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Wendell George | Novelist taught with her words

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On Nov. 7 and 8, a two-day symposium was held in Omak to honor Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket), a Colville tribal member and the first American Indian woman novelist.

Her works sought to preserve and explain Indian culture.

Sponsored by Wenatchee Valley College at Omak, the symposium was supported by the Colville Confederated Tribes, the Community Foundation of North Central Washington, Humanities Washington, WVC-Omak Associated Students, Family Faire Okanogan, the Omak Red Road Student Club and the Okanogan County Historical Society.

Specialists in history, language and culture came from throughout the region to celebrate the life of Mourning Dove. In addition, the premiere of the film, “The Cherokee Word for Water,” was the highlight of Thursday evening with a special appearance by Kim Norris Guerro, star of the film and a Colville Tribal member.

Mourning Dove was born sometime between 1882 and 1887 in a canoe while crossing the Kootenai River near Bonners Ferry. She attended mission schools at Boyds, Fort Spokane, Washington and Great Falls, Mont. She also lived and taught school near Osoyoos, and as an adult, she attended Business College in Calgary, Alberta.

“Cogewea: The Half Blood,” was published in 1927 and “Coyote Stories” in 1933. Her autobiography was published posthumously in 1990.

She has many relatives on the Colville Indian Reservation. Her now-deceased half-brother, Charlie Quintasket, often spoke of his novelist sister.

Mourning Dove lived during the transition of tribal people to a new way of living. Her work described the history and culture of the Lakes people who are now part of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Her writings were a vivid description of the assimilation of Indian culture into the European. Her work is unique in that it is contemporary to a time of tremendous change in Indian Country, and her novel “CoGeWeAh,” is commonly taught in universities and colleges throughout the West.

It was rewarding to see more than 140 people intensely interested in Mourning Dove and to also see the development of a consensus around issues that she explored over 80 years ago. Those issues include:

  • The recognition that tribal culture has much to offer all Americans as we mature as a nation.
  • The need to develop a mechanism that brings this culture to the forefront.
  • The recognition that acculturation has run its course and that the dominant culture must move to incorporate Native American concerns into society’s mainstream.

As part of the symposium, traditional tribal storytellers showed how the trickster figure, Coyote, has human traits. He is foolish but a skillful planner, a selfish creature, but with concern for others and a creature who sometimes lacks dignity but has fun. Mourning Dove’s Coyote eventually moves from trickster to transformer, and her interpretation describes a vibrant and complex culture.

Participants were unanimous in encouraging more symposiums on these same topics.

Wendell George writes Go-la’-ka Wa-wal-sh (Raven Speaks). He can be reached via email at wvegeorge@charter.net. His books are available at the local book stores, tribal museum and Amazon.

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