Paula Gunn Allen, as an American Indian woman, saw her identity in relation to a larger community. She was proud to be part of an old and honored tradition that appreciates the beautiful, the harmonious, and the spiritual. She also recognized that since in the United States there are more than a million non-Indians to every Indian, she needed to work to stay connected to her Native American heritage.
Allen frequently referred to herself as “a multicultural event”; people of many ethnicities are related to her. Her mother was a Laguna Indian whose grandfather was Scottish American. Allen said that she was raised Roman Catholic, but living next door were her grandmother, who was Presbyterian and Indian and her grandfather, who was a German Jew. Her father’s family came from Lebanon; he was born in a Mexican land-grant village north of Laguna Pueblo. She grew up with relatives who spoke Arabic, English, Laguna, German, and Spanish. Her relatives shared legends from around the world.
Even with such cultural diversity in her family, as a teenager Allen could find no Native American models for her writing. Consequently, she read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (1847) about twenty times; her other literary favorites were Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein, and the Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. When she went to the University of New Mexico and wanted to focus on Native American literature in her Ph.D. program in English, it was impossible. The scholarship was not there to study. She came to write the books that she wanted to read and teach the courses that she wanted to take.
Allen taught at San Francisco State University, at the University of New Mexico, in the Native American Studies Program at the University of California at Berkeley, and at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In enumerating the influences that made her who she was, Allen first honored her mother, who taught her to think like a strong Indian woman and that animals, insects, and plants are to be treated with the deep respect one customarily reserves for high-status humans. She honored her father for teaching her how to weave magic, memory, and observation into the tales she told. Finally, the Indian collective unconscious was the source of her vision of spiritual reality. Allen died at her home in Fort Bragg, California on May 29, 2008.