Paula Gunn Allen

by Paula Marie Francis

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Helen Jaskoski (essay date summer 1992)

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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 of having created,
to disappear.
After her
the women and the men weave blankets into tales of life,
memories of light and ladders,
infinity-eyes, and rain.
After her I sit on my laddered rain-bearing rug
and mend the tear with string.

—Paula Gunn Allen

The editors of W. W. Norton's New Worlds of Literature reprint Paula Gunn Allen's poem “Grandmother” with a reading of the poem as referring to the speaker's grandmother: “[T]he speaker is mending the rug that, apparently, the grandmother created?” (265). The plain sense of the text, however, tells us that Grandmother (the Spider) weaves “the strands / of her body … into creation” (not rugs) and that it is “the women and the men” who weave blankets “after her” (in both temporal and imitative senses). This more literal reading accords with interpretation of the poem in light of the author's Keresan (Laguna)1 tradition. According to Keresan origin myths, Ts'its'tc'i• na• k'o, creatrix and great mother, often identified in English translation as Thought-Woman or Thinking Woman, is also known as Grandmother Spider. Thinking Woman/Grandmother Spider creates things by thinking of them and naming them.2

Jahner has read the poem within this context of traditional myth, emphasizing the expression of “continuity with mythic creation” (324). The poem also draws on other elements of traditional Pueblo Indian cultures, such as the Hopi and Tewa; examination of this background in relation to the particular statement of “Grandmother” demonstrates that the poem asserts change as well as continuity, evolution and growth as well as preservation. The central trope for the subtext of change is the blanket as representative of androgyny.

The poem refers throughout to traditional Pueblo practices and in particular to the division of labor that assigned weaving and storytelling to men and the construction of houses to women. The speaker of “Grandmother” maintains that both women and men weave, which is contrary to Pueblo custom; the speaker also equates weaving with storytelling, another activity assigned to men.3 On the other hand, the “tales of life” created by weaver-storytellers construct “memories of light and ladders,” a reference to traditional Pueblo housing construction, which provided entry into multistoried condominium dwellings by means of ladders to rooftop entries. Pueblo houses and fields belong to the women of the clan (James 40), and women traditionally were the builders of houses, as an early Spanish traveler noted (Benavides 33, 121). The old construction methods exist now only in reconstructed “memories” of ancient ways; European-style construction practices have prevailed since late in the last century (Yava 165).

Hence the speaker of the poem weaves change as well as continuity into her statement. While daughters and granddaughters maintain the linking of family and clan, and weavers and storytellers show how earthly existence connects with the invisible world of myth, women and men also weave themselves into changing roles in the community. Men have become housebuilders; women now participate in weaving and storytelling.

It is essential to this reading to distinguish between...

(This entire section contains 1495 words.)

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speaker and author. Elsewhere, especially inThe Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen asserts a centrality of women to American Indian cultures, and it is tempting to assume—as Bannan does—that the speaker is a woman. The speaker of “Grandmother,” however, is emphatically ungendered or androgynous. Grandmother Spider, female Great Mother, is the archetypal progenitor for weavers, who were traditionally male. Now, according to the poem, a further evolution in the process of creation sees both women and men as weavers, storytellers, and builders of the houses of memory. The poem's speaker takes the place of the Grandmother who “disappeared” after completing her work of creation; the speaker sits on the blanket (creation) to “mend the tear” in it—an activity that may be read as reweaving the gap caused by both the disappearance of grandmother/creator and the erasure of women from the creative activities of weaving and storytelling. The woven blanket is itself a figure of androgyny, composed of warp and weft, in which neither can predominate and both must be literally interlocked.

The complex of spider-weaver-poet and the blanket as metaphor for androgyny also makes this poem a bridge that connects Euroamerican and American Indian poetic traditions through its echoes of two other works. In “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” Whitman, preeminent celebrator of the androgynous self in American literature, also parallels the creations of spider and poet. On the other hand, the blanket as a figure of androgyny is the core metaphor in a traditional Pueblo poem collected by Spinden: The Tewa “Song of the Sky Loom” opens and closes with invocations to Mother Earth and Father Sky; the body of the poem parallels warp and weft with white light and red light, dawn and sunset, falling rain and standing rainbow. In traditional Pueblo and other southwestern cultures, each of these natural elements—rain, light, and so on—is gendered, so that the blanket, itself an image of the coming rainstorm, metaphorically weaves together into a seamless whole the balancing opposites of male and female.

Paula Gunn Allen's “Grandmother” celebrates the traditional arts of Pueblo communities through the voice of the individual speaker and the speaker's vision of change within continuity, of adaptability and inclusiveness within rigid structures of balance and complementarity. To understand both the surface structure and the deeper meaning of this poem requires “cultural literacy” in Laguna/Pueblo traditions, that is, some acquaintance with the appropriate mythical/cultural references (just as comprehension of a poem referring to angels requires some knowledge of the Judeo-Christian tradition). Paradoxically, when such specific cultural backgrounds are located, the poem can be placed in a trans-gendered, trans-cultural context of world literature, echoing the voice of a nineteenth-century American Romantic man, as well as the ancient magical songs of the earliest dwellers on the continent.


  1. Keres is a linguistic category: Keresan languages and dialects are spoken at several of the New Mexico Indian pueblos, including Laguna, home of Leslie Silko and Paula Gunn Allen. Allen's maternal great-uncle, John M. Gunn, collected and translated Keres history and literature (Gunn Schat Chen; Allen The Sacred Hoop282-283).

  2. Boas prints stories of Ts'its'tc'i• na• k'o creating by thinking and naming (7) and identifies her with the Spider (222, 276). Silko opens her novel Ceremony with a poem telling how Thought-Woman thinks the world into being, including the story about to unfold in the novel. Parsons asserts that Spider “is the universal mother” (192).

  3. See Helen Sekaquaptewa for discussion of men and weaving in another Pueblo community, the Hopi; also see Benavides for division of labor in traditional culture. Babcock's essay explores a similar situation of recent entry by women into traditionally male activities; her essay connects pottery making with storytelling.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Grandmother.” New Worlds of Literature. Ed. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1989. 264-265.

———. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Babcock, Barbara. “At Home No Womens Are Storytellers: Potteries, Stories, and Politics in Cochiti Pueblo.” Journal of the Southwest 30 (1988): 356-389.

Bannan, Helen M. “Spider Woman's Web: Mothers and Daughters in Southwestern Native American Literature.” The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. 268-279.

Benavides, Alonso. The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides 1630. Tr. Mrs. Edward E. Ayer. Chicago: Privately printed, 1916. Albuquerque: Horn and Wallace, 1965.

Boas, Franz. Keresan Texts. Part 1. Publications of the American Ethnological Society vol. 8. New York: American Ethnological Society, 1928.

Gunn, John M. Schat Chen: History, Traditions and Narratives of the Queres Indians of Laguna and Acoma. Albuquerque: Albright and Anderson, 1917; New York: AMS, 1986.

Jahner, Elaine. “A Laddered, Rain-bearing Rug: Paula Gunn Allen's Poetry.” Women and Western American Literature. Ed. Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1982. 311-325.

James, Harry C. The Hopi Indians: Their History and Their Culture. Caldwell, Id.: Caxton Printers, 1956.

Parsons, Elsie Clews. Pueblo Indian Religion. 2 vols. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1939.

Sekaquaptewa, Helen. Me and Mine: The Life Story of Helen Sekaquaptewa. Ed. Louise Udall. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1969.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.

“Song of the Sky Loom.” Songs of the Tewa. Ed. and trans. Herbert J. Spinden. Santa Fe: Sunstone, 1935. 94.

Whitman, Walt. “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973. 450.

Yava, Albert. Big Falling Snow: A Tewa-Hopi Indian's Life and Times and the History and Traditions of His People. Ed. Harold Courlander. New York: Crown, 1978.


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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.

Renae Bredin (essay date winter 1994)

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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 subjectivity” out of which existing modes of oppression can be confronted (14). Critical debates at this point have an ongoing history of inquiry that centers around the politics of identity, the constitution of cultural inclusion/exclusion, and the problem of the speaking subject, when the speaking subject is speaking outside of the dominant order. The question to be asked addresses the position of the other within the dominant framing of ideology. Is the other complicit and resistant in ways that affect the construction of a “white self”? In what ways can the subaltern alter the discourse of racial formation? No longer is the question who may speak, but rather: speaking or not speaking, does the constructed other operate as more than a blank page, thereby revising the text of the “white self”? In a similar gesture, Cherríe Moraga writes in “From a Long Line of Vendidas” that “the Radical Feminist must extend her own ‘identity’ politics to include her ‘identity’ as oppressor as well” (188). I would like to place Sandoval's and Moraga's positions into circulation together and argue that Sandoval's “tactical subjectivity” in the space of the much-discussed borderlands operates effectively in tandem with Moraga's call for the inclusion of the position of oppressor and oppressed in the scripting of speaking subjects in dialogue, thereby revising the dominant version of self, scripted as white, male, heterosexual.

This essay interrogates the work of Paula Gunn Allen, who positions herself as essentially Native American, lesbian and “feminine,” identities chosen from among several possible identities which she has taken up and set aside within the body of her oeuvre. In Allen's novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, the central figure in the text, Ephanie, (re)constructs herself in much the same way that Allen has autobiographically. This text provides a decentering confluence of the subject positions of reader, writer, and text, within which we can begin to examine the issues of positionality and essentialism. In her most recent collection, Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970, Allen asserts a unified, monolithic “Native people” participating in a “Native Narrative Tradition,” a community of people “who belong to the Turtle Island branch of the [multicultural] encounter” (5-8). Allen's work stands in a unique relationship to the debates over racial identity as socially constructed or biologically determined because her claims to authority to speak from an essential identity as Native American are made within a constructed domain of blood and bones.


The reading transaction is precisely the space I wish to explore as the borderland of self and other, a potent location in which to raise these questions. I come to Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows as an outsider—someone not Native, nor Keresan (Laguna)—but as someone seduced, taken in, as it were, transformed by the text. The questions taken up are those that interrogate this particular transaction as one between positions of insider and outsider. If it's in the blood and bone, then the reader (presumed white) is outside. On the other hand, if identity is being constructed in the act of textual construction, then the blood and bone are only partial sites of difference, or similarity.

In Essentially Speaking, Diana Fuss posits that the two seemingly opposed concepts of socially constructed identities and biologically essential selves actually “underwrite” or “prop” each other. Using Lacan's “concept of the ‘split subject,’ divided against itself,” Fuss offers “the strategy of positing the reader as a site of differences” and asserts that subjectivity allows for “the notion of the reading process as a negotiation amongst discursive subject-positions which the reader, as a social subject, may or may not choose to fill” (34).1 Reading becomes a “borderland” in which subjectivity is negotiated at will.

In the terms of Fuss's argument, then, a reading by someone outside of Paula Gunn Allen's own “discursive subject position” in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows is a negotiation of different subject positions, with “fluid boundaries,” positions “always constructed, assigned, or mapped … undermining any notion of ‘essential reader.’” For Fuss, “all of these points suggest that if we read from multiple subject-positions, the very act of reading becomes a force for dislocating our belief in stable objects and essential meanings” (34-35). While Fuss is speaking of gender as a category of analysis, a similar approach to subjectivity might possibly work in the dislocation of reading in and from other subject-positions, in particular, that category designated “race.”

In Woman, Native, Other, Trinh T. Minh-ha articulates the relationship between writing, reading and textuality in this way:

In a sense, committed writers are the ones who write both to awaken to the consciousness of their guilt and to give their readers a guilty conscience. Bound to one another by an awareness of their guilt, writer and reader may thus assess their positions, engaging themselves wholly in their situations and carrying their weight into the weight of their communities, the weight of the world.


If, in Trinh's formulation, Allen is a committed writer, and our discursive positions are situated in a historicized guilt, the weight of my guilty conscience as I occupy a dominant (white, heterosexual) subject position within prevailing power relations will, of necessity, require me to assess my own position and engage myself wholly with race as a primary feature of the writings of women committed to tribal consciousness and tribal survival, carrying the weight of their tribal communities. There is a way in which occupying this position as a reader is one that silences. My acts of resistance to illicit power may be in listening to the ones speaking in that place, in listening to what Allen, Trinh and many U.S. third world feminists are speaking of, and how they are speaking.

How then might a white, heterosexual woman speak of Paula Gunn Allen's text without playing Prospero? The exclusionary practice of essentialism falters when our “selves” are socially constructed, but the social construction of identities threatens to evacuate the political possibilities of essences in blood and bone. As Gayatri Spivak notes in “The Problem of Cultural Self-representation,” “What can the intellectual do toward the texts of the oppressed? Represent them and analyze them, disclosing one's own positionality for other communities in power” (56). I would argue that there are sites from which I might read, beyond a guilty silence, grounded in a weave of theoretical strategies. Determined by the text itself, informed by the aesthetics of the multiplicity of contexts out of which the writer writes, positioned in the fluctuating power relations of what Trinh signs as I/i, in this mesh I/i as reader might find a place from which to read, learn, and engage with the text in order to speak in the writerly/readerly dialogue.


Contemporary Native American writers occupy subject positions that are not monolithically Native American but rather are embedded in specific tribal communities (Sioux, Navajo, Paiute, Cree). This does not, however, divorce them from sites within those constituted as Native, sites that are in turn surrounded by non-Native/dominant cultural and political discourses. Because Native and tribal aesthetics and assumptions about art and creativity often inform and underlie writings by Native women, and because those systems are not divorced from either the sacred or the secular for many tribal people, my responsibility to attempt an understanding of those systems is clear. However, as Richard Dyer has noted in relation to gay and lesbian authorship, “… all cultural artifacts, are not culturally pure … uncontaminated by [white Anglo-European] norms and values” (190). Therefore, an examination of the aesthetics that underlie and inform writings by Native American women must include the “contaminating” elements of dominant regimes.

Aesthetic determinations emanate from individual moves within larger cultural regimes. Those regimes as understood and enacted by the writer are part of what I as reader must come to understand in order to engage in this dialogue. Allen has constituted in her critical writings a paradigm which she calls the “Native Narrative Tradition,” a unifying paradigm for identifying and reading a generalized Native American literature. In her desire for the inclusion of themes of magical transformations, social change, cultural transition, shifting modes of identity, as well as “certain structural features—diversity, event-centeredness, nonlinear development … and transitional modes,” Allen expresses some of what constitutes her personal aesthetic (Voice 8). These features are refinements of what Bevis, Owens, and others have identified elsewhere as necessary features of a text in order for it to be defined as Native American, including use of the oral tradition, a sense of place, and time as “circular” (rendering simultaneous past, present, and future).2 In earlier interviews, and in fact in her poetry and prose, Allen also claims Joyce, Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley as influences, thereby also claiming the artistic and aesthetic practices of Western European literary discourse.3 How do these fluctuating authorial subject positions play out in a given text? And how do I read a text grounded in an oral tradition with which I have become familiar only through written texts, even as it is imbricated with discourses in which I participate?

The genres out of which Allen's text arises, like the literary and cultural influences of many Native women writers, are Anglo and Eurocentric traditions. The novel, poetry, and autobiography are all forms from within the Western literary tradition. They are forms (in collusion with language) that arise from and reflect on patriarchal, hierarchical, imperialist hegemonies.

The English language has been the linear tongue of colonial discoveries, racial cruelties, invented names, the simulation of tribal cultures, manifest manners, and the unheard literature of dominance in tribal communities; at the same time, this mother tongue of paracolonialism has been a language of invincible imagination and liberation for many tribal people in the postindian world. English, a language of paradoxes, learned under duress by tribal people at mission and federal schools, was one of the languages that carried the vision and shadows of the Ghost Dance, the religion of renewal, from tribe to tribe on the vast plains at the end of the nineteenth century.

(Vizenor 105)

The double-edged possibilities of liberation and oppression found in language and form become a space of community between “Native writer” and white reader—I, too, read and write with(in) and against the language and forms of the dominant discourse.


Following in the tradition of Virginia Woolf, as have French feminist poststructuralists like Irigary, Wittig, and Kristeva, Allen breaks the sentence in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. In this linguistic subversion, the gaps and silences are so profound that there isn't a whole sentence that can be spoken; there is no way of using language—the sign system of the oppressor. So the sentence is broken, the narrative (to paraphrase Shadows [The Woman Who Owned the Shadows] 41) “inarticulate in the silence.” “Fear. Bloody fingers pressing her temple. Her breastbone. Her gut. I will not be afraid. Fear, the destroyer” (Shadows 6). In the connective tissue of the noun/verb—fear, separated by periods—her body is stressed, used, defining the thought. In the gaps, between the periods, are the unspoken, unspeakable parts of her body and her fear. This is the narrative of the broken sentence. The text is theory—it theorizes an impossible silence, an insurmountable gap between identity formation and received identity.4 Between speaking the self, and the silenced self.

And low, so low, she had finally managed to say. “Stephen. I want.” Pausing then. For a beat. One beat the length of one single word. Then finishing. “To go away.” She did not say that one, that crucial word. “You. I want you to go away.” Nor did he hear. What the tiny pause, that silence was intended, inarticulate, to say.

(Shadows 11)

There is silence, there are gaps, there are tiny pauses, filled with meaning, filled with the essence of Ephanie, the desire that is unspeakable. To write Ephanie—mixed blood, female, lesbian—is to write the impossible. In “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Judith Butler points to this kind of silence, this “unnameability” as a covert strategy of hegemonic oppression:

Here it becomes important to recognize that oppression works not merely through acts of overt prohibition, but covertly, through the constitution of viable subjects and through the corollary constitution of a domain of unviable (un)subjects—abject, we might call them—who are neither named nor prohibited within the economy of the law. Here oppression works through the production of a domain of unthinkability and unnameability. Lesbianism is not explicitly prohibited in part because it has not even made its way into the thinkable, the imaginable, that grid of cultural intelligibility that regulates the real and the nameable.


To learn what Allen is teaching, to hear what she is saying, I must listen/read to/in the gaps and silences for the unthinkable, what Allen names, speaks in the gaps and silences, just as Ephanie wishes her lover/brother/double Stephen to do (but he doesn't because he can't). Listen to Ephanie's silence, the momentary pause, that contains the meaning, the self, the who of her. Like Stephen, I cannot necessarily hear what is in the silences, but unlike Stephen, I know that Allen's silences name the unnameable and speak the unspeakable in their subversive linguistic play.


There is another location in the borderland where reader and writer meet. Allen's use of Native American narrative offers a space in which to write in words the unspeakability of race. By telling the stories over and over again, from as many discursive positions as possible, Allen writes Ephanie into the “shifting modes of identity” (Voice 8). Allen tells several versions of the Haudenoshonee (Iroquois) story “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky.” It is a story she is also concerned with in her critical work. In “Grandmother of the Sun: Ritual Gynocracy in Native America,” Allen recounts the story this way:

Sky Woman is catapulted into the void by her angry, jealous, and fearful husband, who tricks her into peering into the abyss he has revealed by uprooting the tree of light (which embodies the power of woman) that grows near his lodge. Her terrible fall is broken by the Water Fowl who live in that watery void, and they safely deposit Sky Woman on the back of Grandmother Turtle, who also inhabits the void. On the body of Grandmother Turtle earth-island is formed.

(Sacred Hoop 15)

In “The Intersection of Gender and Color,” Allen calls for a way of reading texts that attends to “the actual texts being created, their source texts, the texts to which they stand in relation, and the otherness that they both embody and delineate” (314). One of the sources of the narrative of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky is that of written accounts of narratives told by Haudenoshonee tribal informants to white ethnographers and missionaries, then collected in Sanders and Peek's Literature of the American Indian.5 This is also a story that continues to circulate amongst Haudenoshonee tribal people as well as Native and non-Native writers other than Allen. My attention, then, is directed to the sources and versions of this and other texts, and how they work to create this new text.

