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With its unique mixture of American Indian ethnography, history, philosophy, storytelling, revisionary myth, spirituality, and personal narrative, Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Sourcebook defies easy classification. Based on Allen’s belief in thought’s “magical” power and targeted at a wide, multicultural female audience, this text could almost be described...

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With its unique mixture of American Indian ethnography, history, philosophy, storytelling, revisionary myth, spirituality, and personal narrative, Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Sourcebook defies easy classification. Based on Allen’s belief in thought’s “magical” power and targeted at a wide, multicultural female audience, this text could almost be described as a mainstream self-help book. Allen implies that—read from the proper mythic perspective—the American Indian stories that she retells function as a guidebook for any woman interested in learning to develop her own shamanic powers and to “walk the medicine path, . . . to live and think in ways that are almost but not quite entirely unlike our usual ways of living and thinking.” Drawing on her extensive knowledge of American Indian belief systems, Allen creates a holistic, woman-centered epistemology and a series of revisionary myths that emphasize native peoples’ belief in a cosmic feminine creative intelligence. As she explains in the preface, the stories in Grandmothers of the Light provide women with guidelines enabling them to attain personal and collective agency. She implies that by fully participating in the “sacred myths” collected in her anthology, twentieth century English-speaking women of any ethnicity or cultural background can develop a spiritual mode of perception that empowers them to bring about psychic and material change. She combines theory, myth, and story to construct a twentieth century, feminist Pan-Indian worldview which she invites her readers to adopt.

Grandmothers of the Light can be divided into three parts: a preface and introductory chapter containing a brief discussion of Allen’s holistic worldview as well as her interpretation of North American Indians’ woman-centered metaphysical and social systems; a collection of mythic stories retold from Allen’s distinctly twentieth century feminist, Pan-Indian perspective; and an informational “Postscript” and glossary of mythic figures. In her first chapter, “The Living Reality of the Medicine World,” Allen provides readers with background information enabling them to comprehend the stories in the following section more fully. She discusses the similarities between native spirituality and other belief systems such as Taoism and Sufism, contrasts Eurocentric and American Indian conceptions of myth, and explores the transformational role that mythic narratives serve in oral cultures. Throughout this chapter, Allen underscores women’s centrality in North American indigenous peoples’ social and metaphysical systems. She outlines what she describes as the sevenfold path of medicine women—the way of the daughter, the householder, the mother, the gatherer, the ritualist, the teacher, and the wise woman—and explains that the stories in her collection teach readers how to follow this path.

The largest section of Grandmothers of the Light consists of Allen’s versions of twenty-one myths drawn from a number of diverse North American traditions, including those of the Chippewa/Ojibwa, Aztec, Cherokee, Navajo, Flathead and Okanogan, Iroquois, Karok, Keres, Lakota, Lummi/Nootsac, and Mayan tribes. As Allen explains in the preface, she based her selection on two criteria: the stories’ centrality to the construction of a woman-centered spiritual tradition and their importance in her own spiritual journey. As this emphasis on the personal indicates, Allen openly acknowledges the subjective nature of her revisionist myths. She does not attempt to present accurate ethnographic accounts, but instead reshapes traditional narratives in accordance with her own beliefs. Allen divides the stories into three chapters corresponding to the mythical eras that they reflect. “Cosmogyny: The Goddesses” contains her versions of creation accounts, including stories of the Keres Laguna Thinking Woman, the Iroquois Falling Woman, and the Navajo Changing Woman. While the tales in the first section focus exclusively on female creation figures, the stories in the second section, “Ritual, Magic, and Aspects of the Goddesses,” examine the interaction between human and supernatural beings. According to Allen, the Keres Pueblo Yellow Woman and other mythic figures provide readers with empowering models of female identity. The stories in the final section, “Myth, Magic, and Medicine in the Modern World,” serve a similar purpose. As Allen explains, they are designed to illustrate the continuing interaction between supernatural and human beings. Throughout these three chapters, Allen provides additional guidance for readers; she includes general overviews at the beginning of each section as well as supplementary background information concerning ethnographic sources and possible interpretations for each story.

