Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the twenty-four poems collected in Skins and Bones, Paula Gunn Allen reinterprets the historic and mythic beliefs of indigenous North American peoples from a twentieth century feminist perspective and develops a highly distinctive woman-focused tradition. By incorporating American Indian accounts of a cosmic feminine power into her poetry, she connects the past with the present and creates a complex pattern of continuity, regeneration, and change that affirms her holistic, spirit-based worldview. Allen’s ability to synthesize personal reflection and social critique with her gynecentric Indian perspective simultaneously politicizes and spiritualizes her poetry. As she combines personal expression with social commentary and revisionary myth, she underscores her belief in transformation, survival, regeneration, and change.

Divided into three parts, the poems in Skins and Bones encompass a wide array of interrelated personal, philosophical, and social concerns, ranging from meditations on creation and death to descriptions of late-twentieth century bicultural American Indian life. In the first section, “ ‘C’koy’u, Old Woman’: Songs of Tradition,” which consists primarily of narrative poems, Allen stages a number of confrontations between Indian and European peoples and beliefs. She employs revisionist mythmaking to reinterpret conventional religious and historical accounts from a woman-centered, American Indian point of...

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Skins and Bones Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Skins and Bones reflects Allen’s ongoing attempt to redefine feminism from an American Indian perspective. As in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, her 1986 collection of scholarly essays on American Indian literary and cultural traditions, Allen rejects standard academic accounts of native cultures as primitive and patriarchal cultures, and she underscores their sophisticated metaphysical, epistemological, and social systems. By emphasizing the central social and symbolic roles that women play in historic and mythic native cultures, she provides an important corrective to the commonly held belief in an ahistorical, worldwide patriarchal system of women’s oppression and offers twentieth century European American feminists alternative models for social, psychic, and political change.

Allen’s revisionist mythmaking plays a significant part in her transformation of European American feminist thinking. Like a number of other twentieth century American Indian women poets, she replaces the Judeo-Christian male god and other patriarchal myths that denigrate women’s abilities with positive images of female identity. Unlike those revisionist mythmakers who rely almost exclusively on the Greco-Roman mythic tradition and thus inadvertently support conventional Western associations of womanhood with biological reproduction, however, Allen associates feminine creativity with psychic and spiritual rebirth. By so doing, she simultaneously critiques U.S. feminists’ ethnocentric concepts of womanhood and provides Western readers with alternative models of female identity formation. For example, by describing the female creator C’koy’u as an old woman yet associating her with creation and birth, Allen subtly challenges the ageism that devalues elderly women’s creativity and denies their ability to make positive contributions to society.

By exploring the lives of Indian and mixed-blood women, Allen expands existing representations of female identity in other ways as well. In “Dear World” and “Myth/Telling—Dream/Showing,” for example, her descriptions of the destructive self-divisions experienced by mixed-blood women serves as an important reminder that although all U.S. women might be oppressed, the specific forms of oppression they experience vary cross-culturally. In other poems, such as “Old Indian Ruins” and “The One Who Skins Cats,” Allen draws on her personal knowledge of bicultural American Indian life to explore the various ways in which women achieve personal agency. By so doing, she provides readers with images of spiritually powerful women who kept the old beliefs yet changed them to meet present-day needs.

Skins and Bones Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Green, Rayna, ed. That’s What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. The introductory essay to this anthology of poetry by twentieth century American Indian women writers situates Allen’s work in the context of an emerging literary tradition. This essay provides an analysis of the similarities and differences between Allen’s poetic styles and those of other Indian women writers.

Hanson, Elizabeth I. Paula Gunn Allen. Edited by Wayne Chatterton and James H. Maguire. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1990. Although this brief study of Allen’s work does not include a discussion of Skins and Bones, it provides useful background information about Allen’s life and her impact on twentieth century native literary traditions, as well as a brief summary of her creative and theoretical writings published before 1988.

Jahner, Elaine. “A Laddered, Rain-Bearing Rug: Paula Gunn Allen’s Poetry.” In Women and Western American Literature, edited by Helen Stauffer and Susan Rosowski. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson, 1982. This essay explores the ways in which Allen incorporates mythic processes and traditional American Indian beliefs into her poetry. Although this article focuses exclusively on Coyote’s Daylight Trip (1974), it contains insightful analyses of several poetic themes and stylistic devices also found in Allen’s more recent collection.

Koolish, Lynda. “The Bones of This Body Say, Dance: Self-Empowerment in Contemporary Poetry by Women of Color.” In A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. This essay analyzes the theme of self-empowerment in poetry by self-identified women of color. It briefly discusses Allen’s use of myth and tribal histories to reconcile apparent opposites.