Allen's use of a tribal story she would not necessarily have heard as a Keresan child, and with which her own Keresan cosmology may have no concrete connections, appears to be based on this notion of her “Native” subject position as assuring her unique access to material marked “Native” but not necessarily Keresan. An essentialist position would argue that because Allen is mixed blood, she would have a greater connection to and understanding of the original Haudenoshonee version than a non-Native would, even though she isn't Haudenoshonee herself but rather is Keres. She may, of course, have heard this story told by someone with tribal affiliations connecting the teller to its telling. In eliding the boundaries of tribal affiliation in favor of a generalized Indian, Allen in some sense co-opts this Haudenoshonee story as one of the strands of the web of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. This move positions her within an essentialist dynamic that sets aside the socially constructed aspects of her tribal identity in favor of “Native” as an unexamined and naturalized essence. Allen in effect creates an essential Pan-Indian. This essentialist position forecloses my own participation in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows as an essentialized white reader. Leslie Marmon Silko, also a Laguna writer, sees this essentialist position as problematic. “The community is tremendously important. That's where a person's identity has to come from, not from racial blood quantum levels” (qtd. in Fisher 19). Since Allen does not participate in the Haudenoshonee community within which the story she is telling is embedded, we (reader and writer) are both inside and outside of the story, undercutting Allen's appropriation of tribal material unrelated to her own blood and bone.

By telling and retelling this particular story, Allen transforms it into more than a Haudenoshonee story. It becomes more than the sum of its tellings, rather a Native American story, part of the transtribal Native Narrative tradition. In Keeping Slug Woman Alive, Greg Sarris indicates that it is in a readerly reflexivity, an ongoing dialogue with Indian written literatures that readers of American Indian written literatures might best enter the dialogue. He argues that “the Indian writer is both Indian speaker and cross-cultural mediator, and readers must consider the Indian writer's specific culture and experience and how the writer has mediated that culture and experience for the reader” (130-31).6 While Allen's use of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky is de-contextualized from a tribal cultural specificity, she works to mediate cultural experiences with which she claims greater connection, a closer community. In this way, theory becomes fiction, and fiction reflects and becomes theory.

The story is told in the novel for the first time in a mode comparable to that of the version in The Sacred Hoop, as a brief, almost anthropological, recounting of the “legend.” “According to legend a woman had spoken to her dead father. He had told her to marry the sachem in the village downstream, who then put her to a series of unusual and cruel tests that proved her power greater than his” (Shadows 38). In this skeleton of a plot, devoid of the pulse of cultural context—an incomplete telling—Ephanie is disconnected from the story—it is not hers and it fails to offer her any healing at this point. But the story has now been remembered, and it is in the act of remembering that identity is (re)claimed. As Allen has so powerfully asserted elsewhere:

… we tell the stories and write the books and trade tales … My great-grandmother told my mother: Never forget you are Indian. And my mother told me the same thing. This, then, is how I have gone about remembering, so that my children will remember too.

(Sacred Hoop 50)

It is Ephanie's task to remember and tell the stories. Until she finds her place in those stories, she remains out of balance, without identity.

Ephanie herself falls through the sky and through the text, just as Sky Woman does, catching herself or being caught in the web of community and memory several times along the way. At the end of Part I, when she instead of Stephen leaves, she falls onto the road, leaving behind the community in which she has been embedded (mother, children, the apple tree of childhood). She falls into a new community consisting of urban Indians and Anglos in therapy. In Part II, she marries Thomas, a Nisei man, and gives birth to their twin sons. Ephanie falls again through the hole in the sky as she falls through the hole in her marriage. The fall is a document—her final divorce decree from Thomas. She falls into the next world, Part III, with her twin sons. This is when bits and fragments of her identity begin to cohere. The sickness caused by separations, silences, disconnection, and authority begins to be healed in dreams and remembering, learning to tell time and stories properly and finding a connection to “place.” But she continues to fall, because she hasn't yet fully understood her place in the story. Her final fall is a suicide attempt, which she survives with the help of Grandmother Spider, Naiya Iyatiku, a mythic and sacred Keresan figure.

The fall becomes a ritual death into life, into a “right relationship” with the stories and her “home location.”

She understood at last that everything was connected. Everything was related. Nothing came in that did not go out. Nothing was that did not live nestled within everything else. And this was how the stories went, what they had been for. To fit a life into. To make sense. Nothing left because there was no place else to go. Nothing left out because everything was remembered. Everything was told. What had happened in time immemorial, as the old ones called that time before time, happened now. Only the names were different.

(Shadows 191)

Everything is remembered and told, which brings us back to the notion of remembering as identity. If everything is remembered, then Ephanie's identity has been fully realized as Grandmother Spider brings Ephanie into the web, nestles her within the stories, thereby bringing her into a balanced community and a “right relationship to earth and society” (Sacred Hoop 209). As Silko asserts, identity is embedded in community.

The version of the story of Sky Woman told in Part IV immediately following Ephanie's suicide and return begins like a European fairy tale—“Once upon a time, long ago so far, a young woman was told by her dead father to go and marry a stranger” (192). Allen uses two culturally specific metanarrative framing devices. “Once upon a time …” is the traditional opening for Western European fairy tales, and “Long ago so far …” opens mythic Keresan stories. There appears to be a deliberate juxtaposition of Native American and Western European storytelling practices.7 This final version of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky sets in motion a merging of all of the versions and other stories used in the text, and it is with this telling that Ephanie becomes balanced, because she understands her place in the stories, both Western European and Native American, as they are merged in this final telling.

It is when Ephanie realizes that she is Sky Woman, the one who falls from the sky, in this epiphanic moment, that she remembers her first fall from the tree of light/apple tree as a little girl. “After she fell everything changed. How she dressed. How she walked. What she thought. Where she went. How she spoke. The old ease with her body was gone” (Shadows 202). It is after this particular, first fall that she is forced to separate from her friend, Elena, her first doubling friend. Their deep lesbian attraction for each other brings on authoritative, Christian intervention. “‘You know,’ she said, her voice low. ‘The way we've been lately … Hugging and giggling … I asked the sister about that, after school. She said it was the devil … That it was a sin. And she told my mother. She says I can't come over any more.’” And Ephanie understands “That she was falling. Had fallen” (Shadows 30). This original fall and separation from her other self sets off the cycle of illness and disintegration Ephanie suffers from for most of the text. And it is in her realization that this fall is only a repetition of all of the other falls—past, present, and future (mythic, historic, personal)—that she can be healed. She has fallen, separated and returned. Allen describes this same movement in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn: “It is not about redemption, for redemption is not a Pueblo (indeed, not an American Indian) notion; it is not about a fall from grace. It is about sickness and disharmony, and about health and harmony” (“Bringing Home the Fact” 571). The similarity between this insight into Momaday's work and Ephanie's trajectory is not accidental, I think. The text is, again, fiction theorizing.

The text itself is, in fact, another telling of the Sky Woman story which incorporates other versions of the same story (as well as other stories). Ephanie has a stronger power than Stephen, but she is unable to use it. She falls slowly through her sickness until Grandmother Spider saves her, and the soil of Ephanie's re-emergent identity forms around the community of the stories she has remembered and re-told. She is both inside and outside of the story, and “Inside and outside must meet, she knew, desperately. Must cohere. Equilibrate. No one mentioned it. They said it was all within. They said it was all outside. But she was the place where the inside and the outside came together. An open doorway” (Shadows 174).


The open doorway is the one in and through which Ephanie comes into harmony and balance. As Allen's vision of balance and harmony, this text is an open doorway for me, the reader. Allen teaches her readers about who she is, through Ephanie, through both Western European and American Indian practices and world views. My reading of this text is not a “form of theoretical tourism on the part of the first world critic, where the margin becomes a linguistic or critical vacation, a new poetics of the exotic” (Kaplan 191). I am drawn to it because it seduces me, takes me in, moves me.

In “Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse,” Caren Kaplan offers another possible position from which I might read:

For the first world feminist critic the process of becoming minor has two primary aspects. First, I must acknowledge that there are things that I do not know. Second, I must find out how to learn about what I have been taught to avoid, fear, or ignore. A critique of where I come from, my home location, takes me away from the familiar. Yet, there is no pure space of total deterritorialization. I must look carefully at what I carry with me that could help me with the process. This is crucial if I am to avoid appropriating the minor through romanticization, envy, or guilt. Becoming minor is not a process of emulation.


As Kaplan, Spivak and Sarris suggest, in order to read without foreclosing or appropriating Allen's “minor” position, I must include in this reflexive dialogue a critique of my own position in relations of dominance and subordination and acknowledge my “home location” in relation to Allen. The listing of identity affiliations (as in my case, white, working class, feminist, heterosexual, academic … and I could go on) has become the primary trope of the debates mentioned at the beginning of this essay. These lists never do enough. Rather, I hope to have performed a version of what Greg Sarris advocates, “written criticism” as a “kind of story, a representation of a dialogue that is extended to critics and other readers who in turn inform and are informed by the report” (Keeping 131). So, whether or not she intends it, Allen begins to teach me, strategically forces me to begin learning about what I have been taught to avoid, perhaps even fear. Crossblood, lesbian—these are the places in the borderlands and on the margins where I have not been or am unable fully to go. In speaking them, naming them, Allen troubles my relation to the center. Ephanie's disintegration will not happen to me, because where I come from is a different location in the margins. The ways in which Ephanie's story moves me may or may not be the same as the ways readers speaking and reading from other identity categories are moved. As Butler has suggested, identity categories are “invariable stumbling-blocks … sites of necessary trouble.” Yet it is the troubling nature of those categories that makes them so compelling (14).

Here I want to return to Butler's constitution of the “abject,” the lesbian as “unthinkability and unnameability” (20). It is precisely within the constitution of a lesbian identity that Ephanie is able to find balance and harmony. She in fact has access to a culturally specific practice, nameable and knowable, which allows her to draw together the disparate parts of a split self. Ephanie understands and names lesbian desire, after falling and landing on Grandmother Turtle/Spider's back.

And she understood. For those women, so long lost to her, who she had longed and wept for, unknowing, were the double women, the women who never married, who held power like the Clanuncle, like the power of the priests, the medicine men. Who were not mother, but who were sisters, born of the same mind, the same spirit. They called each other sister. They were called Grandmother by those who called on them for aid, for knowledge, for comfort, for care.

(Shadows 211)

From her home location as American Indian, Ephanie remembers the figure and presence of the “medicine-dyke.”8 And where I come from, the double women have become known to me, have been emerging from the closet. When they come out, they may or may not be punished; however, they are not called Grandmother and looked to for knowledge or comfort. They have been, in fact, unthinkable and unnameable—abject. Ephanie, however, does find a place where double women are nameable—they are double women—twice female. In speaking and naming lesbian identity, Allen centers the double women for reader and writer in a “mythic transformation.”

What I have brought to the text from my “home location” determines in part what I will take from the text. What I ultimately understand here is that I am required to learn before I can participate effectively as a reader. In speaking her own unspeakable position, Allen presses me to hear her speaking. I remain on the outside, but even as outsider I glimpse a bit of what it is to be Ephanie. Allen's tactical claims to authority as an essential identity of blood and bones construct a space in which she may speak and name, through Ephanie, a constructed social identity that transforms the borderlands of reader/writer/text—“an open doorway” (Allen, Shadows 174).


  1. For a full discussion of both the uses of Lacan and the problems with the uses of such a theory, see “Reading Like a Feminist” in Fuss's Essentially Speaking.

  2. See William Bevis, “Homing In”; Louis Owens, Other Destinies; and Andrew Wiget, Native American Literature. Bevis and Owens take cogent positions in constructing paradigms of what constitutes a Native American text. For a critique of Wiget and others working in similar ways, see Gerald Vizenor in Manifest Manners.

  3. There are several interviews in which Allen refers to texts and cultural contexts which have influenced both her work and her sense of identity. See Joseph Bruchac's Survival This Way for a more complete discussion by Allen of these considerations. See also her most recent essay, “Glastonbury Experience,” in which she describes her pilgrimage to Keats's home for healing transformation.

  4. To understand how the text writes itself as theory, we can turn to Barbara Christian's important formulation:

    For people of color have always theorized—but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create … in the play with language. …

    (Christian 52)

    Christian's moves here are essentializing in that they assume an irreducible essence to which a kind of logic can be attributed, unexamined in its politicized, historical construction—“people of color” are always already “theorizing.” This unexamined essence is problematic, but if we take Christian's argument at face value, then we can see that Paula Gunn Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows does just this kind of narrative theorizing via her use of tribal stories and in her play with language.

  5. See Note 5 in “Grandmother of the Sun” in The Sacred Hoop for Allen's reference to this version of the story, as well as reference to the Mohawk version.

  6. The troubling underlying assumption of Allen and others that the status of the reader of American Indian written literatures is that of an outsider presumes racial categories which define Native writer and non-Native reader. However, the reader's position, like that of the writer, is one of a multiplicity of subjectivities. So it is that the reader is coming to the text from many different positions, as does the writer.

  7. Barbara Babcock develops the notion of framing devices as metanarration in “The Story in the Story.”

  8. See Allen's essay “Hwame, Koshkalaka, and the Rest: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures” in The Sacred Hoop for her discussion of this term and American Indian lesbians.

Work Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. “‘Border’ Studies: The Intersection of Gender and Color.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: MLA, 1992. 303-19.

———. “Bringing Home the Fact: Tradition and Continuity in the Imagination.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Eds. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 563-79.

———. “Dear World.” Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-1987. Albuquerque: West End, 1988. 56.

———. “Glastonbury Experience: Poem and Essay.” Religion and Literature 26.1 (Spring 1994): 81-87.

———. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

———. The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. San Francisco: Spinsters, Inc., 1983.

———. “Introduction.” Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970. ed. Paula Gunn Allen. New York: Ballantine, 1994. 3-19.

Babcock, Barbara. “The Story in the Story: Metanarration in Folk Narrative.” Verbal Art as Performance. Ed. Richard Bauman. Prospect Heights IL: Waveland, 1977. 61-79.

Bevis, William. “Native American Novels: Homing In.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Eds. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 580-620.

Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1987.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” inside/out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991. 13-31.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 51-63.

Dyer, Richard. “Believing in Fairies: The Author and The Homosexual.” inside/out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991. 185-201.

Fisher, Dexter. “Stories and Their Tellers—A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko.” The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Ed. Dexter Fisher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. 18-23.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Kaplan, Caren. “Deterritorialization: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse.” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 187-99.

Keating, AnaLouise. “Reading through the Eyes of the Other: Self, Identity, and the Other, in the Works of Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde.” Readerly/Writerly Texts 1 (1993): 161-86.

Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca paso por sus labios. Boston: South End, 1983. 90-144. Rpt. as “From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism.” Feminist Studies: Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 173-90.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Sandoval, Chela. “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World.” Gender 10 (Spring 1991): 1-24.

Sarris, Greg. Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Problem of Cultural Self-representation.” The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990. 50-66.

Trinh, Minh-ha T. Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance. Hanover NH: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Twayne's United States Authors 476. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Principal Works

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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

Vanessa Holford (essay date spring 1994)

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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, lacks the strength to overcome all that oppresses her. Gradually, though, she begins to create connections and build foundations by reflecting on her past, on the forces that have taught her self-hatred, on the relationships that have harmed her, and on the necessary decisions she needs to make to remember her own creative potential. Ephanie's story is at first the retelling of a painful struggle, but, as she begins to re-discover her self, her recovery becomes an affirmation of the power of language for self-definition, the creative power of united women, and the necessity of memory for self- and tribal-preservation. Ephanie must spin her own “web” of identity to re-forge connections with her tribal community, her family, her history, and her strength as a woman.

But, the ability to spin these webs of identity requires memory and knowledge that were denied to Ephanie during her education in boarding school. By putting her story into words, Ephanie relearns the art of remembering and is able to establish a connection with the Grandmother's spirit who eventually helps reunite Ephanie with her history, her body and her self. She “had forgotten how to spin dreams, imaginings about her life, her future self, her present delights. Had cut herself off from the sweet spring of her own being” (203). Ephanie struggles to articulate and thus celebrate those “imaginings,” and so Gunn Allen's use of writing as self-discovery and as a self-preserving act has an affinity with Hélène Cixous's call to women: “Woman must write her self” (Laugh 245). Like Cixous, Gunn Allen sees women's writing as the potential for self-actualization. Indeed, Shadows [The Woman Who Owned the Shadows] is a log of Ephanie's rediscovery through language, of her personal value and abilities after years of membership in a culture that demands guilt and self-effacement as its entrance fee. Ephanie is a colonized American woman forced to deny her identity in order to fit into a social structure that ignores her value. In a dream, Ephanie sees a museum; describing it to her therapist later, she unwittingly describes herself:

I am a bulwark. A strength. Half of what is stored in me is unrecognized by the people who work here. They can't begin to understand the knowledge and the treasures that I hold in me. But I keep these things safe. For sometime when there will be those who can understand, who can recognize what the artifacts and treasures I keep are worth.


As she begins to articulate her unrecognized value through metaphor, she starts to piece together her own long-forgotten treasures.

Critic Elizabeth Hanson questions the stylistic choices Allen made in writing the novel. She calls it an “episodic, uneven, seemingly unedited novel,” and she feels that it results in “unfulfilled promise” (35). Indeed, Shadows often jumps from thought to thought, scene to scene, without transition or explanation. But women writers within different cultural contexts have recognized the necessity of self-exploration through language, and this kind of search often uses fragmented discourse. Hélène Cixous and other French feminists hail ecriture feminine, or feminine writing, because it strives to “undermine the dominant phallogocentric logic, split open the closure of the binary opposition and revel in the pleasures of open-ended textuality” (Moi 108). Despite cultural differences among women around the world and despite accusations that Western feminists are part of the effort to “divide and weaken … [Native American] communities by defining ‘male energy’ as ‘the enemy’” (Jaimes 335), the goals of Cixous' approach to writing make her feminist theory useful in examining Gunn Allen's creation of the character Ephanie. There is an urgency behind women's self-expression that has resulted from years of oppression. In the case of American Indian women, this urgency is unique and tenfold. Gunn Allen herself stresses this uniqueness:

I want the reader to understand that tribal women—who have many differences from and with Indian men, to be sure—have even greater differences from non-Indian women, particularly white women. … We are not so much ‘women,’ as American Indian women; our stories, like our lives, necessarily reflect that fundamental identity. And as American Indian Women, we are women at war.

(Spider Woman's Granddaughters 24)

The urgency of “women at war” enlivens Gunn Allen's text with the possibility of change. With its life-preserving purpose, Gunn Allen's writing responds to years of colonization with the same vigor and drive that Cixous attributes to colonized people in a larger context:

colonized peoples of yesterday, … those who have known the ignominy of persecution derive from it an obstinate future desire for grandeur; those who are locked up know better than their jailers the taste of free air.