Allen concludes Grandmothers of the Light with a brief discussion of the similarities and differences among the many peoples classified as American Indians as well as accounts of the ritual traditions and the precolonial and postcolonial histories of the peoples whose stories appear in her collection. It is significant that she does not present precolonial American Indians as powerless victims of European conquest; instead, she indicates that the shift to patriarchal structures had begun before European colonizers arrived.

Context

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Allen’s revisionary myths have significance for twentieth century feminists in the United States of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. By reinterpreting central female deities such as the Hopi Spider Woman, the Navajo Changing Woman, and the Keres Pueblo Thought Woman, Allen displaces the male Judeo-Christian God and challenges patriarchal beliefs concerning women’s subordinate status. Yet unlike many twentieth century women revisionist mythmakers who rely exclusively on Greco-Roman mythic figures, and thus inadvertently reinforce conventional Western gender roles by associating female gods with biological reproduction, Allen redefines feminine creativity by associating her female creation figures with spiritual and intellectual power. The Keres Laguna Thinking Woman, for example, uses thought and song to create the entire cosmos—including nature, human beings, sociopolitical systems, literature, and the sciences. By thus positing a cosmic “feminine” intelligence, Allen simultaneously displaces Western cultures’ traditional association of the body with the feminine and affirms women’s intellectual and creative capacities. Furthermore, by emphasizing American Indian women’s centrality in social, political, and religious structures, Allen exposes the ethnocentrism and racism behind stereotypes of native women as beasts of burden, dumb squaws, or traitors to their own people. Perhaps most important, by inviting readers of all ethnic backgrounds to walk the medicine path, Allen makes it possible to establish a transcultural community of self-empowered women.

In many ways, Grandmothers of the Light represents a remarkable departure from Allen’s earlier, more conventional academic work as an American Indian scholar. Although she expands on the holistic, mythic worldview and the feminist themes found in The Sacred Hoop (1986), her collection of essays on native cultures and mythological traditions, in Grandmothers of the Light she adopts a distinctly personal approach and combines factual information with autobiographical commentary. By doing so, she challenges Western-educated readers’ dualistic beliefs concerning the separation between objective and subjective forms of knowledge. Yet throughout her work, Allen is motivated by the desire to share her holistic, woman-centered American Indian worldview with people from all cultural backgrounds. Whether she intervenes in stereotypes of American Indians or invents alternate systems of meaning, her goal is transformation. By reclaiming and reinterpreting female North American creation figures such as the Keres Pueblo Thought Woman and the Mayan Xmucané (or Grandmother of the Light) and by retelling gynecentric tribal myths, she attempts to alter her readers’ self and worldviews.

Bibliography

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Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen Mullen Sands. American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. In addition to discussing native women’s autobiographical traditions, this study explores how the oral tradition and ethnographic accounts influence writings by Allen and other native women. Contains an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary materials.

Beck, Peggy V., Anna Lee Walters, and Nia Francisco. The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life. Rev. ed. Tsaile, Ariz.: Navajo Community College Press, 1992. Compiled from interviews, conversations, speeches, songs, spiritual teachings, and prayers, this comprehensive account of North American indigenous peoples’ “sacred ways”—their concepts, practices, belief systems, and worldviews —enables readers to place Allen’s work in a Pan-Indian context. Includes discussions of shamanism, storytelling and the oral tradition, peyote, and girls’ puberty ceremonies, as well as a wide-ranging bibliography.

Hanson, Elizabeth I. Paula Gunn Allen. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1990. Although published before Grandmothers of the Light, this brief study of Allen’s work provides useful background information about her life, as well as summaries of creative and theoretical writings published before 1989.

Jones, David E., ed. Sanapia, Comanche Medicine Woman. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972. A personal narrative exploring a twentieth century Comanche woman’s attempts to synthesize tribal and Christian belief systems.

Linderman, Frank Bird, ed. Pretty-Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972. This told-to narrative represents one of the few existing records of native life viewed from a woman’s perspective. Pretty-Shield’s discussion of her work as a medicine woman supports Allen’s assertions concerning native women’s social and spiritual power.

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