are widely different. So it’s great for there to be all these voices.

Even though you have the issue of appropriation and the fear of taking Native things that aren’t meant to be used outside of a particular community, or even to be written down, that they’re supposed to be carried in oral memory, or things of that sort, Native writers have a different set of issues in terms of getting a message out and getting a set of stories out to the mainstream, out to other American Indian people around the country or Native American — whichever term you prefer — that “getting the word out” that says, “We’re alive today; this is what we do; this is what are traditions are like.” And, as with any writer, it’s part of the development of the writer to own aspects of his or her own existence and ancestry and to pull those kinds of threads of a life together into sets of stories. And some of that is a desire to set a record straight, and sometimes it’s to create a more nuanced sense of what an experience is like or to present the negative side, so that the stereotypes of the noble savage are not perpetuated.

How would you characterize the relationship of Native American literature to “the canon”?
Among Native American literary critics, there are differing opinions about the role Native American literature ought to serve in the canon. Some say Native American literatures are not American literatures at all, because what is American is seen as colonialist, and these are tribal traditions, not European-derived literary traditions, that come out of the oral tradition. So, they are distinct and ought to be kept distinct. Other critics will say what’s important is for Native voices to enter the canon and be taught and that many of the writers come out of the universities, they have some university experience, they have oral influences, oral tradition influences, but they aren’t necessarily any different than another writer who studies James Joyce or Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, and then learns to write after finding works that appeal in style or content. So, we have those two schools in Native American literary criticism among the Native critics themselves. I am someone who believes that we don’t have a lot of time for that kind of theoretical difference and that there are too few writers to make such great, sweeping generalizations. Some of them come from deep oral traditions and speak their Native language — writers like Simon Ortiz. And another, like Louise Erdrich, grew up in storytelling traditions but does not speak her language and has her own storytelling style that derives a large part from reading other stories. So the answer has to be a mixed answer. My own political position is we can’t afford, as Native writers, not to have our voices be included in the canon. Because without that, we are virtually silenced; we do not seem to exist. So, I think it’s important.

Information About Key References

A common figure in the folktales of many cultures, the trickster traditionally acts upon the world to teach, admonish, or break cultural norms. According to scholar Kathryn W. Shanley, the trickster figure is the manifestation of an energy force that all cultures (particularly indigenous communities) possess. There are frequent similarities in trickster stories among various Native American tribes, and there are resemblances between Native American tricksters and those of African and African American tales.

The Coyote trickster figure is found in many traditions. Mourning Dove’s Coyote, however, is specific to the Salish people traditionally residing in parts of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and southwestern Canada. The Salish Coyote is a trickster hero who has human, divine, and animal natures. Coyote is said to have no clear-cut guidelines, values, or moral structures except his own passions and curiosity. Mourning Dove’s Coyote is unique because he has two faces: Coyote and his twin brother, Fox. According to scholar Kathryn Shanley, “the Coyote figure actually has two aspects to him or her, and that’s trickster/transformer. We’re more familiar with the trickster side, but in Native traditions there are times when, either purposely or inadvertently, Coyote figures transform the world.”

The-One-Who-Sits-On-The-Top, also known as the Spirit Chief
The Spirit Chief is the supreme deity among the various Salish people. This supreme being gave Coyote the task of killing people-devouring monsters.

The Spirit Chief gave Coyote a helper, Fox, who is able to bring Coyote back to life if he is killed. Fox also acts as the “dual face” of Coyote, representing the transformative part of Coyote’s nature.

Traditionally, the Salish Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest lived in long wooden houses known as “lodges”, each of which held several families. The interior generally included a centrally-located fire pit for cooking and warmth, and outside each was a totem pole (representing an animal spirit), which was considered an important spiritual part of the stucture. While the lodge served as living quarters, it often had the dual function of organizing the tribe. In many Indian nations, including Mourning Dove’s Salish community, each clan was represented by a particular totemic animal; clans tended to live together in lodges whose totem poles represented the energy of that animal.

In her preface to the original Coyote Stories, Mourning Dove identifies herself as a member of the Okanogan tribe. She defines the tribal name as “people-living-where-you-can-see-the-top,” referring to the top of Chopaka, a snowy peak in Washington state. The Okanogan, like many tribes in the Pacific Northwest, are considered Salish Native Americans, a designation which includes tribes who speak some version of the Salish language.