While all women have known “the ignominy of persecution,” Anglo-European women writers like Cixous struggle to taste that “free air” by breaking down the male constructs of writing, searching for meaning in its gaps. Cixous' deconstructive action is not the same as the creative action Gunn Allen uses in her novel; Gunn Allen creates layers of meaning and cycles of memory in Ephanie's story that are informed by ritual and tribal membership. But Ephanie, too, must struggle with alienation from her native language and with the restrictions of the English language:

Ephanie did not talk Guadalupe. … She did not know the tongue, but she knew the thought, its complication that piled one thing atop another, folded this within that, went from within to without and made what was without within. She knew that everything moved and everything balanced, always, in her language, her alien crippled tongue, the English that was ever unbalanced, ever in pieces, she groped with her words and her thought to make whole what she could not say. … Ever she moved her tongue, searching for a way to mean in words what she meant in thought. For her thought was the Grandmother's, was the people's, even though her language was a stranger's tongue.


Ephanie tries to piece together self-definition in “a stranger's tongue,” and by the end she is able to make that tongue her own. Like Cixous, Gunn Allen's character is struggling for free air as she struggles to articulate meaning into her life:

But the words she had. The language wasn't built for truth. It was a lying tongue. The only one she had. It made separations. Divided against itself. It could not allow enwholement. Only fragmentation. And it was the only language they all knew together—the people in her world … The only words she had. The only containers for the food, the water, the soil of recovery, uncovery, discovery. To re learn. To re member. To put back what had been shattered. To re mind. To re think. The beginning so as to grasp the end.


Ephanie must struggle within the confines of the language of her colonizers, yet it is “the only language they all knew together.” Ephanie works with the language she has been forced to adopt, using the medium through which others will be able to share in her story. She uses English to include as many complications, folds and layers of meaning as possible. It is clear that Gunn Allen and Cixous, two women from such different cultural contexts, both present women with a means of redefining, rewriting, reenvisioning themselves through language.

Cixous says that “Flying is woman's gesture—flying in language and making it fly” (258). In Shadows, Gunn Allen flies from image to image within her discourse. Her apparent failure to use transitions is intentional and carefully crafted both to disrupt the confinement that English has placed on Ephanie and to communicate Ephanie's emotional state through sensory representation within language. We experience Ephanie's panic by reading it. Spasmodic flight between images and thoughts communicates Ephanie's personal fragmentation, while increased use of repetition begins to create a cyclical, more unified narrative whole.

In times of panic, Ephanie longs to fly, perhaps as a means of escaping the sense of helplessness she learned in boarding school. When Ephanie's beloved childhood companion, Elena, tells her that they can no longer see each other because her parents consider their friendship sinful and somehow wrong, Ephanie longs for the power to fly: “She put out her hand. Took hold of Elena's arm. Held it, tightly. Swaying. She looked over the side of the peak and thought about flying” (29). Ephanie needs to fly, to escape the relationships that oppress her, to seek out relationships that will strengthen her through complementarity, and to rise above the cultural constraints that have subjugated her healthy-strong womanhood. She feels this need, knows that it is imperative, and attempts to remember her way back to herself through storytelling. But this flight is an awkward and shaky one for Ephanie; she has some trouble taking off underneath the weight of guilt and self-doubt with which she has lived throughout her adult life. She had been numb to her own oppression, and the beginnings of her realization that change is vital take the form of an awakening: “I must wake up completely … I've been asleep for years” (Shadows 16).

Part of Ephanie's struggle for self-definition requires her to distance herself from the relationships by which she had tried unsuccessfully to derive meaning and completion. The first of her relationships described in the novel is with Stephen, an Indian man and childhood friend, whose own personal suffering has turned him into a victimizer. Ephanie sees his denial of memory and suffering mirrored in many of the faces that later surround her in San Francisco:

They all went about their lives as though the anguish had nothing to do with them. Like Stephen, lost behind the mountains, who in such fear refused, would not give himself away in word or deed. Who would not betray the pain. … He wanted to mean everything, be nothing. To live quietly with the anger, the lying, the blood. He did not ever want to acknowledge the brutal terror that was the certain measure of their lives. At home and here.


In his determination to remain “nothing, n he refuses to allow her any attempts at becoming something, a whole being. Under his restraint she has been restricted, kept from spiritual exploration.

The portrayal of minute detail in Ephanie's life serves to illustrate how deeply centered is Ephanie's fear. For too long, Ephanie relied on her relationship with Stephen for self-definition, and the effects he had on her self-vision were harmful. Stephen's poorly veiled manipulation of Ephanie is oppressive in both its subtlety and in her reaction to it. She simultaneously recognizes and denies his control over her:

[She] did not realize that it was he who told her often, every day, more, that she would surely die without him to secure her, to make her safe. She was helpless, he said. The blow to her. The mothering. She could not do. He said it. She silent, sick and exhausted, believed.


Ephanie, on Stephen's suggestion, is separated from her children who are the only “living proof” of her creative power, and now she needs to begin her search for a creative self in the apparently mundane dailiness of her life. She begins this search too terrified to contemplate a task larger than mere self-preservation. When she finally stops believing that she is helpless, Stephen insists that her desire to redefine herself is silly. Her pleas for understanding fall on his deaf ears:

“I want to be able to tell you how it was for me so you can understand.” She said. … Reaching back into myself … I have to keep renaming everything, Stephen, as though it were new. As if I were new. … “You are,” he said. “You are new, Ephanie. I have remade you.” He smiled, calm and certain. She saw how her hands shook.


As she struggles to find the words to express her rebirth, he uses language like a weapon against her, to cut off quickly the possibility of her new-found strength. Uncomfortable with her own ability to create, Ephanie trembles, afraid, over even a slight assertion of her right to personal discovery.

Her rebellion must begin quietly, privately, with the slightest of actions:

Among the litter of my own things, she kept thinking … As though it was a prayer, a ritual, a rite. Among. Pick up the robe. The litter. Walk with it. Of my. Put it down. Own things. Turn out the bedroom light. (Among.) Turn on the hall light. (The litter.) Go downstairs. (Of my.) And begin again. (Own things.)


Although she is hesitant in acting with strength for her own benefit, she at least realizes the possibility of beginning again. This seemingly small ritual is a precursor to the greater connections she will later succeed in creating for herself.

After leaving Stephen and moving to San Francisco, Ephanie finds herself still afraid to exist on her own. In another attempt to define herself through a relationship with a man, she chooses to marry Thomas, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American), who spent some years of his childhood in the World War II confinement camps for Japanese-Americans. But Thomas, like Stephen, is too wounded to provide her with the wholeness she seeks. As Ephanie wonders about her ability to help Thomas heal, we gain some understanding of his present cruelty:

how could she protect him from the years? The pain of knowing that his face, his manner, his blood, had kept him from eating food his hands had planted, had picked? … How did a child grow, seeing his presence causing scorn and hate on those stranger's faces? … And she knew what he felt, hiding it from his face with the correctness of his language, the nonchalance of his description. What words were there to describe people who would damage a child beyond repair and at the same time eat the food the scorned scarred one had picked?


Like Ephanie, Thomas was taught self-hatred as a child. But now, as she seeks a larger truth that will save her from self-destruction, he resists the memories that such a truth would unearth and refuses to listen to her attempts. Instead, he is left in the “unending quest for vengeance, for righteousness, for forgiveness, for salvation” (97). Like Stephen, Thomas uses language as a distancing device to remove himself from the memory of his childhood and the grimness of his current reality. Both the men in Ephanie's life can't love her because of the depth of their own wounds. Their denial of memory denies her the support, the acknowledgement, the connection for which she continues to seek through examination of memory. Stephen and Thomas keep her distant from the proof of women's strength that lies within her own history; they refuse to hear her stories. Both men turn their frustration, inability to live with their own realities, onto her. Victimized, they become her victimizers. Ephanie wants to be supportive of Stephen and Thomas, but, still too weak, she is unable. She must first become whole herself before she can help others, but her wholeness will require a partner, a balancer. Her healing will not be completely possible in isolation because she needs to find another half: “Half mind half knowing. Halves, pieces. Halves, doubles. Halves, wholes. When doubled. Placed together in the right way” (77). Ephanie needs to find her other half, to become whole, and for her this becomes possible with another woman.

Ephanie was prevented from learning the value of women's unity from Stephen and Thomas, and at the boarding school she was not allowed to learn her own people's history that would have provided her with strong female role models. Gunn Allen protests against selectivity—be it intentional or inadvertent—within history and warns of the dangerous potential of this “power-destroying blanket of complete silence … to prevent us from discovering and reclaiming who we have been and who we are” (Hoop [The Sacred Hoop] 259). Shadows lifts that blanket of silence, and in doing so it disturbs some readers. Those disturbed by the fact that Ephanie is a lesbian are intimidated by the refusal of mainstream, in this case heterosexual, confines. But lesbianism in the novel is vitally important because it is representative of woman's self-love. The characters who forbid Ephanie to love Elena are forbidding her to love herself, to be complete. Distrust of lesbianism is fear of women's renewed strength, self-value, and unity. A description in Shadows of the two girls' relationship recalls the twin sisters described in the creation story that begins the novel, “Uretsete and Naotsete … double woman … from whose baskets would come all that lives” (1). Ephanie and Elena are like these twins who create together as one woman: “They understood the exact measure of their relationship, the twining, the twinning. … With each other they were each one doubled. They were thus complete” (22). Like the creation twins, their identity is referred to as a single entity: “Though their lives were very different, their identity was such that the differences were never strange” (22).

United over time and through memory, women are complete; they are creators. Forced apart, forced to forget, and denied spiritual bonding between themselves, they partially lose their identities and thus their power, and “What Is Divided in Two Brings War” (189). When Ephanie finds a lover in Teresa (a white woman), she finds new potential for spiritual bonding, for twinning. Notably, it is Teresa who first offers Ephanie connection with her grandmother's spirit during a psychic reading. Ephanie's return to the creation stories of the Grandmother means a rediscovery of her self: a reconciliation with the body, a renewed ability for twinning, and a new realization of feminine power. She has rediscovered her memory, and “Memory leads to completion eventually” (5). As she begins to throw off the learned self-hatred “That made her forget the ancient secret knowledge of balance between opposing things” (97), she begins to gain a new acceptance of her own duality as a “half-breed.” In the final dream vision of the novel, the Grandmother will tell her, “‘Two face outward, two inward, the sign of doubling, of order and balance, of the two, the twins, the doubleminded world in which you have lived’” (207). But before Ephanie can completely understand such balance, she must unlearn the education that has kept her from achieving balance.

In boarding school, Ephanie learned the religion of her colonizers, and an essential part of that education was the lesson of guilt. The turning point of her childhood took place when, after being tempted by Stephen in a dare, the young Ephanie fell from an apple tree and broke a rib. The obvious allusions to Eve's fall allow Ephanie's descriptions of the change that took place in her after this fall to speak for all women who have felt forced to suppress their own views, lower their own voices, stifle their own cries, and squelch their own potentials. The guilt Ephanie experienced after her fall drastically altered her self-esteem, and it is only after years of torment that she is able to recognize the significance of the event:

Because I thought I should have been smarter than to listen to Stephen's dare. Because I was hurt … alone and scared and feeling so guilty. So guilty I never trusted my own judgment, my own vision again.


Her retelling of her own life history becomes a regaining of trust in her own vision.

Ephanie's childhood dreams of heroism were replaced by Anglo-European society's prescription for femininity. Her new distrust of her own abilities lead her to stop taking risks, and thus, denied her the potential to recreate her self through language. She became a “willing partner in the theft of her own soul” (19). No longer able to run free, no longer comfortable with her own body, Ephanie became instead a non-person, an acceptable woman:

Instead sitting demure on a chair, voice quiet, head down. Instead gazing in the mirror … curling endlessly her stubborn hair. To train it. To tame it. Her. Voice, hands, hair, trained and tamed and safe. … [She] dreamed of being tall and pretty and dated. Adored. Mated. Housed in some pretty house somewhere far from the dusty mesas of her childhood, somewhere that people lived in safe places and … spoke in soft voices.


This new Ephanie tamed her curiosity, tamed her bravery, tamed her strength. She became passive and plastic: “The old ease with her body was gone. The careless spinning of cowboy dreams” (202). Her former ambitions were off-limits to women, reserved for men and boys. She distanced herself from the mesas and memories of her childhood, forgetting what she was, what she is. Her body became a stranger to her.

An essential part of Ephanie's “education” at the boarding school was a forced detachment from her body. It is suggested that the young Ephanie was molested by a doctor in the presence of a nun, and as an adult she cannot bring herself to remember the details. Also, the threat of “sin” was the only explanation given for her forced separation from her childhood friend Elena. As Cixous has recognized, a re-writing of self will also entail woman's reclaiming of her own body:

By writing herself, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display … the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time.

(Laugh 250)

Indeed, the enforcement of rules in the boarding school censored Ephanie's breath and speech:

“Don't climb those weak branches, you'll fall.” Hearing the nuns say “Don't race around like that. Be a lady.” Punishing her when she forgot the rules and ran, yelled, jumped on the beds and broke the slats. Sending her to confession to tell the father her unruly sins. “Bless me Father for I have sinned. I jumped on the bed. I fell from the apple tree.”


This stifling suppression of natural energies squelches Ephanie's potential for self-expression and growth.

Allen emphasizes the danger of such censorship preventing unity and support between women. A male-oriented society distrusts the spiritual bonds that exist between women, and so the possibility of female bonding is stifled under the guise of piety. Lesbianism is made taboo because such cohesion between women represents a threat not only to male sexuality, but to male power. Even as a young girl, Ephanie was denied the positive, creative influence of women loving each other. She describes the relationship of two nuns in the boarding school who, because of their love for each other, brought happiness, song and dance into the dour, loveless place where the children were forced to live. That love was fleeting, however, and eventually the two nuns were separated:

The girls said, they must have been in love. And nodded to each other, and whispered. No one said anything about it being wrong. Ephanie thought now, all these years later, how glad they had all been that someone there was able to love. To laugh and shine and work and play and dance. And how very bereft they all felt when that love was sent away.


This passage echoes how very bereft Ephanie felt when Elena was sent away, and how Ephanie almost ended her life after sending Teresa away, and how Stephen's leaving left the room feeling “no emptier, no more silent than before” (17). Elena offered Ephanie the twinning, a creative unity; the sisters offered each other love and companionship that they shared with the young girls so starved for love at the boarding school. Now, Teresa offers Ephanie understanding; through Teresa, Ephanie makes the first connection with the Grandmother spirit woman.

Critics and historians of American Indian women's literature and culture are often uneasy with the issue of homosexuality, some even going so far as to claim conspiracy amongst non-Indian gays and lesbians to appropriate Native American spiritual beliefs toward their own political ends. For example, M. Annette Jaimes and Theresa Halsey accuse Gunn Allen of “pandering to the needs and tastes of non-Indian gay and lesbian organizers” (333), claiming that:

the desire of non-Indian gays and lesbians to legitimate their preferences within the context of their own much more repressive society, and to do so in ways which reinforce an imagined superiority of these preferences, has led many of them to insist upon the reality of a traditional Native North America in which nearly everyone was homosexual.


This rather strong reaction to Gunn Allen does not take into account the larger implications of preventing any union because of the genders of the individuals involved, nor does it address the role of lesbianism in Gunn Allen's novel.

In Shadows, Ephanie seeks spiritual union with both men and women, but in her case it is Elena and later Teresa with whom she achieves the twinning she seeks to create her own identity. When Ephanie is at her weakest, it is Teresa who is there for her, “offering comfort to Ephanie, strength, acknowledgement, making her who was fast becoming shadow feel almost tangible for the space of time when she was there” (178). Jaimes and Halsey paraphrase a poet (who is identified only as “Inuit” and “lesbian”) as warning that the connection between “Indianness” and homosexuality is dangerous: “the danger is that it could eventually cause divisions among us Indians that never existed before, and right at the point when we're most in need of unity” (333). But unity, or the erasing of divisions, is just what Ephanie is denied because of the homophobia around her and the “education” with which she was raised. With her final understanding comes memory of the “women who directed people upon their true paths” (211):

And she understood. For those women, so long lost to her, who she had longed and wept for, unknowing, were the double women, the women who never married, who held power like the Clanuncle, like the power of the priests, the medicine men. Who were not mothers, but who were sisters, born of the same mind, the same spirit. They called each other sister. They were called Grandmother by those who called on them for aid, for knowledge, for comfort, for care.


The “much more repressive society” to which Jaimes and Halsey allude is a reality that cannot be ignored because it is the society that has educated Ephanie, the society that forbade her memory, and the society in which she must survive. Before she can contribute to the total unity so very essential to tribal preservation, she must rediscover her own power among the women of her history. WARN founder Phyllis Young comments on women's unity as a first step in the larger project of liberation:

Our creation of an Indian women's organization is not a criticism or division from our men. In fact, it's the exact opposite. Only in this way can we organize ourselves as Indian women to meet our responsibilities, to be fully supportive of the men, to work in tandem with them as partners in a common struggle for the liberation of our people and our land … So, instead of dividing away from the men, what we are doing is building strength and unity in the traditional way.

(Jaimes 329)

In Shadows, Gunn Allen's vision of traditional female unity is adapted to encompass the doubleminded” reality of tribal existence within the United States by offering spiritual connection that allows for differences among its members; she does not portray a community that is closed to all but the purist full-blood members.

Allen writes about preservation of the “web” of tribal identity: “the oral tradition has prevented the complete destruction of the web, the ultimate disruption of tribal ways” (Hoop 45). However, a simultaneous, and very important, part of Gunn Allen's project is to modify the tales to incorporate new elements of outside influence:

The aesthetic imperative requires that new experiences be woven into existing traditions in order for personal experience to be transmuted into communal experience; that is, so we can understand how today's events harmonize with communal consciousness”

(Spider Woman's 8)

In Ephanie's story, specific details of her individual experience are woven together with memories of, and allusions to, communal experience, providing her with strength through connection to her ancestors' traditions. As Ephanie remembers the story of Kochinnenako, she realizes that Kochinnenako was the name of any woman who, in the events being told, was walking in the ancient manner, tracing the pattern of the ancient design” (209). Gunn Allen comments that the modifications of traditional tales within the collection of short stories, Spider Woman's Granddaughters, is a positive change:

because present-day Native cultures and consciousness include Western cultural elements and structures. Assuming they do not seriously dislocate the tradition in which they are embedded, this inclusion makes them vital rather than impure or ‘decadent.’ If they are really good, they are as vital as the oral tradition which also informs and reflects contemporary Indian life.

(Spider Woman's 7)

Gunn Allen's own inclusion of Western influences in her retelling of the Spider's creation story represents such vital flexibility in storytelling.

When Ephanie is visited by the Grandmother, who tells her the Guadalupe creation story, Gunn Allen presents a flexible version of the Spider's story and the Bible's story:

First there was Sussistinaku, Thinking Woman, then there was She and two more: Uretsete and Naotsete. Then Uretsete became known as the father, Utset, because Naotsete had become pregnant and a mother, because the Christians would not understand and killed what they did not know.


The implied fact that Thinking Woman precedes or encompasses Christian beliefs illustrates confidence in a unified world view which allows for differences instead of punishing them. In a passage that echoes the Holy Trinity, Spider Woman describes spiritual unity in the creation myth:

And Iyatiku was the name Uretsete was known by, she was Utset, the brother. The woman who was known as father, the Sun. And Utset was another name for both Iyatiku and Uretsete, making three in one.


The interchangeability between sexes here represents Gunn Allen's modification of sex roles and modification of tradition. Helen Jaskoski's recent reading of Gunn Allen's poem, “Grandmother,” highlights this difficult but vital negotiation between development and tradition: “the poem asserts change as well as continuity, evolution and growth as well as preservation” (248). Jaskoski goes on to read the woven blankets in the poem as “representative of androgyny” (248), suggesting that Gunn Allen's blurring of traditional gender lines is an ongoing project through which to negotiate tribal traditions' survival within the context of larger American society. An important part of the change she is initiating is evolution of storytelling into a medium to communicate with new listeners, a wider audience, outside the immediate tribal circle. In the novel, Teresa becomes the representative of this wider audience, and Ephanie's decision to tell her story to her daughter and to Teresa is a handing down of tradition to both the next generation within the tribal community and to new listeners, a move towards preservation.

