Paula Gunn Allen Essay - Critical Essays

Paula Gunn Allen American Literature Analysis

American Indians honor all existence as sacred. They do not set up arbitrary barriers between spirit and matter, human and other-than-human. Instead, they perceive the universe as living, dynamic, and fluid, with each being (such as trees, rocks, animals, water, and humans) contributing its own awareness to the integrated and constantly reforming continuance of the whole. In all of her writings, Allen was an “environmental advocate” who revealed the consequences of harmonious and disharmonious relations with the universe. In “Los Angeles, 1980,” Allen describes the “vitamin-drenched consciousness” of the city-dwellers: “The death people do not know/ what they create, or how they hide/ from the consequences of their dreams.”

To Allen, the female force was “about balance and mutual respect and reciprocal obligation.” Reality involves a vigilant awareness of, and caring for, self, others, and place, because all realities coexist in the cycle of life. Time itself is fluid, and spirit is the creative force. The journeymaker who walks in balance recognizes the essential beauty of the universe and explores each experience for its fundamental, communal truth. In Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Sourcebook (1991), Allen teaches a spiritual discipline through twenty-one stories of tribal tradition and sacred power.

Allen was taught that her mind is irrevocably hers, an aspect of her reality that no one else can ever possess. To a people who have survived a genocidal colonization and who are still hostages facing nonexistence on their own land, this is a crucial message. Allen saw American Indian literature as a means of “taking control of the image making again,” of choosing ritual right action to reestablish an earth-connectedness and to abandon the illusory path of powerlessness. “Hoop Dancer,” in Shadow Country (1982), is an unforgettable, synesthetic experience in poetry of these principles.

American Indian literature and Western literature are fundamentally different. Approaching Indian literature metaphysically, psychically open to all of its levels of reality, rather than didactically superimposing an external critical or cultural context, is essential. As a teacher, an essayist, and an editor, Allen contributed with distinction to integrating American Indian literature into Western awareness as well as to providing the appropriate contexts through which the literature can best be understood. She was the editor of, and contributor to, Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (1983), a definitive text published by the Modern Language Association.

Rather than emphasizing an individual in crisis, American Indian literature focuses upon tribal continuity and the nature of the individual’s connection to it, with the purpose of enhancing the fulfillment of both. Self-expression for its own sake would be considered invasive, self-indulgent negativity. Therefore, if an individual is isolated, the isolation is examined in terms of how the individual and the cosmos can be reconnected.

The American Indian universe is integrated, rather than divisive: Great Mystery (God) does not sit apart in judgment from the elements of the universe but lives within all in reciprocity. Place is never incidental; instead, place is crucial to the significance of an action. All planes of existence are recognized as “real.” Time is cyclical and coexistent. The treatment of time provides important contextual clues as to the consciousness with which the work can most appropriately be approached. Finally, American Indian literature is life-affirming rather than death-preoccupied.

As a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, until her retirement in 1999, Allen lived in both the Native American and the Western worlds. Her writing, however, is profoundly Native American. In describing her life, she did not speak of a straight-line journey from one event to another but of an energy flow along a path that resembles a Mobius strip.

Many of Allen’s books of poetry attest the reality that her journey has not been without turbulence: The Blind Lion, Coyote’s Daylight Trip (1978), A Cannon Between My Knees (1981), Star Child (1981), Shadow Country, and Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-87 (1988). Each shares her search for balance and groundedness: from the mountains to the cities, through idealism and despair, to survival, affirmation, and healing transformation.

Self-alienation, often a consequence of bicultural or multicultural experience, is a recurrent theme in Allen’s work. An individual displaced by ancestry is highly susceptible to psychic deterioration from the absence of both internal and communal grounding. In addition, Allen focused upon the scarring effects of a patriarchal colonialism forced upon gynecocratic tribal cultures. The debilitation of land sickness, the powerlessness of nonexistence for tribal women, and the imposition of an alien dualistic, materialistic culture brought searing disharmony and imbalance to the American Indian world.

Myth, ritual action, and oral tradition are the healing foundations of the Native American universe. All three are visionary and real. Allen reinforced their curative,...

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