Off the Reservation

For several decades UCLA literary scholar and professor of Native American Studies Paula Gunn Allen has documented her self-proclaimed “mixed blood” ecofeminist sensibility in genres ranging from poetry and fiction to myth criticism and personal essay, doing so both to elucidate the richness of her Southwest Indian heritage and to place that heritage squarely at the center of America’s pluralistic culture. The twenty pieces collected in Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border- Crossing Loose Canons chart Allen’s intellectual evolution since the 1960’s and offer a provocative introduction to what she calls “contemporary coyote Pueblo American thought.” And like the coyote, she assumes a self-consciously renegade stance vis-a-vis the Establishment, asserting through the book’s subtitle that creativity lies, not in the wall-building divisiveness of Western thought, but in “Boundary-Busting” and “Border-Crossing” (activities for which her upbringing on the culturally heterogeneous Laguna Pueblo has aptly prepared her). Allen thus delivers repeated challenges to the assumed primacy of “pure” forms, whether they involve internal debates within the Native American community about standards for measuring one’s authentic “indianness” or the literary preoccupation demanding that writers obediently refrain from mixing genres. Autobiographical reflection and academic discourse merge throughout these essays just as the sacred and secular coalesce within Native thought.

Off the Reservation is a learned, humane, and thoughtful book albeit one occasionally marred by ungrounded generalizations and dogmatic pronouncements. Allen offers fresh perspectives on familiar themes and leaves one mulling over her ideas long after the book is closed. For some readers her blend of erudition and political critique will violate the traditions of academic decorum; for others it will provide an inspiring example of academic work urgently conceived as an extension of a potent moral vision.