When Ephanie re-evaluates the nature of her education, she understands her past and her self: “Because she fell she had turned her back on herself. Had misunderstood thoroughly the significance of the event” (204). As an adult she re-educates herself by reading about her own history, and her new education provides her with lost memories. Her remembering, which was impossible earlier because she would not allow herself to remember, is the key to her self-discovery:

And now remembering rose in her body, … and with it from somewhere far off, from beyond the shattering heat and the buzz of shade, of humming silence, of suffocation, there came, thin and wailing, unhuman in its wail, a long moaning rising scream.


The Woman Who Owned the Shadows is that scream of outrage, of understanding, of remembering. Ephanie understands that her self had been stolen, a portion of her life spent in a prison, where she was kept unaware. Her remembering is essential to her survival; by recreating her memory, she recreates her self. The resistance to memory she revealed in early passages about Stephen and about the doctor was a psychological defense against the necessary outrage she would inevitably experience when remembering came. Now with remembering has come knowledge, and this time Ephanie will not let herself be punished for that knowledge. She does not remain trapped in her anger, but instead moves beyond it to seek a creative union with Teresa.

Cixous senses this unity and sees it as the driving force behind Woman writing her self: “In Woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history” (252). Old Spider Woman advises Ephanie to begin by sharing her story with her lover, Teresa, who is white. Teresa represents both woman's love for other women and the possibility of a feminine unity that transcends race. The Grandmother says of Ephanie's story, “Give it to your sister, Teresa. The one who waits. She is ready to know” (210). Paula Gunn Allen leaves her white audience asking, what place does the growing number of white readers of American Indian literature have in this arena of tribal renewal? Are we a welcomed audience? If Teresa's character is read as an answer to this question, then Ephanie's story ends with an invitation—to share in the stories if and when we are “ready to know.” We are now invited to remember our selves along with Ephanie and, regardless of race, to know again our full potential. Ephanie's newfound strength is the ability to pass on her story, and through telling her story, Ephanie makes real that potential for other women while preserving the stories and memories that are a part of her.

Works Cited

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle Courtivron. Brighton: Harvester, 1980.

Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

———. The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. San Francisco: Spinsters / Aunt Lute, 1983.

Hanson, Elizabeth I. Paula Gunn Allen. Boise: Boise State U P, 1990.

Jaimes, M. Annette and Theresa Halsey. “American Indian Women: At the Center of Indigenous Resistance in North America.” The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization and Resistance. Ed. M. Annette Jaimes. Boston: South End, 1992. 311-44.

Jaskoski, Helen. “Allen's ‘Grandmother.’” The Explicator 50.4 (Summer 1992): 247-49.

Moi, Toril. Sexual / Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1985.

Niethammer, Carolyn. Daughters of the Earth: The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

Seale, Doris. Rev. of Paula Gunn Allen, by Elizabeth Hanson. American Indian Quarterly 16.2 (Spring 1992): 301-02.

Further Reading

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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 Distinct Voices’: The Revolutionary Call of Susan Power's The Grass Dancer.North Dakota Quarterly 67, no. 2 (spring 2000): 109-25.

Views Susan Power's The Grass Dancer as a response to Allen's The Sacred Hoop.

Donovan, Kathleen M. “Storytelling Women: Paula Gunn Allen and Toni Morrison.” In Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Coming to Voice, pp. 123-37. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Finds parallels between Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows and Toni Morrison's Sula.

Foss, Karen A. Sonja K. Foss, and Cindy L. Griffin. “Paula Gunn Allen.” In Feminist Rhetorical Theories, pp. 191-26. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1999.

Provides a biographical and critical overview of Allen's life and works.

Hanson, Elizabeth. “Shadows in Paula Gunn Allen's Shadow Country.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 25, no. 2 (April 1994): 49-55.

Considers Allen's concept of self as portrayed in the poems of Shadow Country.

Karrer, Wolfgang. “Nostalgia, Amnesia, and Grandmothers: The Uses of Memory in Albert Murray, Sabine Ulibarri, Paula Gunn Allen, and Alice Walker.” In Memory, Narrative, and Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, pp. 128-44. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.

Examines the role of memory in the work of Allen, Albert Murray, Sabine Ulibarri, and Alice Walker.

Keating, AnaLouise. “Myth Smashers, Myth Makers: (Re)Visionary Techniques in the Works of Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde.” Journal of Homosexuality 26, no. 2-3 (1993): 73-95.

Analyzes the revisionist mythmaking strategies utilized by Gloria Anzaldúa, Allen, and Audre Lorde.

Moss, Maria. “Ephanie and Spider Woman, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows—And Still Does.” In We've Been Here Before: Women in Creation Myths and Contemporary Literature of the Native American Southwest, pp. 151-87. Munster, Germany: LIT Verlag, 1993.

Traces the psychological journey of Ephanie, the protagonist of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.

St. Clair, Janet. “Uneasy Ethnocentrism: Recent Works of Allen, Silko, and Hogan.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 6, no. 1 (spring 1994): 83-98.

Chronicles the struggles of Allen, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Linda Hogan to “resolve and transcend an awkward ethnocentrism.”

Toohey, Michelle Campbell. “Paula Gunn Allen's Grandmothers of the Light: Falling through the Void.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literature 12, no. 3 (fall 2000): 25-51.

Addresses the function of Allen's discursive style in Grandmothers of the Light.

Additional coverage of Allen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 112, 143; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 63, 130; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 84; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 175; DISCovering Authors Modules:Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Native North American Literature; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

P. Jane Hafen (review date 1996)

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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 tribal, historical, and literary context.

Allen (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux) is currently a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a scholar in Native American studies, an editor, and an author of her own poetry and fiction. Her other successful editorial contributions are Studies in American Indian Literature (Modern Language Association, 1983), a guide to criticism and course designs, and Spider Woman's Granddaughters (Beacon Press, 1989), an anthology of Native American women's writings.

Allen identifies the 1900-70 time frame of her selections in Voice of the Turtle as the “formative period of Native fiction” that includes both reliance on traditional and oral narratives and development of an independent native narrative tradition. “Native narrative tradition” is a theme Allen uses repeatedly throughout her comments. She characterizes this tradition as representing a communal voice, depicting an “all-encompassing” wholeness, and having a content that “revolves around the theme of magical transformation, but within that rubric it employs a number of subthemes, of which the major ones are social change, cultural transition, and shifting modes of identity” (p. 8). Her editorial challenge, therefore, is to make these comprehensive observations under the general matrix of “American Indian” or “Native American” literature and apply her overall conclusions to specific tribal literatures. She accomplishes this task with a detailed introduction, contextual-specific introductions to individual selections, and biographical information about each author at the end of the book.

Predictably, Allen includes authors familiar to readers of American Indian literature: Charles A. Eastman, Arthur C. Parker, Mourning Dove, Luther Standing Bear, John Oskison, Black Elk, Zitkala Sa, John Joseph Mathews, N. Scott Momaday, and Simon J. Ortiz. These authors are frequently anthologized, and their unabridged works are basic texts in Native American studies. Allen argues that her excerpts from longer, familiar works should be viewed as components within an interconnected wholeness that acts as the metaphor for native life (p.xi). Her particular selections establish those connections within her theme of “native narrative tradition.” Choices from the works of these authors therefore represent some selections that are less frequently anthologized. For example, Zitkala Sa's reminiscences of her schoolgirl days are published in various anthologies. However, her short fictions, such as “The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman” (1921) from this volume, are less prominent. Likewise, selections from Momaday's House Made of Dawn often appear in anthologies. Allen's choice of the literary depiction of the Santiago Feast Day at Walatowa is a piece that not only presents her theme but benefits from her interpretive introduction, where she establishes the history of the occasion, defines peculiarities of Pueblo material culture, and discusses Momaday's narrative techniques.

A representative work of native narrative tradition, according to Allen, is the excerpt from Don C. Talayesva's “School Off the Reservation” (1942). Talayesva's recounting of his spiritual journey portrays his “inner cabin” of traditional Hopi beliefs while demonstrating transitions between that Hopi world and modern, mainstream educational systems. As Allen notes, this selection enlightens the spiritual “subtext” of the other works in the anthology by representing a mode of experience free from “Western contextualization” (p. 240). Unlike Black Elk's vision (also included in this volume), which is filtered through John Neihardt's shaping, Ben Black Elk's translation, and Enid Neihardt's transcription, Talayesva's story presents its own unique cosmology; it offers a view of the world that is distinctively Hopi. The “supernatural” aspect of this story is axiomatic to individual tribes and their particular avatars. Allen elucidates these spiritual elements by explaining katsinas and other Hopi figures, yet she maintains a reverence for sacred sovereignty.

Allen's introductory remarks to her literary selections follow a pattern of establishing a general theme, then connecting that theme to specific tribal culture. For example, in her introduction to “Coyote Juggles His Eyes” (1933) by Mourning Dove, Allen comments about trickster coyote stories. She then moves from the general to the specific by identifying Coyote's participation in the creation cycle of Mourning Dove's Colville-Okanogan tribe. This pattern allows Allen the flexibility to place a particular story in a larger cultural context while recognizing and maintaining the tribal individuality of the specific author.

Some of Allen's selections appear in other anthologies: Simon Ortiz's “Woman Singing” appears in Geary Hobson's collection The Remembered Earth, and John M. Oskison's “The Problem of Old Harjo” appears in both the Heath and the Norton anthologies of American literature. However, D'Arcy McNickle, E. Pauline Johnson, Estelle Armstrong, Pretty Shield (with Frank B. Linderman), Don C. Talayesva, Ronald Rogers, and Grey Cohoe are less available in anthology form. Although McNickle, Talayesva, and Pretty Shield's works are accessible in their complete format, the other authors most likely are read in anthologies. The obvious omission from this distinguished list of authors is Ella Deloria. Not only does her work fit Voice of the Turtle's theme and period, but an excerpt from her novel Waterlily appears in Allen's other anthology Spider Woman's Granddaughters.

Additionally, the absence of poetry, particularly the works of Ortiz and Momaday, is startling. Although Allen effectively explains the fluidity between oral traditional narrative and contemporary fiction as a confluence of “events, symbols, and imagery” of native life, she does not address poetry or its absence. When compared to Hobson's 1979 anthology, which includes works of the same general period along with more genres and varied selections, Voice of the Turtle may appear narrow in scope. Also, Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, edited by Gerald Vizenor (HarperCollins College Division, 1995), has more selections and genres, including previously inaccessible Native American drama. Both Vizenor and Hobson, however, present single-volume anthologies with greater emphasis on contemporary literature, as will the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Native American Literature.

Allen's specific time focus and thematic approach, along with her commentary on and her awareness of tribal sovereignty, offer students and readers a distinctive literary range and option. With the plethora of Native American contemporary fiction anthologies, Voice of the Turtle is a substantial alternative for detailed study of American Indian literature from the early part of this century through 1970. One hopes Allen's second volume will sustain thoughtful commentary and astute choices of representative literary works.

Tracy J. Prince Ferrell (essay date winter 1996)

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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 movement that is the multiverse and its dancing. The power that is everywhere and has no name or body, but that is just the power, the mystery. She sang, and the bundles began to move. They began to sing, to echo her song, to join it. They sang their heart's song, that was the same as Spider's heart song, that was the heart song of the great mystery, the power that moves. The song seemed to deepen as she heard other hearts singing … in each bundle the life of the universe rested, waiting until it was sung into life … they were the song and the mystery.


Many died in the transformation, but most survived to wake to that first morning's brilliant light and find themselves changed.


Subtitled A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook, Paula Gunn Allen's Grandmothers of the Light guides the reader into the “void”—the Great Mystery—where the power of female thought is essential to creativity. This assertion of Native American myths concerning the origin and processes of life, a metaphoric return to the womb, is, for Allen, an affirmation of gender and cultural identity, a reclamation of personal and cultural self-awareness which results in a transforming energy.

She finds that in the void there is energy, and it is an energy that is self-aware.


Evidence of this awareness is apparent in Allen's reinstatement of female significance into Native American myths and rituals, what she describes in “Kochinnenako in Academe” as a “feminist-tribal” exploration of gynocentric principles. Despite its, at times, didactic and contradictory qualities, Grandmothers [Grandmothers of the Light] is a significant guidebook providing insight into a personal and empowering transformation and suggests the many complications which arise with identity formation and colliding cultures. Allen's writing evidences the impact of this collision as she sifts through the cultural rubble to attempt to claim an identity of her own.

In this study I will quote from her previous works of poetry, fiction, and critical essays as well as quotes from interviews so that Allen may continue to speak for herself, in effect, conducting us through her transforming process. I want to emphasize that I do not think it is possible to “get” Paula Gunn Allen because Allen's elusive self-definition continues to evolve. I believe that she is still working on “getting” herself and therefore resists being pinned down. Heidegger spoke of the human quest as always “becoming” and, until the day we die, never “being.” Allen, much like the rest of us, is still in the process of “becoming,” and with her vision of narrative literature, she illuminates the journey, both to the reader and to herself.

While Allen's work has focused primarily on the position of women in Native American cultures, she has also explored Native cultures in America and her own status as, what she calls, a “breed”—Lebanese, Laguna/Sioux, and Scotch. In her published works, Allen seems to move from uncertainty of her placement in the Indian world toward firmly claiming her birthright. With Grandmothers her voice is stronger, more confident, perhaps a result of the earlier writings in which she “talked out” some of her questions concerning the role of Native women. Through interwoven metaphors of various tribal legends, she celebrates goddess creators, female sexuality free from Puritanical constraints, and traditions of strong, resourceful, thinking women. Allen's confident voice establishes a book of myths (to misquote Adrienne Rich) in which her name does appear.

According to Allen, myths and rituals (central to the formation of identity and culture) have been appropriated and realigned by the dominating Eurocentric culture. In the section “Myth, Magic, and Medicine in the Modern World” this usurpation is detailed:

With the arrival of the Europeans, certain shifts in the traditions that had been occurring over the preceding three or four centuries became pronounced, setting off a flurry of adjustments … [including] the slow shift from feminine orderings to masculine arrangements … The transformation of Icístsíity (Uretsete) from a female to male supernatural, from mother to father of the Keres people; the shift of Xmucane' and Xpiyacoc from female partners to elderly married couple among the Quiche' Maya; the adaption of Kanati the Hunter to husband of Selu, a seeming replacement of her polygynous relationship with him and Long Man; reification of the goddesses Cihuacoatl and Coatlicue—these are all evidence of the profound change in Native America resulting from its patriarchalization under Christian mercantilism.


Her work purports to reclaim this oral tradition for Native Americans, especially Native American women. She speaks of the importance of the tradition and the effects of its loss in her book of critical essays The Sacred Hoop: “more than the record of a people's culture, it is the creative source of their collective and individual selves. When that well-spring of identity is tampered with, the sense of self is also tampered with” (86).

In Allen's reappropriation of the sense of self, she leaves behind the tentative questioning of her first novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. Struggling against imposed expectations from the beginning, Paula Gunn Allen's status as a “breed” insured that she would be in the margins of Native American and “mainstream” communities. Similar to her sister Laguna writer, Leslie Marmon Silko, Allen's earlier works of poetry and first novel deal with conflicting emotions arising from this status. Her picture of the West is, therefore, one of disharmonious existence as two communities meet and are baffled by differences in ideology, language, and thought structures—a place, as she says in an earlier poem, “where understanding hangs in the balance, precariously” (Shadow Country 18).

Semi-autobiographical, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows focuses on this precarious balance a “breed” is expected to maintain. Although Allen moves away from preoccupation with the “breed” in Grandmothers, her characteristic non-linear writing style and personal explorations are echoed in this novel printed eight years earlier. Reviews of the book seem to contain an equal distribution of criticism and praise, and many of the comments could also be applied to Grandmothers. The difference seems to be that Allen rejects her earlier emphasis on victimization. As one critic pronounces:

The Woman Who Owned the Shadows is most successful when it explores women's traditions within the Keres Pueblo for their ritual significance. Elements of pueblo “thought singing” form the novel's theme, imagery, narrative method, and whatever its unity of design. … The episodic, uneven, seemingly unedited novel … slips into a personal narrative of melodramatic victimization … [However,] a magical woman … breaks the boundaries within which her society restricts her … reveal[ing] how limited are the lives of women and how vulnerable.

(Hanson 34-36)

These feelings of vulnerability and restriction are articulated in the character of Ephanie, also a “breed.” Like Ephanie, Allen never fit societal images of the mythical Indian maiden; in fact, the description of Ephanie might also apply to her author:

She was not the Indian maiden she was supposed to be. She knew that. Not the Indian they imagined and took her to be. Then felt angry when she wasn't what they wanted. She was not noble, not wise, not exotic. She was just an ordinary woman.

(Woman [The Woman Who Owned the Shadows] 66)

Again like Allen, Ephanie's life is spent searching for an alternate definition of herself as a woman and as an Indian. Her “epiphany” occurs when she understands:

the measure of her life, of all their lives, was discovering what she, they were made of. What she, they could do.


Allen has spent most of her life learning what she and her Native American sisters have done and are capable of doing. As a chronicle of these discoveries, Grandmothers is the expression of a more confident Ephanie who continues to explore “what she, they are made of.”

In a recent interview, Allen describes her function in this process as she speaks of the poet's responsibilities for “forming the community's consciousness” (Aal 154), and she details a current movement among tribal women writers toward recovering traditional cultures. The destruction resulting from “cultural genocide” compels the storytellers to become catalysts for regeneration. In Grandmothers she calls these tribal women storytellers “Spider Woman's Granddaughters”:

[those who carry out] time-honored tradition … in which the teller reminds us of our responsibilities, our gifts, and our right place in the interplay of energies that are at once sacred and frightening, ordinary and transcendent.


During the seventies, Allen unknowingly prepared for a career as one of Spider Woman's most vocal Granddaughters, a writer who would reinvigorate the “community's consciousness” by reinvigorating her own. She refined her writing style and authorial voice through poetry readings in San Francisco and considered this decade of readings a valuable time spent perfecting skills. However, these early writings were, as she said:

pretty incoherent … because I was trying frantically to make sense to an audience who couldn't listen to me, who just couldn't. And so I was, you know, shoving my work around, my thoughts around, my language around, my structure around, trying to find a way to get this group of people to hear me; but of course they couldn't … they were quite quiet and not entirely sure what to do with themselves when the Indians were reading.

(Aal 156-58)

It is because of these experiences, perhaps, that Allen has developed a distinctive, emphatic, and didactic style, although at times she seems to be frantically trying to make sense of her writing to herself as well. The exploratory style is an example of Allen's continuing efforts to emancipate her own thinking and writing—claiming the healing which she believes to be possible in the words of Native American myth and ritual.

Allen's focus began to shift to the ideology represented in Grandmothers with the introduction to The Sacred Hoop. Hanson refers to the tone as “a shift in Allen's ‘breed’ persona” in which she aligns herself with “women of color and women of aggressively feminist sources, purposes, and obsessions” (14). While Allen describes her first novel as “about the reality of Indianness” (“All the Good Indians” 229), recent comments seem to indicate that she has become much more secure in her definition of Indianness and has, in the later works, moved to the “healing process … [of] returning to the consciousness of [the] people.” Observing the marked changes she and other Indian writers have undergone over the last decade, she says:

the alienation of the seventies has moved to the spiritual, powerful voice of the eighties. … The Woman Who Owned the Shadows … stops where the healing process begins, and The Sacred Hoop is about recovery, of our selves.