Montana Salish
The Montana Salish community encompasses several tribes, including the Flathead, the Pend Oreille, and the Coeur d’Alene, who are all united by a similar language. These tribes migrated in the distant past from areas in British Columbia. The traditional Montana Salish were adept astronomers whose primary religious celebration occurred during the winter solstice. Salish Coyote stories offer information about traditional Salish culture, history, and lifestyle.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to Coyote Stories

Mourning Dove’s Coyote Stories can be explored using a number of different inquiry approaches. Students might create a class project on Native American trickster tales, in which different groups of students explore trickster stories specific to a region or tribal group. They can study the tales themselves for aesthetic and other literary devices, as well as for contextual information relating to the culture and history of the Native American people.

A cultural studies exploration might include research into the relationship between Coyote, other Native American tricksters, and African American trickster figures, with an eye toward locating historical instances of contact and literary cross-pollination.

A critical approach might encourage students to explore cartoon characters reminiscent of Coyote, noting the differences and similarities. Teachers can have students trace the historic development of the cartoon characters to see where the original ideas for these figures came from. Further, students can focus on how exchanges between artists, advertisers, corporations, and fans have affected the development of these characters over time.

Author and Literary Works

Works by Author: 

Mourning Dove. Cogewea, the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range, edited by Dexter Fisher. Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1981
Cogewea mixes elements of traditional Native American storytelling with dime-store novel melodrama and details from Mourning Dove’s own life. Describing the struggles of a Native American woman in a non-Native culture, it explores the themes of conflicted identity that Mourning Dove herself faced. Cogewea is controversial because of the possible influence of her editor, L.V. McWhorter, whom some believe rewrote sections of the novel to add anthropologic, ethnographic, and dramatic elements.

—-. Coyote Stories, edited by Jay Miller. Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
This is a collection of legends and traditional Salish stories told by the elders on the Colville Reservation. Mourning Dove transcribed these tales, which focus on the Coyote trickster figure.

—-. Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography, edited by Jay Miller. Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Mourning Dove left the manuscript of her autobiography in the attic of her friend and collaborator Heister Dean Guie, a newspaper editor and illustrator, who died before having read it. Guie’s wife eventually discovered it and worked to have it published. Editor Jay Miller profoundly shaped this autobiography and published it 54 years after Mourning Dove’s death. In it, she vividly evokes tribal life, rites, ceremonies, and traditions, and illuminates her own family history.

Works About Author

Bloom, Harold (ed). Native American Women Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
This general introduction features several articles about Mourning Dove.

Finn, Janet L. “Ella Cara Deloria and Mourning Dove: Writing for Cultures, Writing Against the Grain.” In Women Writing Culture, edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.
This article reflects on Mourning Dove’s writing in the context of her various cultural affiliations.

Fisher, Dexter. “The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional American Indian Writers.” In Critical Essays on American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget: 202-11. Boston: Hall, 1985.
This article focuses on Mourning Dove’s use of Native American traditions in her literature.

Miller, Jay. “Mourning Dove: Editing in All Directions to ‘Get Real’.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, 7:2 (Summer 1995): 65-72.
This article considers Mourning Dove’s work from an historical perspective.

Pace, B.G. “The Choice to Write: Mourning Dove’s Search for Survival.” In Old West-New West: Centennial Essays, edited by Barbara H. Meldrum: 261-71. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1993.
This article considers Mourning Dove’s writing from a biographical perspective.

Six, Beverly G. “Mourning Dove (Hum-ishu-ma) (Christine Quintasket) 1882?-1936.” In American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Laurie Champion: 252-57. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
This chapter offers a concise, bibliographic essay on Mourning Dove.

How Can I Keep on Singing? Moving Images Video Project
This film is a tribute to both the pioneering and Native American women in the West at the turn of the last century. The program was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry of Jana Harris. Stories about indigenous women are drawn from the published work of Jeannette Armstrong of the Penticton Indian Band and from the autobiography of Mourning Dove. Available on VHS: 1-800-555-9815 or


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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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