Paula Gunn Allen Allen, Paula Gunn (Vol. 202) - Essay

Paula Marie Francis


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paula Gunn Allen 1939-

American poet, critic, essayist, novelist, short story writer, educator, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism of Allen's works through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 84.

A renowned literary figure, an eminent scholar, and dedicated feminist, Allen attempts to educate mainstream audiences about Native American themes, issues, and concerns by promoting Native American literature as a viable and rich source of study. In such works as her poetry collection Shadow Country (1982), and her novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983), Allen examines her identity as a mixed blood and emphasize the status of Amerindian women in various Native cultures. Her critical essays, such as those collected in The Sacred Hoop (1986), and her numerous anthologies probe similar themes and ideas.

Biographical Information

A registered member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Allen was born in Cubero, New Mexico, a rural land grant situated next to the Laguna Pueblo reservation, the Acoma reservation, and Cibola National Forest. Allen's mother was of Laguna Pueblo, Sioux, and Scottish descent, and her father, who grew up on a Mexican land grant in the American Southwest and once served as lieutenant governor of New Mexico, was of Lebanese ancestry. Allen has credited these mixed origins as a major influence on her writing as well as a source of hope and inspiration. Spending her early years in Cubero, Allen was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Albuquerque at age six, and her Christian upbringing is often reflected in her writings. An avid reader, Allen encountered the works of Gertrude Stein in high school, and she has noted that her early attempts at writing were highly influenced by the American novelist and poet. Allen has also cited American poet Robert Creeley, under whose direction she once studied writing, and Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday as individuals who have had a strong impact on her work. Initially intending to become an actress, Allen attended various schools before earning a B.A. in English in 1966 and an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1968 from the University of Oregon. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies and American Indian Studies from the University of New Mexico in 1975. She has taught at the University of New Mexico, the University of California-Berkeley (where she was Professor of Native American/Ethnic Studies), the University of California-Los Angeles, and San Francisco State University (as director of the Native American Studies Program), among other academic institutions. Allen has been the recipient of numerous prizes: she was awarded the 1990 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Spider Woman's Granddaughters (1989), and in 1990, won the Popular and American Culture Association's Susan Koppelman Award and the Native American Prize for Literature. In addition to receiving numerous awards, Allen has held multiple academic fellowships, including a postdoctoral fellowship for the study of Native American traditions and literature from the Ford Foundation and the National Research Council. She received a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978, and was selected as a postdoctoral fellow in American Indian Studies from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1981. In 1999, Allen retired from her position as professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Major Works

Much of Allen's work is preoccupied with her identity as a woman, mixed blood, and lesbian within Laguna and white society. Focusing on the themes of assimilation, self-identity, and remembrance, she frequently examines the quest for spiritual wholeness. For example, her poetry collections, which include The Blind Lion (1974), Shadow Country, and Skins and Bones (1988), often emphasize the female journey to transcendence. Specifically, Shadow Country is concerned with the world of the contemporary, career-oriented American Indian female, who is also immersed in the oral history, religion, and consciousness of her racial heritage. The search for self-actualization and an integrated self is central to The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, in which the protagonist, a lesbian half blood, eventually learns to accept her sexual orientation and cultural identity rather than conform to social stereotypes. This work, which is dedicated to the Native American deity Thought Woman, additionally emphasizes the importance of storytelling in Native American culture, incorporating such diverse narrative modes as folktales, letters, legends, dreams, and Pueblo “thought singing.” Allen's scholarly works, including her popular essay collection The Sacred Hoop, deal with women's issues, the oral tradition, lesbianism, and female deities. In Spider Woman's Granddaughters, an anthology including tales by Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Anna Lee Waters, Pretty Shield, and other Native American women, Allen attempts to introduce “tribal women's literature” to non-Native readers. She similarly collects creation myths concerning Native American goddesses in Grandmothers of the Light (1991), projecting historical fact and her own insights onto these tales. In her two-volume collection, Voice of the Turtle (1994) and Song of the Turtle (1996), Allen assembles a broad range of Native American short fiction from 1900 to 1994. In 1996, Allen and fellow Native American author Patricia Clark Smith published As Long as the Rivers Flow, a selection of nine sketches on prominent individuals of Native American ancestry—including Geronimo, Will Rogers, and Louise Erdrich—aimed at the children's/young adult market. Allen's recent biography, Pocahontas (2003), counters the romantic version of Pocahontas's life as portrayed in contemporary stories and film. Instead, Allen describes Pocahontas as a visionary and spiritually and intellectually gifted young Native American woman placed in extraordinary circumstances.