(Eysturoy 101)

With Grandmothers Allen begins the emancipation in the preface, immediately subverting European constructs (as she sees them) and reclaiming her own. By using images such as “the magical power of woman and water,” she sabotages traditional Western images where women and water are often represented as evil, tempting, and terrifying. She intended to “testify to the great power women have possessed, and how that power when exercised within the life circumstances common to women everywhere can reshape (terraform) the earth” (xvi).

Describing the Indian “cosmogyny” as “an ordered universe arranged in harmony with gynocratic principles … [i.e.] egalitarianism, personal autonomy, and communal harmony … [with] the good of the individual and the good of the society mutually reinforcing rather than divisive,” Allen presents the Goddess Creator, T'ts'tsi'naku, as not simply a verdant Mother Nature but the omnipotent Mother Creator, known in various tribes as Thinking Woman, Grandmother Spider, Xmucane'/Grandmother of the Light, Sky Woman, Changing Woman, Iyatiku, Ic'sts'ity, and Nau'ts'ity(xiii-xiv). Celebrating the power of women thinking, creating, birthing, and expressing sexuality, the Goddess Creator is Allen's assertive reinstatement of Native American myths—subverting Judeo/Christian precepts and reinserting women into the cosmos.

As she maintains the oral tradition, she carries out her idea of the duty to “[form] the community's consciousness.” As a by-product of these interpretations, she also provides her directions for understanding the myths and rituals. Recognizing that most of the readers are still “not entirely sure what to do with themselves when the Indians [are writing],” her work often seems intended as instructional. And while dealing with those who are “not entirely sure” Allen chides them as “rationalists” who insist on distinguishing between real and imaginary worlds:

What are called “myths” in the white world, and are thought of as primitive spiritual stories that articulate psychological realities, are in the native world the accounts of actual interchanges. … Accordingly the stories in this collection are not to be taken primarily as metaphors … they are factual accounts … [myth] is more accurately defined as “ritual verbalization,” that is, a language construct that wields the power to transform something (or someone) from one state or condition to another.

(Grandmothers 6-7)

Like Allen, the contemporary Cherokee poet Awiakta suggests that readers must learn to open their minds to modes of thinking fundamentally different from their own:

The linear, Western, masculine mode of thought has been … intent on conquering nature … [the] Indian mode is virtually inverse to the standard Western method, which reasons from a collection of facts to a conclusion.

(qtd. in Ammons 93)

Up to this point, according to Gerald Vizenor, attempts at understanding Native American literature have simply been a process of learning to read (hear) the literature correctly, trying to “work out instructions on how to breathe beneath the surface of the written word because most of us have been trained to walk on top of these particular waters” (qtd. in Jahner 156). Speaking of “non-linear” narratives, Allen states that it is natural for the stories to “weave back and forth between the everyday and the supernatural without explanation, confusing the logical mind and compelling linear thought processes to chase their own tails, which of course is a major spiritual purpose behind the tradition's narrative form” (5). She believes this allows us to “contemplate the meaning of our existence … [through] the vastness that lies beyond linear understanding” (Grandmothers 8).

Requiring the reader to acculturate herself to Allen's idea of Native American perspectives is, in itself, part of her process. Although writing in English, she thinks of her role as retrieving myths and rituals from the impositions of a foreign language and culture and eventual obfuscation, and she insists that the obligation of crossing cultures to attempt understanding rests on the reader. Allen revels in a stream-of-consciousness style of writing that allows her to explore whichever rabbit trail she happens upon, with the reader obliged to follow. It is supposed to be understood that weaving in and out of “reality” is precisely the point; that if we are somehow able to transcend the “logical” world we will see the “spiritual purpose.”

Allen's critics, however, often find her interpretations and world view problematic, pointing to her propensity towards broad generalizations and assumptions. Clear examples of these arguments are found in The Sacred Hoop where she implies that she has preferential access to truth because of her blood line—“my inner self, the self who knows what is true of American Indians because it is one, always warns me when something deceptive is going on” (6-7). Krupat terms this “religious” theorizing, and many critics point out that a Native heritage doesn't ipso facto lead to an originary truth-divining analysis. Furthermore, Allen suggests that she is somehow able to present an intrinsically Native, untainted view. She says with certainty:

[T]hese essays present a picture of American Indian life and literature unfiltered through the minds of western patriarchal colonizers.


This, of course, cannot be true since much of Allen's education and socialization occurred under “western patriarchal” influences. Grandmothers, in particular, contains clear links to and/or intentional rewrites of Biblical and Greek mythology. In “Out of the Blue,” the story of Sky Woman, evil is introduced into the world by a man, reversing the Genesis tale of Eve and evil. In “Strange Burning,” the story of Cherokee deity Six Killer/Sun Woman turns the Biblical “just and angry God” who threatens damnation by fire into a goddess with similar qualities, and the same story contains a male Medusa-like figure. These examples may be sheer coincidence, but the fact remains that although she is trying to unlearn “western patriarchal” influences, she will never be able to escape them entirely and present a cleaned slate, reinscribed with an originary Native nature.

Discussing Allen's disputable interpretations and generalizations in Keeping Slug Woman Alive, Greg Sarris also describes the difficulties of reading and recording Native literature. “The task is to read American Indian written literatures in a way that establishes a dialogue between readers and the text that works to explore the intermingling of the multiple voices within and between readers and what they read … a continuous opening of culturally diverse worlds in contact with one another” (131). He examines the reductiveness of trying to simply nail down what is Indian about a text, and while positioning Pomo rather than EuroAmerican theorizing at the center, he still manages a dialogue between the two. Similarly, Allen's writings function best as an example of the effects of a variety of cultures on her and the efforts to filter out an identity among all these influences. The importance of Grandmothers is, as Allen says, letting the myths help us “notic[e] what we already know” (Eysturoy 99) and having that noticing effect productive dialogue.

Allen demonstrates that the personal and cultural must necessarily be entwined. Jim Ruppert elaborates on the important interaction between personal and mythic (cultural) identity:

the fusion of personal and mythic space is essential for understanding ourselves and how we must act. … [Allen sees] the essential lack of mythic space in the twentieth century technological culture and feel[s] that the poet must penetrate to the mythic space and reveal it to the reader.


His understanding of Allen is that she makes “the connections for herself first, then write[s] so as to help others make them” (33). A reading of Allen's exploratory, introspective style supports Ruppert's conclusion. She denies the Eurocentric linear narrative, and through what appear to be randomly collected memories, analytical essays, reports of other Native women's memories, and descriptions of ritual and myth, she makes the connection for herself. Although this exploration is at times confusing and essentializing, the mythic space becomes a cause for signification and celebration. Ammons describes the effect of Native women's writing as “embarking on forbidden territory, on the buried or left-out story of western tradition: the unwritten female space” (95).

By talking out her recovery, Allen demonstrates the oral tradition on paper. The resulting message is convoluted and malleable, depending upon individual interpretations. As with all oral traditions, the legends are never relayed with precision, but necessarily convey the sentiments of the storyteller in the context of present-day concerns. According to Allen, “the stories, when used as ritual maps or guides, enable women to recover our path to the gynocosmos that is our spiritual home” (xv).

Grandmothers' strength is that it demands that America re-evaluate its concept of Native people and cultures. We are denied the comforting image of the noble savage and must face the reality of a people who are struggling to prevent further erosion of their culture and are often simply represented as victims. Most importantly, for Allen, we are forced to acknowledge the power and importance of Native American women. The position of the women who confront the dominant language is one in which the “woman's side” is not only untold but the textual voice is appropriated as well. Therefore, as Middlebrook writes, “[the] appropriation of textual voice … [is] the appropriation of power” (4). Allen is transfigured as she resists the appropriation of the physical and textual voice, thereby denying power. Like the title of a current blues album, Allen is insisting: “Damn Right I've Got the Blues.”

In the resulting transformation, Allen is able to embrace the newly designed adamantly unacculturated self. Making apologies to no one, in fact, often insisting that her world view is the only right view, Allen finds her voice, furthering her vision quest. No longer a “breed” or victim, Allen claims her role as a Native American woman and even decides to rewrite the script for the role. In The Sacred Hoop Allen asserts various ideas which are further explored in Grandmothers, including her pronouncements that tribal social systems were “never patriarchal” and were based on “ritual, spirit-centered woman-focused world views,” and included “free and easy sexuality” (2). These assumptions are not outlined in Allen's earlier works and are “supported by limited verifiable evidence … at variance with her own earlier and highly sophisticated definitions of Native American cultural dimensions … [and] at variance with the definitions of gifted and sensitive historians” (Hanson 16).

Allen acknowledges this change in basic ideology. However, she faults the system in which she received formal training for passing along ingrained ethnocentric and gender biases. “Most of what I have read—and some things I have said based on that reading—is upside-down and backward” (Hoop 6). Explaining her writing as a process, a “vision quest,” she says:

That's what I am searching for, to pull the vision out of me, because it is here, I know it is. It is a path, a road, and it is how I am that molecule that does the dance that makes up her being. Our job is to be conscious of our dance … that's what writers must do. That's why writers are important, as long as they are working toward consciousness.

(Eysturoy 99)

Since Allen has her fair share of detractors, I have briefly listed a few of the problems readers encounter in her writings. However, it seems that Allen's purpose was to consciously choose to be a medicine woman as she described in chapter one, in “the way of the Teacher.” Her intentions are to “enter into the life of the community to enrich and revitalize it”(14).

Annette Kolodny writes of earlier Native American women writers in The Lay of the Land. These women visualized the land, specifically the new world, as woman, and the conquest of the new world is characterized as a “settlement depend[ent] on the ability to master the land” (7). Kolodny also points out that some of the first Native women who came into contact with European men were described in journals of the time as “uniformly beautiful, gracious, cheerful, and friendly.” Approximately 100 years later, when relations had deteriorated considerably, they were to be described as “hag-like, ugly, and immoral” (5). Allen reverses the process and forcibly moves Native women back to “uniformly beautiful” in Grandmothers. For awhile the “land” (woman) was pillaged and mastered, but she is now being transformed through the power of the “word.”

An appropriate allegory, the myth of the Mayan Crystal Woman, titled “Someday Soon,” dreams of peace and communication coming to a world which could be paralleled to ours. Isolated and in conflict, the people are restored by prophecies of a coming age of peace and harmony.

In time, they fell into conflict. In time, the world was much changed. In time, they began to walk by themselves. Halting, stumbling, they took their first steps alone. …

It is said that at the time of the beginning, the Goddess will return in the fullness of her being. It is said that the Mother of All and Everything, the Grandmother of the Sun and the Dawn, will return to her children, and with her will come harmony, peace, and the healing of the world.

(Grandmothers 200-01)

Allen's intriguing, contradictory, celebratory work illustrates the longing for harmony in the midst of conflict and the continued repositioning of self. Her writings prompt explorations of the need for understanding the symbols and metaphors that make up existence, how those symbols shape who we are, how cultures collide and become almost inextricable, how a silenced Other is recovered from the historical anonymity of this collision, and who speaks for this subaltern Other, or is subaltern agency ever possible.

Unlike Spivak, Allen suggests that the answer to the crucial question “Can the subaltern speak?” is, yes, if we listen hard enough.1 But her listening and interpreting continues to make the question of agency problematic. Is she, as Derrida details in “Eating Well,” always only appropriating (injesting) the silenced Other rather than hearing them speak (or channeling their words as she claims to do in “Someday Soon”)?

Since the subaltern is impossible to recuperate yet impossible to exclude, Spivak calls this “project to retrieve the subaltern consciousness” a “strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (“Subaltern Studies” 13). Allen's strategic essentialism allows her to retrieve what she conceives of as an originary identity, but she does not make “scrupulously visible” her positioning within her politics. She gives a Whitmanesque shrug that says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” However, Grandmothers is a more fully developed explanation of herself to herself and to us. Like Wendy Rose, Hopi/Miwok writer, she may declare: “If I had grown up with a comfortable identity, I would not need to explain myself from one or another persona” (253). Allen's mixed-bag of cultural heritage makes for a convoluted but vital identity search in which she (consciously or unconsciously) incorporates Western influences even as she insists upon a return to native myths. Ania Loomba shows that the position of reviving native culture and Westernization are not necessarily incompatible and that “sites of resistance are far from clearly demarcated … particular subjects may contribute to diverse and even conflicting traditions of anti-colonialism, nativism and collaboration” (314). Paula Gunn Allen's position is sometimes problematic and difficult to pin down, but she presents a clear “site of resistance” which insures that if the subaltern can't speak she will at least be pulled into our consciousness.


  1. Spivak proposes that the “epistemic violence” of the colonization project insures that when we think we are hearing the subaltern Other we are only comforting our conscience because we're sure they should be heard although they can't be. We are always only reconstructing agency. At best we can “learn to speak to (rather than listen or speak for) the historically muted subject” (91).

Works Cited

Aal, Katharyn Machan. “Writing as an Indian Woman: An Interview with Paula Gunn Allen.” North Dakota Quarterly 57 (1989): 148-61.

Allen, Paula Gunn. “All the Good Indians.” The 60s without Apology. Ed. Sohnya Sayres, et al. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

———. Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.

———. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

———. Shadow Country. Los Angeles: UCLA Publications, 1982.

———. Introduction. Spider Woman's Granddaughters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

———. The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1983.

Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject.” Points … : Interviews, 1974-1994. Ed. Elisabeth Weber. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Eysturoy, Annie O. “Paula Gunn Allen.” This Is about Vision. Ed. William Balassi, John Crawford, and Annie Eysturoy. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.

Hanson, Elizabeth. Paula Gunn Allen. Boise: Boise State UP, 1990.

Jahner, Elaine. “A Critical Approach to American Indian Literature.” Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs. Ed. Paula Gunn Allen. New York: MLA, 1983.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.

Krupat, Arnold. The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.

Loomba, Ania. “Overworlding the Third World.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood, and Marilyn Yalom, eds. Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1985.

Rose, Wendy. Bone Dance: New and Selected Poems, 1965-1993. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 1994.

Ruppert, Jim. “Paula Gunn Allen and Joy Harjo: Closing the Distance between Personal and Mythic Space.” American Indian Quarterly. 7 (1983): 27-40.

Sarris, Greg. Keeping Slug Woman Alive. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

———. “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography.” Selected Subaltern Studies. Eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

AnaLouise Keating (essay date 1996)

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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

Thus, “the feminine” wouldn't be the myths, etc. made by men; it would be that which “I, woman” invent, enact, and empower in “our” speech, our practice, our collective quest for a redefinition of the status of all women.

Rosi Braidotti

The “origin” of the tradition must be acknowledged, but acknowledgment does not sanction simple repetition: each new performer “signifies” upon that origin by transforming it, and by allowing for infinite transmutations.

Françoise Lionnet

The title to this [essay] reflects an ongoing debate in U.S. feminist movement: The political (in)effectiveness of “prepatriarchal” origin myths. Whereas some feminists see attempts to “recover” woman-centered creation stories as extremely misguided, others are firmly convinced that such attempts provide contemporary women with empowering models of identity formation. According to Mary Daly and Gloria Orenstein for example, accounts of a gynocentric prehistorical culture empower contemporary women in several interrelated ways. First, by positing a time before “patriarchy,” feminist origin stories suggest the contingent nature of female oppression, motivating women to challenge restrictive social systems; in the words of Daly, women are inspired to “transcend the trickery of dogmatic deception,” reject the “distorting mirror of Memory,” and “recognize the Radiance of [their] own Origins” (Pure Lust, 113; my emphasis). Second, by depicting “nonpatriarchal” egalitarian communities of women, these stories offer a new teleological perspective, or what Orenstein calls “the dream of a new feminist matristic Eden” (153). And third, by replacing the (male) “God” with the (female) “Goddess,” feminist revisionary myths provide women with positive images of their own “biophilic” power.1

According to Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, and other poststructural theorists, however, feminists' use of subversive strategies that imply an “innocent and all-powerful Mother” and an “irrecoverable origin” in an imaginary, prehistorical past are far less effective than many revisionist mythmakers suggest.2 They argue that mythic accounts of a maternal origin are exclusionary, divisive, and politically conservative, for they lead to simplistic identity politics—politics based on restrictive, ethnocentric notions of female identity that ignore the many differences among real-life women. Butler, for example, maintains that although feminist origin stories are employed to overthrow the dominant representational system, they generally replicate existing conditions:

The postulation of the “before” within feminist theory becomes politically problematic when it constrains the future to materialize an idealized notion of the past or when it supports, even inadvertently, the reification of a precultural sphere of the authentic feminine. This recourse to an original or genuine femininity is a nostalgic and parochial ideal that refuses the contemporary demand to formulate an account of gender as a complex cultural construction.

(Gender Trouble, 36)

In other words, feminists' attempts to recover or recreate ‘prepatriarchal’ forms of woman-centered communities inevitably rely on existing phallocentric definitions of Woman;3 they reject conventional gender categories only to establish other equally restrictive male/female binary oppositions. Moreover, Butler maintains that focusing on a time supposedly prior to or beyond present socioeconomic and political conditions inhibits feminist analysis and action in the present.4

For Teresa de Lauretis as well, there is no “going back to the innocence of ‘biology’” or to biologically based concepts of gender. As she explains in Technologies of Gender, because gender is produced by a wide range of discursive practices, including education, literature, cinema, television, and religion, it cannot be described as a “natural” attribute that all human beings are marked with at birth. Such descriptions reinforce normative, phallocratic definitions of “woman,” as well as the hierarchical male/female binary system. Thus she rejects what she sees as

some women's belief in a matriarchal past or a contemporary “matristic” realm presided over by the Goddess, a realm of female tradition, marginal and subterranean and yet all positive and good, peace-loving, ecologically correct, matrilineal, matrifocal, non-Indo-European, and so forth; in short, a world untouched by ideology, class and racial struggle, television—a world untroubled by the contradictory demands and oppressive rewards of gender as I and surely those women, too, have daily experienced.


Like these poststructuralist thinkers, I'm extremely suspicious of feminist identity politics founded on exclusionary accounts of “woman's experience.” I, too, question the political effectiveness of rallying around normative, biologically based concepts of Woman, or mythic, monolithic images of “the Goddess.” All too often these attempts at establishing commonalities among women have the opposite effect, inadvertently reinstating conservative descriptions of “Womanhood” and binary gender systems that exclude the experiences of many women. But to assume that we can—or even should—toss out all origin myths, along with all references to “Woman” or the “feminine,” is too dismissive—not to mention highly unlikely. These categories have become so deeply ingrained in our personal and cultural meaning systems that we cannot simply reject them. Nor can we sort through the numerous images of women circulating in contemporary cultures and distinguish the truth from the lies. As Drucilla Cornell argues in Beyond Accommodation, “we can't just drop out of gender or sex roles” now that we recognize their oppressive, constructed nature (182); nor can we separate “Woman and women … from the fictions and metaphors in which she and they are presented, and through which we portray ourselves” (3).

