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.
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.
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.
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.