Critical Reception

Allen's oeuvre has received a broad range of critical responses. Her poetry has been recognized for its musical qualities and The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, though faulted at times for its broad focus, has been praised for its examination of racism and sexism. While occasionally criticized for their lack of documentation, Allen's nonfiction works have been lauded as attempts to preserve Native American culture for all individuals regardless of their ethnic heritage. Some commentators have derided her tendency toward broad generalizations and presenting a biased version of the “truth”—specifically, she frequently offers her view as representative of an intrinsically pure Native perspective, which several critics have disputed. Other reviewers have accused Allen of manipulating facts in order to bolster her own tribal feminist political agenda. Critics have underscored the significance of the themes of self-identity and memory to her work, and feminist commentators have analyzed the significant role of females in her rendering of Native American mythology and the impact her lesbian identity has on her worldview. Allen's work as an editor has garnered praise, as reviewers have commended her attempts to introduce readers to Native American fiction. In that vein, she has been recognized for her contribution to Native American literature and is considered a noteworthy figure within the tradition of contemporary Native American writing.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Blind Lion (poetry) 1974

Coyote's Daylight Trip (poetry) 1978

A Cannon between My Knees (poetry) 1981

Star Child (poetry) 1981

Shadow Country (poetry) 1982

Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs [editor] (essays and nonfiction) 1983

The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (novel) 1983

The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (essays) 1986

Wyrds (poetry) 1987

Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-1987 (poetry) 1988

Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women [editor] (short stories) 1989

Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook (essays) 1991

Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970 [editor] (short stories) 1994

As Long as the Rivers Flow: The Stories of Nine Native Americans [with Patricia Clark Smith] (biography) 1996

Life Is a Fatal Disease: Selected Poems 1964-1994 (poetry) 1996

Song of the Turtle: American Indian Fiction, 1974-1994 [editor] (short stories) 1996

Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting Border-Crossing Loose Canons (essays) 1998

Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat (biography) 2003

Helen Jaskoski (essay date summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jaskoski, Helen. “Allen's ‘Grandmother’.” Explicator 50, no. 4 (summer 1992): 247-50.

[In the following essay, Jaskoski locates Allen's poem “Grandmother” within traditional Pueblo traditions and mythology.]


Out of her own body she pushed
silver thread, light, air
and carried it carefully on the dark, flying
where nothing moved.
Out of her body she extruded
shining wire, life, and wove the light
on the void.
From beyond time,
beyond oak trees and bright clear water flow,
she was given the work of weaving the strands
of her body, her pain, her vision
into creation, and the gift...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Renae Bredin (essay date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bredin, Renae. “‘Becoming Minor’: Reading The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 6, no. 4 (winter 1994): 36-50.

[In the following essay, Bredin argues that The Woman Who Owned the Shadows provides an examination of the respective positions of reader, writer, and text.]

I know you can't make peace
being Indian and white.
They cancel each other out.
Leaving no one in the place.

—Paula Gunn Allen, “Dear World”

Chela Sandoval, in “U.S. Third World Feminism,” posits the possibility of using the outsider position, or the borderlands, as a position of “tactical...

(The entire section is 6020 words.)

Vanessa Holford (essay date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holford, Vanessa. “Re Membering Ephanie: A Woman's Re-Creation of Self in Paula Gunn Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 6, no. 1 (spring 1994): 99-113.

[In the following essay, Holford underscores the role of memory and writing in Ephanie's quest for self-discovery in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.]

Paula Gunn Allen's novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows charts the near-fatal emotional breakdown of Ephanie, a “half-breed” Guadalupe Indian living in New Mexico who, torn between the conflicting demands and beliefs of two cultures; feels incomplete to the point of panic but, initially,...

(The entire section is 5825 words.)

P. Jane Hafen (review date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hafen, P. Jane. Review of Voice of the Turtle, by Paula Gunn Allen. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 20, no. 1 (1996): 256-59.

[In the following mixed review, Hafen notes the narrow literary scope of Allen's literary selections in Voice of the Turtle.]

Paula Gunn Allen's latest contribution to the body of Native American letters is this important anthology, Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature 1900-1970, first of a projected two-volume work. The second volume will contain contemporary writings. This well-organized and thematically selected collection offers both familiar and lesser-known narrative selections placed in a...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)

Tracy J. Prince Ferrell (essay date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ferrell, Tracy J. Prince. “Transformation, Myth, and Ritual in Paula Gunn Allen's Grandmothers of the Light.NDQ: North Dakota Quarterly 63, no. 1 (winter 1996): 77-88.

[In the following essay, Ferrell contends that Grandmothers of the Light provides insight into a “personal and empowering transformation” and examines the complexities involved with identity formation and cultures in conflict.]

[Spider Grandmother] thought to the power once and knew a rippling, a wrinkling within. … She thought in her power to each of her bundles and continued singing. She sang and sang. She sang the power that was in her heart, the...

(The entire section is 4780 words.)

AnaLouise Keating (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Keating, AnaLouise. “Back to the Mother?: Paula Gunn Allen's Origin Myths.” In Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, pp. 93-117. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Keating analyzes Allen's distinctive use of North American origin myths and the metaphoric representations of the woman in her work.]

There is no arcane place for return.

Trinh Minh-ha

The meanings of the past create the significance of the present.

Paula Gunn Allen


(The entire section is 9635 words.)

Paula Gunn Allen and John Purdy (interview date fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Paula Gunn, and John Purdy. “‘And Then, Twenty Years Later …’: A Conversation with Paula Gunn Allen.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 9, no. 3 (fall 1997): 5-16.

[In the following interview, Allen discusses her work and the progress of Native American studies.]

The following conversation took place at Chateau de la Bretesche in Brittany on June 25, 1997, immediately following the completion a three-day symposium entitled “Theories of Representation in American Indian Literatures: European and North American Perspectives.” The symposium brought together European and American scholars and Native writers to share research topics...

(The entire section is 5311 words.)

Tara Prince-Hughes (essay date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Prince-Hughes, Tara. “Contemporary Two-Spirit Identity in the Fiction of Paula Gunn Allen and Beth Brant.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 10, no. 4 (winter 1998): 9-31.

[In the following essay, Prince-Hughes views the concept of two-spirit identity as a central theme in the work of lesbian writers Allen and Beth Brant.]

A central concern in contemporary Native American fiction is that of identity. According to Louis Owens, in Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, common to many writers is a “consciousness” of the “individual attempting to reimagine an identity, to articulate a self within a Native American...

(The entire section is 9118 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 September 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Pocahontas, by Paula Allen Gunn. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 35 (1 September 2003): 76.

[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat.]

In what is presented as the first study of its kind by an American Indian scholar, Allen (The Sacred Hoop) offers a corrective to the romantic story of Pocahontas told initially by Capt. John Smith of the Virginia Company and most recently by Disney Studios. Euro-American historical accounts of Pocahontas's brief life, asserts Allen, typically depict her as lovelorn and tragic character (she died in 1617 in the aptly named...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Van Dyke, Annette. “Paula Gunn Allen (1939- ).” In Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, pp. 5-12. Conn., Greenwood Press: edited by Sandra Pollack and Denise D. Knight, 1993.

Provides a brief overview of Allen's life and work.


Bredin, Renae Moore. “Theory in the Mirror.” In Other Sisterhood: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color, pp. 228-43. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Focuses on the work of Leslie Marmon Silko and Paula Gunn Allen.

Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. “‘Two...

(The entire section is 528 words.)