As I see it, this debate over the (in)effectiveness of origin stories is part of a larger debate concerning the possibility of positing, from within the current representational system, new feminist—or perhaps even “feminine”—“beyonds”: Can we affirm the “feminine” yet arrive at definitions of “Woman” that are qualitatively different from existing descriptions? Perhaps more importantly, can we do so without erasing the many material and cultural differences between real-life women? On the one hand, terms like Woman and the “feminine” can be extremely divisive when they prevent us from recognizing that because gender intersects with historical, ethnic, sexual, and other axes of difference in complex ways, gender is an unstable category with multiple meanings.6 But on the other hand, to refuse all references to sexual difference, “the feminine,” and Woman risks reinstating the pseudo-universal human subject defined exclusively by masculinist standards. Moreover, to ignore or actively deny the “feminine” perpetuates the current sociosymbolic system; as Cornell suggests, “the repudiation of the feminine is part of the very ‘logic’ of a patriarchal order” (Beyond Accommodation, 5).

In this [essay] I want to suggest that transculturally contextualized metaphors of Woman and the “feminine” offer another alternative to these theoretical dilemmas. More specifically, I will argue that Allen's use of North American creatrix figures demonstrates the possibility of writing the “feminine” in open-ended, nonexclusionary ways. Rather than reject all references to “the Goddess,” Woman, and prepatriarchal social systems Allen uses the terms differently. She locates herself in the present yet goes ‘back’ to a diverse set of non-Eurocentric mythic origins, developing metaphoric representations of Woman that neither erase her own self-defined cultural specificities nor erect permanent barriers between disparate groups. Instead, her writings affirm what I will call “feminine” mestizaje: “feminine” in its re-metaphorized images of Woman; “mestizaje” in its fluid, transformational, transcultural forms. I borrow this latter term from Cuban literary and political movements where its usage indicates a profound challenge to existing racial categories. As Nancy Morejón explains, mestizaje transculturation defies static notions of cultural purity by emphasizing

the constant interaction, the transmutation between two or more cultural components with the unconscious goal of creating a third cultural entity … that is new and independent even though rooted in the preceding elements. Reciprocal influence is the determining factor here, for no single element superimposes itself on another; on the contrary, each one changes into the other so that both can be transformed into a third. Nothing seems immutable.7

Allen incorporates this ongoing cultural transmutation into her mythic metaphors of Woman. By drawing on the dialogic elements of verbal art, she utilizes metaphoric language's performative effects and invites her readers to live out the “feminine” in new ways. As she does so, she develops an interactive epistemological process—or … embodied mythic thinking—that challenges feminists' conventional notions of identity politics.

[Anzaldúa] and Lorde engage in similar transcultural affirmations of the “feminine.” They, too, simultaneously intervene in existing systems of racialized and gendered meaning and invent new definitions of the “feminine.” However, I have chosen to examine the poststructuralist debate concerning the (in)effectiveness of woman-centered origin myths and their implications for feminists' representational politics exclusively in the context of Allen's writings. I have several reasons. First, her origin myths play a pivotal role in her creative and theoretical works. Second, Allen uses her gynocentric mythic system to develop what could be interpreted as a highly irrational, entirely nonacademic epistemology. Third, her assertions concerning women's experience and the “feminine”—especially when read literally—are far more extreme than those made by Anzaldúa and Lorde. Yet it's the radical nature of Allen's assertions I find so intriguing. Why would a highly respected scholar of Native American literature support her claims with references to “spirit guides,” “the Grandmothers,” and other supernatural informants? How can an epistemological process based on what seem to be conservative notions of women's biological functions support feminists' political projects?

Interestingly, Allen's feminist writings have received less critical attention than Anzaldúa's and Lorde's. There is, I believe, an important parallel between this limited academic reception and the extremity of her claims. Rather than criticize what seem to be monolithic, essentializing views of spiritual forces and the “feminine” in American Indian traditions, theorists generally avoid commenting on these aspects of Allen's work. This avoidance is quite understandable. Consider, for example, the following assertions in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions:

The Mother, the Grandmother, recognized from earliest times into the present among those peoples of the Americas who kept to the eldest traditions, is celebrated in social structures, architecture, law, custom, and the oral tradition. To her we owe our lives, and from her comes our ability to endure, regardless of the concerted assaults on our, on Her, being. … She is the Old Woman Spider who weaves us together in a fabric of interconnection. She is the Eldest God, the one who Remembers and Re-members.


Among the tribes, the occult power of women, inextricably bound to our hormonal life, is thought to be very great.


Women are by the nature of feminine “vibration” graced with certain inclinations that make them powerful and capable in certain ways.


It is the nature of woman's existence to be and to create background. This fact, viewed with unhappiness by many feminists, is of ultimate importance in a tribal context.


Coupled with her more recent references to “multitudinous Great Goddess(es)” in Grandmothers of the Light, it's difficult not to interpret these statements as indicating a concept of female identity rooted in biology and thus to conclude that the “feminine” Allen attempts to “recover” is an ahistorical, unchanging essence that supports conventional phallocratic definitions of Woman, as well as romanticized, nostalgic images of “Indians.”

According to Allen herself, however, recovering the “feminine” in American Indian traditions does not imply a retreat into a mythical prehistorical past. Nor is it an attempt to apply conventional masculinist notions of femininity to Native American women. It is, rather, a political act situated in the material present. In “Who Is Your Mother? The Red Roots of White Feminism” she emphasizes that her interest in recovering the “red roots” of Euro-American feminism is not motivated by “nostalgia.” As her title indicates, she argues that the principles guiding twentieth-century U.S. feminists have their source in Native traditions. However, because they have forgotten “their history on this continent,” feminists are unaware of the parallels between the forms of oppression experienced by contemporary women and those experienced by indigenous peoples and earlier European gynocentric cultures. Allen maintains that until mainstream and radical U.S. feminists recognize their efforts to establish egalitarian social structures represent the “continuance” of tribal gynocentric traditions, they restrict feminism to a gender-based movement and overlook important models for personal, political, economic, and cultural change (Sacred Hoop, 214).

Throughout “Who Is Your Mother?” Allen stresses that to alter current conditions, contemporary social actors must recognize their ties to the past. Origin stories play an important role in this process because they enable us to go ‘back’ to the ‘past’ to transform existing conditions. Thus she tells us

traditionals say we must remember our origins, our cultures, our histories, our mothers and grandmothers, for without that memory, which implies continuance rather than nostalgia, we are doomed to engulfment by a paradigm that is fundamentally inimical to the quality, autonomy, and self-empowerment essential for satisfying, high-quality life.

(Sacred Hoop, 214)

But what, exactly, is the difference between “continuance” and “nostalgia”? After all, both terms could be interpreted as the desire to recapture an earlier era. According to David Murray, for example, the two words are often used synonymously. As he explains in his discussion of contemporary writers' attempts to synthesize precolonial images of the past with present-day conditions, the “invocation of unity is a recurrent theme in American Indian writing.”8 He argues that although this holism could be politically motivated, generally it is not: “[I]n the existing body of American Indian writing, the idea of wholeness and unity are more usually an expression of a nostalgia without any political cutting edge—a nostalgia for a tribal unity, and for a simplicity which fits neatly into the patterns of literary Romanticism” (88).

Yet Allen's feminism, her theory of perpetual liminality, and her belief that time is nonlinear and human beings are “moving event[s] within a moving universe” make such interpretations untenable (Sacred Hoop, 149). In a dynamic, constantly changing world with no ‘beginning’ or ‘end,’ we cannot go back to an earlier point in time. Instead, we can use the so-called past to understand present conditions more fully and to direct future actions. For Allen, continuance implies the historical past's continuity, its constant presence and ongoing interaction with contemporary human life. Thus she distinguishes between the ritual-based “ceremonial time” found in Native American worldviews and the “chronological time” generally associated with history and daily life. As she explains in “The Ceremonial Motion of Indian Time: Long Ago, So Far,” whereas western culture's exclusive emphasis on chronological time divides history into discrete segments and separates time itself from “the internal workings of human and other beings,” Native American “ceremonial time” is achronological and mythic; events apparently located ‘outside’ the temporal present—whether or not we ‘actually’ experienced them—can have significant effects on our lives (Sacred Hoop, 149).

Continuance has additional implications for indigenous North American peoples. Given the specific types of oppression they have experienced for the past five hundred years—which include (but are not limited to) genocide, forced assimilation, sterilization, removal, Christianization, and reeducation—continuance, survival, and recovery are almost synonymous. Allen maintains that Native Americans' attempts to reclaim their non-European cultural traditions have played a central role in their struggle to resist assimilation into mainstream U.S. culture. Throughout The Sacred Hoop she emphasizes the feminist dimensions of this project by associating both the decimation of Native peoples and the widespread erasure of Woman-based ritual traditions with a shift from gynocentric to phallocratic social structures. She explains in “How the West Was Really Won” that “[t]he genocide practiced against the tribes … aimed systematically at the dissolution of ritual traditions … and the degradation of the status of women as central to the spiritual and ritual life of the tribes” (195). According to Allen, this cultural/spiritual/biological genocide continues today, often (but not always) in less obvious forms, like the highly romanticized stereotype of the “vanishing Indian” (Sacred Hoop, 151). Continuance, then, entails far more than a nostalgic desire for “tribal unity.” Because she sees the ongoing systematic oppression of Native Americans as both gender- and culture-specific, she believes “[t]he central issue that confronts American Indian women throughout the hemisphere is survival, literal survival, both on a cultural and biological level” (Sacred Hoop, 189; her emphasis).

Allen's frequent references to the devastating effects of this ongoing material and ideological extermination make it difficult to dismiss either her origin myths or her desire to recover the “feminine” in American Indian traditions as an escapist retreat into an impossible, highly idealized past. It is, in fact, almost the reverse. Her emphasis on the sociopolitical and cultural implications of indigenous mythic systems attempts to reshape contemporary and future conceptions of American Indians, feminism, and U.S. culture. Indeed, Allen's feminized, Indianized “cosmogyny”9 represents several significant alterations in current systems of meaning. First, by describing preconquest North American cultures as gynocentric, Allen revises previous academic interpretations of Native traditions and attempts to enlist all U.S. feminists—whatever their cultural backgrounds—in Native Americans' ongoing political struggles. Second, by attributing forms of oppression experienced by contemporary women to the “same materialistic, antispiritual forces … presently engaged in wiping out the same gynarchical values, along with the peoples who adhere to them, in Latin America” and other countries (Sacred Hoop, 214), Allen expands existing conceptions of feminist movement and challenges self-identified feminists to develop cross-cultural, cross-gendered alliances with other oppressed peoples. As she asserts in an interview,

what I'm really attempting to do is affect feminist thinking. Because my white sisters—and they have influenced the Black and Asian and Chicano sisters—have given the impression that women have always been held down, have always been weak, and have always been persecuted by men, but I know that's not true. I come from a people that that is not true of.

(quoted in Ballinger and Swann, 10)

Third, by associating a diverse set of Native American mythic creatrixes with a cosmic “feminine” intelligence, Allen develops an epistemological system that draws on the oral tradition's dialogical nature to redefine Enlightenment-based descriptions of the intellect.


Is it only the question of unearthing that which the colonial experience buried and overlaid, bringing to light the hidden continuities it suppressed? Or is a quite different practice entailed—not the rediscovery but the PRODUCTION of identity. Not an identity grounded in the archaeology, but in the RE-TELLING of the past?

Stuart Hall

Allen's origin myths represent a significant departure from those described by earlier Native American literary scholars who relied on male-centered stories from Christianized Native informants.10 In The Woman Who Owned the Shadows Allen synthesizes and alters the Laguna Keres and Iroquois origin accounts to construct a gynocentric mythic story reflecting her own experiences in twentieth-century U.S. culture, as well as the experiences of her mixed-blood protagonist.11 More specifically, she replaces earlier masculinist interpretations of Native American mythic systems with interpretations emphasizing the centrality of “feminine” creative powers. As Elizabeth Hanson asserts, “Allen redesigns her own creation myth and, in the process, … feminizes and personalizes the myth of Spider woman and her twin” (35).

Spider Woman and Allen's many other “personalized” mythic creatrixes represent an equally significant departure from the goddesses found in traditional Graeco-Roman mythology, for she associates them with a cosmic intelligence that manifests itself through language. She opens The Sacred Hoop by declaring: “In the beginning was thought, and her name was Woman” (11; my emphasis). Similarly, she begins The Woman Who Owned the Shadows with her version of the story of Old Spider Woman, whose “singing made all the worlds. The worlds of the spirits. The worlds of the people. The worlds of the creatures. The worlds of the gods” (1; my emphasis). And again in Grandmothers of the Light she attributes the creation of the entire cosmos—including nature, human beings, sociopolitical systems, literature, and the sciences—to Grandmother Spider or “Thinking Woman,” who

thought the earth, the sky, the galaxy, and all that is into being, and as she thinks, so we are. She sang the divine sisters Nau'ts'ity and Ic'sts'ity … into being out of her medicine pouch or bundle, and they in turn sang the firmament, the land, the seas, the people, the katsina, the gods, the plants, animals, minerals, language, writing, mathematics, architecture, the Pueblo social system, and every other thing you can imagine in this our world.

(28; my emphasis)

In these versions of Allen's woman-centered mythic stories, creation occurs through language and thought. These origin narratives have little in common with standard, phallocentric creation accounts that conflate “Woman” with “womb” and reduce the “feminine” to the highly sexualized yet passive bearer of (male) culture. Nor are they similar to those feminist origin myths that valorize women's previously denigrated maternal role by identifying goddess imagery and female power primarily with childbirth.12 As a number of theorists have argued, feminist celebrations of motherhood can be problematic. Although they affirm traditionally devalued aspects of female identity, many revisionist accounts of mother goddesses or the maternal do not fully challenge the underlying, patriarchally defined gender roles. As Judith Butler points out, the reliance on existing systems of meaning inadvertently “engender, naturalize, and immobilize” binary gender relations and stereotypical notions of womanhood. She argues that by positing “the category of woman as a coherent and stable subject,” feminists' representational politics inevitably reify conservative, heterosexist constructions of a normative female identity (Gender Trouble, 5).13 It is this supposedly inevitable reification of exclusionary gender categories that leads her to question the political effectiveness of all revisionist accounts of Woman, “women's experience,” and the “feminine.”

However, Allen's “feminine” mestizaje indicates the possibility of rewriting the “feminine” in nonexclusionary ways. Rather than replace one coherent and stable female subject with another, her re-metaphorized Woman destabilizes both male and female gender-inflected subject positions. For example, in her discussion of the Laguna Keres creatrix Allen complicates the conventional relationship between women, the “feminine,” and female gender roles. She refers to Thought Woman as “mother” and describes her power as “feminine” yet stipulates that this creatrix is “not limited to a female role in the total theology of the Keres people.” By associating Thought Woman's creative power with a cosmic intelligence rather than with biologically based definitions of creation, Allen can insist that her role is not gender specific: “Since she is the supreme Spirit, she is both Mother and Father to all people and to all creatures. She is the only creator of thought, and thought precedes creation” (Sacred Hoop, 15). Similarly, Allen asserts that in many tribal cultures the terms “Mother” and “Matron” reveal the great respect paid to all women yet maintains that the titles themselves are not gender specific. They apply to both women and men, for they represent “the highest office to which a man or woman could aspire” (Sacred Hoop, 28-29; my emphasis).14

This insistence on nonbiological, “feminine” creative powers provides an important exception to Butler's belief that references to “women” or “women's experience” inevitably reinforce heterosexist concepts of female identity. According to Butler, “the category of women achieve[s] stability and coherence … in the context of the heterosexual matrix” (Gender Trouble, 5). She maintains that in contemporary, western sociosymbolic systems, Woman is always defined in relation to Man; consequently, representations of women automatically imply heterosexually defined gender roles. However, by incorporating nonwestern elements into her revisionist mythmaking, Allen retains the category of “Woman” yet detaches it from the “heterosexual matrix” underlying western images of gender identities. And indeed, she often describes her mythic figures in distinctly nonheterosexual terms. In her discussion of Keres theology she emphasizes that

the creation does not take place through copulation. In the beginning existed Thought Woman and her dormant sisters, and Thought Woman thinks creation and sings her two sisters into life. … The sisters are not related by virtue of having parents in common; that is, they are not alive because anyone bore them.

(Sacred Hoop, 16)

Similarly, when she retells the Navajo creation story of Hard Beings Woman she points out that creation did not occur through male/female sexual intercourse but rather through the merger of two “feminine” elements—the “meeting of woman and water” (Sacred Hoop, 14). In Grandmothers of the Light Allen again distinguishes between heterosexual, biological reproduction and other forms of creativity by associating her creatrixes with thought. She asserts that because the Mayan creators—Xmucané and Xpiyacoc, who she calls “the Grandmothers”—represent “the original measurers of time, or day keepers,” their creative power goes beyond sexual reproduction to encompass a magical, nonbiological generative power (55). She maintains that scholars' references to heterosexually paired mythic figures as “(grand)mother” and “(grand)father” gods represent later patriarchal interpellations into earlier gynocentric texts. Thus she refers to both these Mayan creators (or “Grandmothers”) in female-gendered terms and parenthetically notes that in twentieth-century accounts Xpiyacoc is generally referred to as “Grandfather” (29). Although Allen does not explicitly lesbianize her creatrix figures, her repeated emphasis on their nonbiological creative powers undermines readers' heterosexist assumptions.

Allen further discredits conventional, phallocentric gender categories by repeatedly insisting that the “feminine” creative power she describes cannot be interpreted according to contemporary Euro-American descriptions of maternal functions. In “Grandmother of the Sun: Ritual Gynocracy in Native America,” she associates U.S. culture's sentimental notions of motherhood with the devaluation of contemporary women's socioeconomic status and asserts that gynocentric mythic traditions do not equate maternity and motherhood with biological functions.15 She distinguishes between fertility cults, biological birth, and “sacred or ritual birth” and carefully associates North American creatrix figures exclusively with the latter. Thus she challenges the commonly held assumption that Thought Woman, Hard Beings Woman, Corn Woman, and other mythic mothers represent indigenous peoples' inadequate understanding of human conception. According to Allen, such assumptions are ethnocentric and sexist: In addition to trivializing both “the tribes … and the power of woman,” they restrict “the power inherent in femininity” (Sacred Hoop, 14-15).

I want to emphasize that Allen does not disavow the importance of maternity itself. By positing a cosmic “feminine” intelligence her origin myths affirm the maternal—and, by extension, real-life women's experience—yet redefine it as “female ritual power” (Sacred Hoop, 27). In her discussion of Ixchel, the Yucatán Indian's “goddess of the moon, water, childbirth, weaving, and love,” Allen explains that “female ritual power” encompasses far more than biological birth, for it contains all types of physical and nonphysical transformations, including “the power to end life or to take life away” and “the power of disruption” (Sacred Hoop, 27). Rather than reducing Woman to the maternal function, then, Allen expands conventional definitions of maternity to incorporate all forms of creativity and change, as well as all aspects of human existence. She associates Thought Woman's “power of Original Thinking or Creation Thinking” with “the power of mothering” yet depicts “mothering” in terms that include, but go beyond, biological reproduction: “‘mothering’ … is not so much power to give birth, … but the power to make, to create, to transform” (Sacred Hoop, 29). One form this creative mothering can take can be found in “Grandmother,” Allen's poetic retelling of a Laguna Pueblo creation story about Grandmother Spider. In this short poem Allen alludes to biological birth yet reworks it to encompass other forms of creativity, such as weaving, storytelling, and writing. In the opening lines she describes creation in the following way: “Out of her own body she pushed / silver thread, light, air.” This grandmother creator weaves “the strands / of her body, her pain, her vision / into creation.”

By drawing connections between these mythic representations of Woman and historical Native women, Allen subtly underscores metaphoric language's performative effects, its influence on both psychic and material conditions. She maintains that this “feminine,” all-inclusive, transformational force had significant implications for preconquest indigenous women's social status. Because “the power to make life” was seen as “the source of all power,” women performed central functions in tribal ritual and political systems (Sacred Hoop, 27). According to Allen, “The blood of woman was in and of itself infused with the power of Supreme Mind, and so women were held in awe and respect” (Sacred Hoop, 28).

As these statements reveal, at times Allen seems to base her arguments concerning maternity and the “feminine” on women's reproductive capabilities. And in a sense, she does. However, by expanding conventional descriptions of reproduction to include imaginative and intellectual creativity, she downplays this biological aspect so significantly that she almost entirely discounts it. Consider the following description of “female ritual power”:

[T]he power to make life is the source and model for all ritual magic and … no other power can gainsay it. Nor is that power really biological at base; it is the power of ritual magic, that power of Thought, of Mind, that gives rise to biological organisms as it gives rise to social organizations, material culture, and transformations of all kinds—including hunting, war, healing, spirit communication, rain-making, and all the rest.

(Sacred Hoop, 28)

As in her equation of women's menstrual blood with “the power of Supreme Mind,” Allen redefines both “femininity” and the mind, creating an epistemological process that simultaneously “feminizes” the intellect and spiritualizes the body.

I want to emphasize the innovative dimensions of Allen's “feminized” epistemology. By redefining the maternal as transformational thought, Allen unsettles the hierarchical, dichotomous worldview that equates “masculine” with transcendence, culture, and the mind, and “feminine” with immanence, nature, and the body.16 Significantly, she does not replace one dualism with another: As “the necessary precondition for material creation,” Allen's re-metaphorized Woman represents a dynamic, all-inclusive, intellectual, creative, maternal power that generates both “material and nonmaterial reality” (Sacred Hoop, 14-15; my emphasis). This “feminized” intelligence is both supernatural (Allen equates it with Old Spider Woman/Thought Woman) and natural (Thought Woman's intelligence encompasses human beings as well as the physical world: It “permeates the land—the mountains and clouds, the rains and lightning, the corn and deer” [Grandmothers, 34]). Unlike Athene, the Greek goddess of (patriarchal) wisdom whose divine intelligence entails the sacrifice of the mother,17 Allen's mythic Woman represents a maternalized embodied intelligence, or what Luce Irigaray might describe as “a spirituality of the body, the flesh” (“Universal as Mediation,” 135).18


One element of contemporary feminist reflection which I find particularly striking is the element of risk that these thinkers introduce into intellectual activity. Theirs is a more daring, risky form of intelligence; their approach to enunciation and to discursive practice is freer and more disrespectful than the established norms.

Rosi Braidotti

As her emphasis on the concrete, material dimensions of thought implies, Allen develops an epistemological system that avoids the Cartesian mind/body dualism. By establishing a reciprocal relationship between the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual, she destabilizes classical western definitions of reason and rationality. Her embodied mythic thinking intervenes in western culture's “crisis of reason,” a crisis related to the absence of certainty and secure foundations in rationalist and empiricist theories of knowledge.19 According to a number of contemporary feminist philosophers, this crisis has its source in the hidden masculinist bias in all supposedly universal knowledge systems. As Elizabeth Grosz explains, because reason, rationality, and the mind have been symbolized as “masculine,”20 this previously unacknowledged bias has led to “the historical privileging of the purely conceptual or mental over the corporeal” and the subsequent denial of the body. In western cultures the body has been traditionally associated with the “feminine,” and this disavowal has important implications for real-life women:

If the body is an unacknowledged or an inadequately acknowledged condition of knowledges, and if … [it] is always sexually specific, concretely “sexed,” this implies that the hegemony over knowledges that masculinity has thus far accomplished can be subverted, upset, or transformed through women's assertion of “a right to know,” independent of and autonomous from the methods and presumptions regulating the prevailing (patriarchal) forms of knowledge.

(“Bodies and Knowledges,” 187-88)

Allen's embodied mythic thinking, as well as her frequent references to Thought Woman and her use of North American creatrix figures to “feminize” American Indian traditions, can be read as her assertion of an independent and autonomous cognitive stance. Like Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and the other autonomy-feminists Grosz describes, Allen simultaneously critiques conventional western knowledge systems and develops new ways of thinking that require different intellectual standards. Her embodied mythic thinking exposes the phallocentric foundations of western culture's reliance on logical, rational thought and provides an alternative to analytical forms of thinking. As she explains in Grandmothers of the Light, she uses storytelling rather than logical proofs to unsettle contemporary readers' over-reliance on reason: “Many times the stories weave back and forth between the everyday and the supernatural without explanation, confusing the logical mind and compelling linear thought processes to chase their own tails, which of course is a major spiritual purpose behind the tradition's narrative form” (5).

But Allen's epistemic position departs more radically from Eurocentric masculinist conventions than the feminist epistemologies Grosz describes. Whereas autonomy-feminists generally support their alternate positions with arguments drawn from poststructuralist theory,21 Allen relies extensively on information acquired from her “inner self” and “the supernaturals.” She provides little “factual” scholarly evidence for her assertions. In the “Introduction” to The Sacred Hoop, for instance, she justifies her attempt to recover the “feminine” in American Indian traditions with the following highly unacademic statement:

Whatever I read about Indians I check out with my inner self. Most of what I have read—and some things I have said based on that reading—is upside-down and backward. But my inner self, the self who knows what is true about American Indians because it is one, always warns me when something deceptive is going on. … Sometimes that confirmation comes about in miraculous ways; that's when I know guidance from the nonphysicals and the supernaturals, and that the Grandmothers have taken pity on me in my dilemma.

(6-7; my emphasis)

She takes this open acknowledgment of supernatural guidance even further in Grandmothers of the Light and explains that she derived the information for her mythic stories “from a variety of ethnographic and literary sources, from the oral tradition, and from direct communication with my own spirit guides” (xiii; my emphasis).22

Similarly, in “‘Border’ Studies” Allen replaces conventional epistemological methodologies and formalist theories of literary scholarship with her own highly idiosyncratic perspective on contemporary literary theory. This essay, published in the Modern Languages Association's Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, has little in common with the other, more conventional, scholarly essays collected in the anthology. Ostensibly a theoretical overview of literary production by contemporary self-identified U.S. women of color, “‘Border’ Studies” could be more accurately described as Allen's own inventive literary origin myth, her personalized account of what she calls the “creative void,” or the source of all original literary work (306). As in The Sacred Hoop and Grandmothers of the Light, Allen employs a variety of tactics that simultaneously critique and transform western academic literary conventions. She rejects margin/center discourse and all other oppositional theories as reactionary and maintains that many self-identified U.S. women of color writers, as well as other “disappearadas,” position themselves in the “Void”—“the still, dark center of the heart of the gynocosmos where nothing at all exists and whence, paradoxically, all must emerge” (306).

Does this reliance on spirit guides, supernatural informants, and the “dark grandmother of human wisdom” (“‘Border’ Studies,” 305) discredit Allen's “feminine” mestizaje and the embodied mythic thinking it implies? I think it depends on your perspective. Viewed from within the academy, her truth claims are highly suspect, if not outright laughable. Indeed, most academic scholars avoid commenting on the feminist epistemological dimensions of Allen's recent work. According to Elizabeth Hanson, one of the few literary critics who has not simply ignored Allen's gynocentric origin myths, this conflation of Native American cultures with the “feminine” lacks sufficient explanation or proof: “Allen's vision of tribal life as gynocratic in nature, rather than simply mystical or psychic, reveals a remarkable contention, one that Allen herself recognizes as supported by limited verifiable evidence” (15-16). Hanson also notes that Allen's interpretation of the “feminine” in The Sacred Hoop cannot be supported by factual, historical information. Furthermore, it contradicts her own earlier view of Native cultures, as well as the perspectives of well-respected, “gifted and sensitive historians” (16).

It could be tempting to label Allen's inability or refusal to provide sufficient “factual” evidence, coupled with her references to supernatural informants, as New Ageish or “neo-Romantic”23 and to dismiss her epistemological perspective entirely. But I want to suggest another possibility, one based on the limitations of contemporary academic discourse. In a Eurocentric patriarchal culture such as our own, an elite group of people defines what counts as scholarship and thus establishes the rules and definitions for knowledge claims, validation standards, and truth effects. But as Patricia Hill Collins explains, positivism and other conventional epistemological methods are inadequate for exploring the “subjugated knowledges” of black women and other subordinate groups, whose experiences and self-conceptions do not conform to the prevailing standards. Collins found her own academic “training as a social scientist inadequate to the task of studying the subjugated knowledge of a Black women's standpoint.” Thus she relied on personal experience, the experiences of other black women, and “alternate sites” of knowledge production, like poetry, music, “daily conversations, and everyday behavior”24 (202). Similarly, Allen's academic training as a literary scholar is inadequate to her undertaking. If, as Allen asserts, the decimation of Native peoples parallels the systematic erasure of gynocentric ritual and oral traditions,25 how—relying on conventional positivist methodologies—could anyone examine the “feminine” in American Indian traditions? To borrow Luce Irigaray's term, both the “feminine” and the American Indian traditions Allen tries to recover are in a state of déréliction, or abandonment; they lack representation in the dominant cultural symbolic. There are no existing words or conceptual frameworks to convey the “feminized” Native traditions and beliefs Allen explores.

Allen does not provide readers with an authentic, gendered, ethnic-specific standpoint. Her epistemology is performative, not descriptive; and the effect is transcultural transformation. By writing her “feminine” mestizaje, she stages a fluid, transcultural self/worldview that she invites her readers—whatever their cultural backgrounds—to adopt. Instead of recovering a precolonial mythological system erased by patriarchal structures, Allen invents an ethical, artificial mythology—ethical, because her new Indianized metaphors of Woman provide imaginary alternatives to contemporary western definitions of the “feminine”; and artificial, because the “feminine” she affirms does not—yet—exist.

Thus Allen's inventive mythmaking embodies what Drucilla Cornell calls “ethical feminism,” or what I would describe as an aspect of differential consciousness that employs performative speech acts to disrupt the prevailing phallocentric sociosymbolic order. Significantly, Cornell's ethical feminist does not attempt to replace contemporary definitions of the “feminine” with alternate definitions that more accurately reflect the truth of women's experience. Instead, her feminist speaks from “the utopian or redemptive perspective of the not yet” by using allegory and myth to imaginatively reconstruct the “feminine” (Transformations, 59). Thus, ethical feminism occurs in the subjunctive, in a liminal space between past, present, and future definitions. Or as Cornell explains, ethical feminism

explicitly recognizes the “should be” in representations of the feminine. It emphasizes the role of the imagination, not description, in creating solidarity between women. Correspondingly, ethical feminism rests its claim for the intelligibility and coherence of “herstory” not on what women “are,” but on the remembrance of the “not yet” which is recollected in both allegory and myth.

(Transformations, 59)

In other words, ethical feminism reclaims and rereads already existing stories and myths of the “feminine” but interprets them in new ways.

At this point I want to adopt Cornell's ethical feminism and apply my own “redemptive perspective” to a reading of Allen's origin myths. Despite Allen's apparent comments to the contrary, I believe that her discussions of Thought Woman, Corn Woman, the Grandmothers, and other Native American creatrixes “should be” read performatively, as potentially transformational metaphors. In particular—and, quite possibly, contra Allen herself—I am suggesting that these mythic figures do not represent accurate descriptions of an authentic womanhood; nor do they indicate the recovery of an essential “feminine” nature. Such literal interpretations are far too limiting; they lead to restrictive definitions of the “feminine” and confine women's experiences to a predetermined set of characteristics. More importantly, if we read Allen's metaphoric language descriptively, we deny its performative effects and overlook the visionary, ethical dimensions of her work.

As Allen validates her claims with references to Thought Woman and other mythic figures, she draws on metaphoric language's performative effects to alter her readers' self/worldviews. In the revisionist myths she enacts, representation and creation become blurred. As Cornell explains, metaphoric language, “reality,” and perception are inextricably related in complex ways:

“Being” cannot be separated from “seeing,” but it cannot be reduced to it either. We do not see what “is,” directly. We see through the world presented in language. … [T]his world is never just presented as static, because the very language which allows us to “see” also allows us to see differently, because of the performative power of the metaphors that constitute reality. To reinterpret is to see differently.

(Beyond Accommodation, 131)

Because language structures our perceptions of reality, new words and new concepts can provide us with new points of view, different perspectives enabling us to reinterpret existing social systems and forms of identity.

Allen's origin myths play a significant role in this reinterpretive process. Rather than entirely rejecting all references to Woman and the “feminine,” as some poststructuralists suggest, Allen keeps the terms but redefines them without reinstating normative gender categories.26 Just as her embodied mythic thinking destabilizes classical definitions of reason and rationality, her Indianized metaphors of Woman disrupt existing categories of identity and provide new alternatives. By associating her creatrix figures with a cosmic, divine, “feminine” intelligence, she intervenes in current systems of meaning and opens up possibilities for living out the “feminine” in new ways.

Paradoxically, then, Allen's “feminine” can be found neither within nor without the prevailing sociosymbolic structure. Yet it oscillates between the two. As Cornell argues in her discussion of Hélène Cixous's and Luce Irigaray's revisionist mythmaking, the “feminist reconstruction of myth” relies on a performative contradiction: Because the “feminine” system has been defined only in relation to the “masculine,” the “feminine” qua “feminine” does not (yet) exist; consequently, the “feminine” Cixous, Irigaray, and other contemporary feminist writers—Allen, Anzaldúa, and Lorde among them—affirm “cannot be reduced or identified with the lives of actual women, nor adequately represented as the elsewhere to masculine discourse” (Beyond Accommodation, 150). But if this ethical affirmation of the “feminine” is neither fully inside nor entirely outside current meaning systems, how might we enact it?


Interviewer: “Given your background and your culture and the way in which you straddle cultures or have incorporated a number of cultures, what makes an Indian?”

Allen: “I believe that it's a turn of mind.”

Like Allen's theory of perpetual liminality, her ethical affirmation of the “feminine” indicates an ongoing creative process that occurs at the interface of inside and outside; as such, it involves the recovery of the “feminine” as an imaginative universal. According to Cornell, this recovery

feeds the power of the feminine imagination and helps to avoid the depletion of the feminine imaginary in the name of the masculine symbolic. This use of the feminine as an imaginative universal does not, and should not, pretend to simply tell the “truth” of woman as she was, or is. This is why our mythology is self-consciously an artificial mythology; Woman is “discovered” as an ethical standard. And as she is “discovered,” her meaning is also created.27

(Beyond Accommodation, 178)

As Cornell's oscillation between creation and discovery indicates, this use of the “feminine” draws on the rhetoric of authenticity yet goes beyond existing definitions to emphasize the artificial, inventive nature of these mythologies.

I want to underscore the open-ended possibilities in this use of the “feminine” as an imaginative universal. Because the “discovery” of Woman as an ethical standard occurs within mythic metaphors, it defies literal, monologic interpretation, making possible a proliferation of meanings. Revisionist mythmaking plays an important role in this “discovery,” for mythic images are open to multiple interpretations. As Cornell points out: “It is the potential variability of myth that allows us to work within myth, and the significance it offers, so as to reimagine our world and by so doing, to begin to dream of a new one” (Beyond Accommodation, 178).

Although Allen herself does not describe her gynocentric mythologies as artificial, they function analogously to the artificial mythologies Cornell describes. The rhetoric of discovery and authenticity Allen employs can be read as tactical maneuvers to bring about individual and collective transformation. When readers enter into Allen's origin narratives, they “discover” new definitions of the “feminine.” By phrasing her new definitions in the language of discovery, she authorizes her words.

Significantly, Allen's use of the “feminine” as an imaginative universal serves an additional, related purpose, as well. By Indianizing her “feminine” mestizaje, she opens up a space for the construction of transcultural feminist social actors. If, as I suggested in the previous chapter, each subject is composed of multiple parts and located at the intersection of diverse—sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting—discourses, no identity is or ever can be stable and fixed. As Chantal Mouffe states, there is always “a certain degree of openness and ambiguity in the way the different subject-positions are articulated” (35). It's this potential openness to redefinition that makes personal and cultural change possible. To bring about radical social change, however, these subject positions cannot just be combined differently; they must be transformed:

If the task of radical democracy is indeed to deepen the democratic revolution and to link together diverse democratic struggles, such a task requires the creation of new subject-positions that would allow the common articulation, for example, of antiracism, antisexism, and anticapitalism. These struggles do not spontaneously converge, and in order to establish democratic equivalences, a new “common sense” is necessary, which would transform the identity of different groups so that the demands of each group could be articulated with those of others according to the principle of democratic equivalence.


In other words, in today's postmodern world political unities do not automatically arise; they must be consciously developed through a process of articulation.28 Like the cultural translation Homi Bhabha describes, the creation of new political subjectivities occurs in an ambivalent, heterogeneous space that problematizes conventional assumptions concerning unitary identities based on shared histories or cultural traditions. Political subjects, priorities, and plans of action do not ‘naturally exist; they must be constructed “through a process of translation and transference of meaning” (“Commitment,” 119). Contemporary socialist democratic politics and policies must be invented, not discovered, “because there is no given community or body of the people, whose inherent, radical historicity emits the right signs” (119; his emphasis). We—no matter who ‘we’ are—do not automatically unite on the basis of shared ‘natural’ traits. Instead, shared identities must be created. Bhabha underscores the inventive nature of contemporary politics in an interview with Jonathan Rutherford, where he rejects the commonly held belief that politics entails mobilizing already existing social subjects:

The concept of a people is not “given,” as an essential, class-determined, unitary, homogeneous part of society prior to a politics; “the people” are there as a process of political articulation and political negotiation across a whole range of contradictory social sites. “The people” always exist as a multiple form of identification, waiting to be created and constructed.

(“The Third Space,” 220)

Allen's “feminine” mestizaje indicates one form this construction of “the people” can take. Because her “discovery” of Woman as an ethical standard occurs within metaphor, on an imaginary level, it potentially destabilizes readers' ego-ideal identifications, the master signifiers or symbols that shape our self-conceptions in pivotal ways. When we identify the “feminine” in ourselves with the “feminine” in Thought Woman, Hard Beings Woman, and Allen's other mythic figures, we experience a “metaphoric transference.”29 That is, we encounter a slippage within our current definitions of Woman and the “feminine” as we recognize a gap between what “is” and what “should be.” It's this slippage between competing definitions that enables readers to act out the “feminine” differently. More specifically, because Woman and the “feminine” function as master signifiers in identity formation, this recognition produces a shift in our self-perceptions.30 As Mark Bracher explains, “what happens to our sense of being or identity is determined to a large degree by what happens to those signifiers that represent us” (25).31 By Indianizing the master signifiers that represent “us” women, Allen Indianizes her readers as well.

Allen's use of nonwestern North American “tribal” creatrix figures does not indicate a nostalgic desire to return to a prehistorical, utopian “Indian” community of women. By going back to previously erased indigenous conventions, she rewrites the past and invents new definitions. As Trinh Minh-ha asserts, “[T]he return to a denied heritage allows one to start again with different re-departures, different pauses, different arrivals” (Moon, 14). Allen's “returns” are performative, not descriptive. As she writes her “feminine” mestizaje, she engages in a to-and-fro movement that takes up yet disrupts conventional interpretations of Woman, “American Indians,” women, and the “feminine.” These disruptive oscillations enable readers to go beyond conventional feminist identity politics and open up new thresholds, textual and psychic locations, where transcultural identifications—mestizaje connections—can be made.


  1. The term “biophilic” is Daly's.

  2. The phrase “innocent and all-powerful Mother” is Haraway's (“Manifesto,” 218), and the reference to an “irrecoverable origin” is Butler's (Gender Trouble, 78).

  3. Throughout this chapter I will capitalize “Woman” when indicating the term's metaphoric character, including both the oppressive and the potentially liberating aspects of the term. Also, in this chapter I will put “feminine” in scare quotes to emphasize the provisional, speculative, and potentially transformative dimensions of Allen's use of the term.

  4. According to Butler, “If … it is a life of the body beyond the law or a recovery of the body before the law which then emerges as the normative goal of feminist theory, such a norm effectively takes the focus of feminist theory away from the concrete terms of contemporary cultural struggle” (Gender Trouble, 42).

  5. Donna Haraway makes a similar point in “Manifesto for Cyborgs” when she claims that in today's fragmented, postmodern world, “[i]t's not just that ‘god’ is dead; so is the ‘goddess’” (81). She maintains that references to gods, goddesses, or other “transcendental authorizations” lead to restrictive political agendas based on totalizing and imperialistic identity politics that prevent feminists from constructing effective coalitions in the sociopolitical, historical present. According to Haraway, “There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women.” Indeed, “There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual, scientific discourses and other practices” (72). Thus she challenges feminists to reject all such naturalized identities and develop temporary strategic alliances based on situational choices.

  6. Butler summarizes this view in Gender Trouble (3-6).

  7. Nancy Morejón is quoted in Lionnet (15-16). As Lionnet notes, mestizaje is incompatible with conventional notions of a singular origin: “In this constant and balanced form of interaction, reciprocal relations prevent the ossification of culture and encourage systematic change and exchange. By responding to such mutations, language reinforces a phenomenon of creative instability in which no ‘pure’ or unitary origin can ever be posited” (16).

  8. David Murray describes this commonly invoked holistic worldview: “Rather than seeing the world as made up of different realms of experience to which we apply different methods of understanding and evaluation (religious, scientific, and so on), there is a sense of a fundamental unity underlying the facets of experience, which is regularly characterized in traditional images of circles or living organisms” (88).

  9. “Cosmogyny” is Allen's neologism. She explains that “[f]or my purposes, ‘cosmogyny’ is more accurate [than ‘cosmology’]. It connotes an ordered universe arranged in harmony with gynocratic principles” (Grandmothers, xiii-xiv).

  10. For a discussion of how Christianized informants de-feminized Native myths, see Linda Danielson's “Storyteller: Grandmother Spider's Web.

  11. Renae Bredin discusses Allen's appropriation of Iroquois stories in “‘Becoming Minor.’”

  12. For examples of feminist celebrations of motherhood, see Elinor Gadon's The Once and Future Goddess and Kathryn Rabuzzi's Motherself.

  13. Drucilla Cornell points out that another potential danger in mythic images of Woman is the possibility that “[t]he counter-valorization of Woman associated with the re-metaphorization would risk the danger of essentialism and of claiming a special status of one vision of Woman” (Beyond Accommodation 167). To my mind, feminists' re-metaphorized Mother Goddesses often fall into these traps.

  14. Allen later reiterates her point: “At Laguna, all entities, human or supernatural, who are functioning in a ritual manner at a high level are called Mother” (Sacred Hoop, 28).

  15. In her discussion of Thought Woman, Allen again distinguishes between Thought Woman's creative power and biological reproduction by emphasizing that this creatrix figure's power is not “simply of biology, as modernists tendentiously believe. When Thought Woman brought to life the twin sisters, she did not give birth to them in the biological sense. She sang over the medicine bundles” (Sacred Hoop, 27).

  16. As Margaret Whitford notes, in western philosophical traditions “reason, conceptualized as transcendence in practice came to mean transcendence of the feminine, because of the symbolism used” (“Luce Irigaray's Critique,” 111).

  17. Athene represents a highly masculinized version of femininity. As Irigaray rather poetically remarks, “A woman—the other—will be asked to set the seal of necessity upon this/her burial. A woman, in truth: of divine reality. A divinity conceived in the head of the God of gods. Well born—without a mother” (Marine Lover, 94). Irigaray discusses Athene and other Greek goddesses in “Veiled Lips” (Marine Lover, 77-119).

  18. I explore Irigaray's “spirituality of the body” in greater detail in Chapter 6.

  19. Elizabeth Grosz provides a useful overview of western culture's “crisis of reason” in “Bodies and Knowledges.” This “crisis” began in its modern form with Descartes. Today, it manifests itself in a variety of ways in a diverse group of thinkers, including Heidegger, Habermas, Lyotard, Rorty, Jameson, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze. According to Grosz, “This crisis has been variously described as a crisis of identity, of modernity, of capitalism, of morality, and even of science. It is a crisis of self-validation and methodological self-justification, formulated in different terms within different disciplines and periods; a crisis of reason's inability to rationally know itself; a crisis posed as reason's inability to come outside of itself, to enclose and know itself from the outside: the inadequation of the subject and its other” (189; her emphasis). For other contemporary feminist critiques of traditional masculinist epistemologies see Braidotti's Patterns of Dissonance; Gatens's “Towards a Feminist Philosophy of the Body”; Hodge's “Subject, Body and the Exclusion of Women from Philosophy”; Moi's “Patriarchal Thought and the Drive for Knowledge”; and Whitford's “Luce Irigaray's Critique of Rationality.”

  20. It is important to note that this equation of rationality with the masculine occurs on a symbolic level; as Whitford asserts in “Luce Irigaray's Critique of Rationality,” “To describe rationality as male is not to restrict rationality to men” (124).

  21. Luce Irigaray, for example, holds doctorates in both linguistics and philosophy. She frequently uses poststructural theory to expose the masculinist bias in conventional systems of knowledge. See, for instance, Speculum of the Other Woman.

  22. For another remarkable example of Allen's unconventional research methods, see her assertion that she “was honored to have channeled information” about the Crystal Skull (Grandmothers, 195).

  23. The term “neo-Romantic” is Bat-Ami Bar On's. See her brief discussion of “neo-Romantic subjectivity” in “Marginality and Epistemic Privilege.”

  24. Muchas gracias a Debra Miller for reminding me about this chapter in Black Feminist Thought.

  25. In several essays collected in The Sacred Hoop Allen associates tribal genocide with a shift from matricentric to phallocratic belief systems. See, for example, her assertion in “How the West Was Really Won”: “The genocide practiced against the [North American] tribes … aimed systematically at the dissolution of ritual traditions … and the degradation of the status of women as central to the spiritual and ritual life of the tribes” (195).

  26. As Cornell points out, “We cannot escape the hold of the feminine on the unconscious, which is precisely why we work within myth to reinterpret and transform, rather than merely reject. Theoretically, identity may be deconstructed as pure form or structure, as de-sistance of mimesis; but gender identity is, practically, very much in place and enforced by the law” (Beyond Accommodation, 182; her italics).

  27. Cornell further asserts that “[w]e re-collect the mythic figures of the past, but as we do so we reimagine them. It is the potential variability of myth that allows us to work within myth, and the significance it offers, so as to reimagine our world and by so doing, to begin to dream of a new one. In myth we do find Woman with a capital letter. These myths, as Lacan indicates, may be rooted in male fantasy, but they cannot, as he would sometimes suggest, be reduced to it” (Beyond Accommodation, 178).

  28. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe describe this process of articulation in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

  29. I borrow the term “metaphoric transference” from Cornell: “The metaphors of Woman, in and through which she is performed, are enacted signifiers which, as such, act on us as genderized subjects. But this performance keeps us from ‘getting to the Other’ of the prediscursive ‘reality’ of gender or of sex. Metaphoric transference, in other words, recognizes the constitutive powers of metaphor, but only as metaphor” (Beyond Accommodation, 100).

  30. As was already mentioned, Cornell explains that “metaphors of Woman, in and through which she is performed, are enacted signifiers which, as such, act on us as genderized subjects” (Beyond Accommodation, 100).

  31. Both Bracher and Cornell maintain that alterations in the social system entail psychic change as well. Bracher, for example, insists that “any real social change must involve not just changes in laws and public policy but alterations in the ideals, desires, and jouissances of a significant number of individual subjects” (73). See also Ross Chambers's Room for Maneuver.

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

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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 and approaches, and the discussions that ensued were enjoyably intense and wide-ranging. Since much of it brought historical contexts to bear on the discussion of Native texts, it seemed only appropriate to discuss the last twenty years with Paula, who was one of the participants in the 1977 Flagstaff conference that resulted in the formation of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures.

The following is an edited transcription of that conversation. The text is as close to the original substance as possible, with interruptions and repetitive exclamations—such as “Well, ah …” and the repeated laughter (unfortunately)—omitted. My appreciation to my editorial assistant, Aaron, for the initial transcription of the audio tape of this conversation.

[Purdy]: It's interesting, this morning, to be talking about the last twenty years, though, and that's one of the fun things about doing with this issue of SAIL. It's been twenty years since Flagstaff. And as you were saying this morning there's a lot that's happened in 20 years.

[Allen]: Tremendous, so much …

Yeah …

It's hard to know what the group … the first meetings were so funny. You'd go to M.L.A. [Modern Language Association's annual conference], and there'd be this nice group of English professors or American lit[erature] professors, whatever. The first one I went to was, it must have been '73, Michael Dorris and myself and one other person, I forget who it was, and the people in the audience were asking, no, making these comments like, “Well, I know an Indian and he told me that the Indian way is blahda blahda blahda blahda.” And then, by the time I went to the last M.L.A. I went to, which was a couple of years ago in San Francisco, the level of the discussion is like the level here, at this symposium. It was, just, so far beyond what we could even dream of doing then. It's ah … I'm on the eve of retiring and I feel completely comfortable, in terms of my responsibility to the community, because my job has been to work in the literary field, and that's my contribution to our people, and I feel completely comfortable. It's not a problem. There's enough people out there doing enough variety of things, with really some solid approaches, that are useful to the Native people as well as to the literary community. So it's perfectly all right; I can quit and others can do it as well. Oh good!

I started doing criticism because nobody could read my work. Nobody could read Momaday's or anybody's, and so I started writing about it because there was no other way to get a readership. Quite selfishly for myself, although I never made any money from it. It was a bit disgusting that everybody else's [non-Native writers'] work was being studied. …

Well, that's kind of interesting, because if one thinks of all the works people refer to most often, many of them are yours. Not just fiction or poetry, but the criticism. The Sacred Hoop, the early ones, Studies in American Indian Literature. Those are two prominent things that came perfectly spaced in this twenty years. …

Actually they are the first ones out of my [creative] work, and the novel came between Studies [Studies in American Indian Literature] and The Sacred Hoop. But, since I began as a poet and a novelist, and then I did these other things because they needed to be done—and I do enjoy it, I really enjoy it—I feel overshadowed, like I should have stayed with poetry, like Joy [Harjo] or Linda [Hogan], or Jim Welch or so many others, and stayed as a creative artist, but then I tend to have a discursive mind, as well as the other kind, so, when I stop to think about it I realize, yeah, I couldn't have done that.

Well it's been an interesting time, a few decades of talking about the literature and then the different critical approaches that have come along, some of which have evolved (some of which haven't) over the past twenty years, but also the books, the novels, the poetry, the drama itself. I mean, my god, it is truly phenomenal.

But there was nothing then, and now there's everything, like I said earlier. I can't even keep up with it all. …

None of us can. …

For a while there I could do Native American Literature [a course]; it was so hurried to try to do it in one semester, particularly the contemporary literature, meaning from Apess forward, but it could be done. There just wasn't that much in print. By 1982, I was at U.C.L.A. on a grant, and my idea was to do a comprehensive anthology of Native American women's poetry. After I counted 200 American Indian women in print, I gave up. I thought: it just can't be done. By then you couldn't do American Indian poetry and do it justice, there were just too many poets, let alone American Indian women's poetry. But in '77 you could have done it, and you could have at least given a wide representation of much of the poetry that was in print. Can you imagine that?! Since then, it's very hard to deal with just one person's work. Isn't that wonderful? It's so exciting for me.

So then I went to fiction, the novel, and I specialized in that for quite a while, and finally short fiction started getting published. There was only a Richard Seaver's book [edited by Kenneth Rosen], The Man to Send Rain Clouds, until the late '80s. And after Granddaughters [Spider Woman's Granddaughters] came out I was amazed, that was received so well. I couldn't believe it. I just didn't think people read short story collections, never mind Native American women's short story collections. And that was reviewed in the New York Times and in The Chronicle, it was a “Pick of the Month” and of the year, and one thing and another, and it was just delightful, because the works are so splendid. Oh, my, it was a delight to be asked to edit. So, now, there are so many fiction anthologies that I can't even deal with them all either.

That's what's amazing about these last twenty years, too, is certain points in that history where something like Spider Woman's Granddaughters comes along and it's so successful that it opens some doors and then it's progressive because each work that's produced, just demonstrates again and again the power of the works that are being produced. …

Without Momaday and House Made of Dawn and the Pulitzer Prize none of us would be here, because it made people in publishing and the academy more willing to pay attention than they had ever been. Our big problem now is to get ourselves out of that minority literature “The Oppressed People Garden,” which I find entirely irrelevant. It's not multi-cultural literature. I've taught Asian American literature, meaning Korean American, Chinese American, Japanese American, Vietnamese American, and I've taught Chicana American, Hispanic, Latina, and I've taught Black American, Caribbean, et cetera. Our situation, the Native people's situation, is quite different. We don't belong in Ethnic Studies, anymore than English does, and English is, from my point of view as an Americanist, an ethnicity. And English literature should be studied in Comparative Literature. And American literature should be a discipline, certainly growing from England and France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, and the Native traditions, particularly because those helped form the American canon. Those are our backgrounds. And then we'd be doing it the way it ought to be done. And someday I hope that it will be.

But certainly we [Native writers] make no more sense [being studied] with African American literature than we make with “New World” American literatures. It's not sensible to put us into that category. Are we oppressed? Well, yes, we are, but no we're not, because we still live on our own land, and we still live with our own gods, and we still live with our own ceremonies, and so people have moved, or were forcibly moved, but they took themselves with themselves. That was actually common, like with the Sioux, who eventually emerged out on the plains as the Lakota. But they took themselves with themselves on that entire, long, that centuries-long journey. So it's not that they've lost that Native tradition; they just moved. And they have re-moved. I mean if you look at the oral traditions, which is what we must look to if we are going to do accurate and responsible criticism, we can see that these things actually happened. We see that abduction narratives were a very important part of Native American traditions, if it was the Shoshonis, or Laguna or whatever, we find these abduction narratives. And contemporary Native cultures don't have any slave narratives. What they did was they took the abduction narrative and shifted it to contemporary situations, so that all that happens is that the oral tradition gets reframed, but it's the same story. It's just got a different setting. Different costumes, same story.

That's interesting. One of the things people have been discussing in academics for at least 20 years if not longer, is, well, we get into the binaries again, don't we? Should there be a Native American literatures course, or should it be studied in the “American canon”? So that has always been a debate, but to take a topical approach like “what we have carried with us” or abduction stories, and then we could look at various cultures. …

And then you could do it without creating the dimensional problems we've been having, because it's not binary, it's not either/or, and the thing is I would like to call the university a multiversity. The university means there's only one god, there's only one way to do things, and to me that is directly counter to the American experience. That's fine for the English or the French, or whoever, and in discussion they say they don't like that [to be grouped together] but then why do they do it to us? Why can't we have many literatures, all of which are American? African American literature is not African. It really isn't. It's American literature informed by the experiences here and African oral traditions, which were brought over from various African nations.

Well, that makes a lot of sense. If we're ever going to be able to have a true discourse we have to get rid of those simplistic determinations; the thing is, and it's always been kind of fascinating to me, that the geographical space we call the U.S.A. has always been multi-cultured. What has happened is there has been a construction and perpetuation of a myth of a uni-cultural experience.

Well, you know, I think it's Christian. You can only have one God, one holy and apostolic church. Okay, so imbedded in Western thought for two thousand years, or fifteen hundred years at least, is the idea of one king, one emperor, one people. But that's not true. And even the motto e pluribus unum, out of many one, but really what we have is out of many, many. And it's wonderful, cause that's the reality. Have you ever heard of one anything? You can't just have one leaf, you've got to have the whole tree.

If you have only one thing, it dies off.

Gone. That's right. Everything has to be community, and it has to be multiple-community literature. That's what it has to be. There's no reason why we can't develop a contemporary Native American stance that enables us to generate political strategies that will apply. Not the same ones for everyone, but the appropriate ones for the case that you're examining. I don't see why, especially with computers and all. I think the issue is about status.

Right back to what we were talking about earlier.

You have got to have “the right one,” because once you have mastered “the right one” you can become the elite, and what worries them is they won't be the elite anymore and then what would they do for meaning? Well, they might have to get a life, and we can't have that.

But just in terms of, well from Flagstaff to now,—that I can say these things, that I can even think these things—is such an enormous leap. There're so many approaches, there're so many writers, there're so many critical studies, which I find all delightful.

It is exciting, the way it should be.

Even when they're wrong, they dream up excellent ways of saying why, and in what ways they succeed and in what ways they fail, which we couldn't do then. All we could do was stand there and say “No, no, no” because we didn't know that kind of [critical] language and those kinds of critical strategies, to work from.

We've come all this way, to a point where Mary Churchill can develop a Cherokee critical approach. It's just staggering. Like Henry Louis Gates did with The Signifying Monkey, and certainly for me that was a model of thinking, thinking, “Look. He did it.” He's got an Africanist model, that is mediated by what they call “New World” experience.

So, by the time you get to popular thought, yes, you have Esu-Elegbara, but you have something very unique, very American and that is peculiar to African experience in the United States, as opposed to the Caribbean, as opposed to Brazil I suppose, or wherever. But it's distinctly not just African. And you could take the critic as the man at the cross-roads, the one who interprets, what the gods said to the speaker, the writer, the poet, duh dah duh da duh da (the expression). You have the code—I can't remember their name for the code—but there's an actual code, and the critic is the one who knows the code, and she decodes it. Just as the case in the Esu-Elegbara figure decodes what's coming through the channel, the trans-medium. So, you begin to see that the critic fits into a tradition that's entirely whole. It's not about appropriating, it's about interpreting.

As long as the critic doesn't keep the code [secret].

Well, that's the thing. You have to know the code well, and then you can share it. Instead, if you don't know it well, of course you hide it because you don't want anyone to know how ignorant you are.

Good point.

No, I agree the code has to be there for all.

Along those lines, then, since we began this by talking about the last twenty years, what do you see happening next?

I don't know.

Part of the fun of it, huh?

Yeah, because I truly do believe that when white buffalo calf was born, that when the blue star kachina returned, that's what they called the Hale-Bopp comet, that's Quetzalcoatl, it's actually a whole new game.

But if things stay going in the many directions in which they are going, certainly in publication, our voice will be heard more and more strongly, because readers love it. Far more than publishers, and far more than the academy, just readers, out there, really relate to it. Because I think that Native stories, and novels and poetry, speak to something that's peculiarly with America. It catches American readers, because we're all trying to figure who we are and what we're doing here. Canadian Native writers don't write that way. There's very different stuff going on up there, and south of the United States, they're writing about other kinds of things, but all-American, U.S. folks are sitting around going “Who the hell are we? Where do we come from? And isn't this difficult?” We're trying to negotiate too many traditions, too many ways of understanding. And that's what Native writers are dealing with.

Among all the writers, that is why we've got to get out of ethnic literature because the strategies for understanding it don't work, for understanding Native literatures. