Native Writer Paula Gunn Allen
Poet, novelist, educator, and essayist Paula Gunn Allen is an American
Indian of mixed Laguna Pueblo and Sioux descent. She is a mother,
a grandmother, and a lesbian—and, as Patricia Holt noted in an interview
with Allen in the San Francisco Chronicle, "one of the few Native
American women with nationwide recognition."
Allen is the daughter of an Indian Scottish mother and a Lebanese
American father. She grew up in a small New Mexican village bounded by
two Native American reservations and attended a convent school during
her youth. Other religious influences included a Presbyterian grandmother and a Jewish grandfather, but she was
most strongly affected by her mother's stories about Native American goddesses and traditions.
Allen received her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in American studies. "I wanted to fit into English,"
she explained in an interview with Laura Coltelli in Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, "and I told
the graduate dean that I wanted to focus on Native American literature. And he told me there was no such thing,
which is why I have my degree in American studies." The influences on Allen's writing are as diverse as W. C.
Williams and the Black Mountain School of poetry, Gertrude Stein, the romantic poets Keats and Shelley, Mozart,
and cowboy music and literature.
Allen's published works include several books of poetry, a novel, a book of essays called The Sacred Hoop:
Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, and a collection of goddess stories from Native American
Civilizations, Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook. She is the editor of several
collections, including Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native
American Women, which won an American Book Award in 1990, and Studies in American Indian Literature; Critical
Essays and Course Design, which has become the standard introduction to the field.
In her introduction to The Sacred Hoop, Allen highlights the "major themes or issues that pertain to American
Indians and that characterize the essays." One of these is that "traditional tribal lifestyles are more often
gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal." She goes on to explain that "some distinguishing features of
a woman-centered social system include free and easy sexuality and wide latitude in personal style. This latitude
means that a diversity of people, including gay males and lesbians, are not denied and are in fact likely to be
It is this focus in Allen's work, most extensively worked in her essays "How the West Was Really Won" and
"Hwame, Koshkalak, and the Rest: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures," both in The Sacred Hoop, that makes her
so important to lesbian and gay writing, thought, and history. Allen is something of an archaeologist, unearthing
hidden facts about thriving ancient cultures that were both woman-centered and what we would today call "gay
positive." She writes in "Hwame, Koshkalak, and the Rest" that "it is my contention that gayness, whether female
or male, traditionally functions positively within tribal groups."
The cultures that Allen describes in The Sacred Hoop, unlike traditional Western modes of social organization,
"focused on social responsibility rather than on privilege, and on the realities of the human constitution rather
than on denial-based social fictions to which human beings are compelled to conform by powerful individuals within
the society." She notes that "the colonizers saw (and rightly) that as long as women held unquestioned power of
such magnitude, attempts at total conquest of the continents were bound to fail."
Because so little has been written about the gay and lesbian presence in tribal societies and what little there is
often reinforces western homophobic preconceptions, much of Allen's "discussion of lesbians is necessarily
conjectural, based on secure knowledge of American Indian social systems and customs that I have gathered from
formal study, personal experience, and personally communicated information from other Indians."
As Allen herself notes, her creative process "is somewhat western and somewhat Indian." She writes, "My Inner
self, the self who knows what is true of American Indians because it is one, always warns me when something
deceptive is going on. And with that warning, I am moved to do a great deal of reflecting, some more reading, and a
lot of questioning and observing of real live human beings who are Indian in order to discover the source of my
One of the finest qualities of Allen's writing is its balance, warmth, and underlying inclusiveness. "Far from a
one-sided feminist view," a reviewer writes of Grandmothers of the Light in Kirkus Reviews, "the emphasis is on
balance, ... seeking completion rather than adversariness and opposition." Quannah Karvar writes about Spider
Woman's Granddaughters in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "For those of us who inhabit that perilous ground
where two worlds collide, Allen is a pathfinder. She is only one of many who, like Spider Woman, offer their 'light
of intelligence and experience'."
Perhaps because Allen herself is the product of such varied cultural, religious, social, and literary influences, she
is so well-equipped to find and explicate the things that make us individual as well as those that join us together.
Allen closes one of her essays in The Sacred Hoop with the invocation: "Let us adjust our perspective to match
that of our foresisters. Then, when we search the memories and lore of tribal peoples, we might be able to see
what eons and all kinds of institutions have conspired to hide from our eyes."
In the burgeoning field of contemporary Native American literature, Paula Gunn Allen is a foremost literary
critic, scholar, writer, and educator. Her 1975 germinal essay, "The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective,"
now part of her collected essays, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986),
was one of the first to speak to the ritual function of Native American literature as opposed to Euro-American
literature. The belief in the power of the oral tradition now embodied in poetry or prose to promote healing,
rebirth, transformatory magic, survival, and continuance underlies all of Allen's work.
Although Allen writes from a Laguna Pueblo perspective, she often refers to herself as a "multicultural event,"
citing her Laguna Pueblo/Sioux/Lebanese/Scotch-American heritage. She believes that if she is able to
communicate with others, then everyone should be able to communicate. Allen refers to Laguna Pueblo culture as
female-centered in that descent was matrilineal, the ownership of houses was held by women, and the major
deities were female. Delineating the world view of this culture is a major focus of Allen's work as well as
confronting the difficulty of reconciling that world view in contemporary society.
A scholar of Native American literature, Allen edited an important collection on teaching Native American
literature, containing an extensive bibliography and course designs, Studies in American Indian Literature (1983).
The focus of her work, however, has moved steadily into addressing the loss, destruction, and attempted recovery
of a separate Native American women's ritual tradition and of Native American women's experiences.
Allen's novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1986), is a ritual journey of the protagonist to recover the
women-centeredness of her culture and to recover her own spiritual way as a medicine woman or ceremonial
lesbian. Her 1981 essay, "Lesbians in American Cultures," published in Conditions and reworked for The Sacred
Hoop, articulates her ideas about the roles of Native American lesbians in traditional cultures.
Allen's 1984 essay, "Who Is Your Mother: Red Roots of White Feminism," published in Sinister Wisdom and then
in The Sacred Hoop, was a startling and brilliant articulation of Native American contributions to democracy and
feminism. Elaborating on the roles and power of Native American women, it counters the idea that there never
were societies in which women's power was equal to men's. An edited collection, Spider Woman's Granddaughters:
Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989), is an attempt to correct the
literary invisibility of Native American women. In Grandmother of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook
(1991), Allen becomes the storyteller herself, thus extending her interest in the ritual experience of women as
exhibited in traditional tales.
Also well-known as a poet, Allen often explores in her poetry the plight of contemporary and traditional Native
American women who have lost both the cultural respect ordinarily accorded to them as well as the mythic
dimensions of women's relationships to the sacred as expressed in poetry. Allen's verse is finely detailed,
resonating with a sense of place—urban, reservation, or interior. She employs varying structures and rhythms
which come from her multicultural background of Pueblo corn dances, Catholic masses, and Arabic chanting. She
cites the non-linear writing of Gertrude Stein as a major influence.
A focus of Allen's poetry is to articulate the sense that everything is infused with spirit but not necessarily
controllable by humans. She writes of layers of shadows and civilizations, attempting to bridge these as poet, as
someone from a multicultural heritage, and to respond to the world with all its variations. Her multicultural
Native American perspective continues to enrich American literature and feminism.
Allen, P.G. Hozho--Walking in Beauty : Native American Stories of Inspiration, Humor, and Life. 2001
Radar, P. J. Multi-Ethnicity As a Resource for the Literary Imagination: The Creative Achievements of Women
|Paula Gunn Allen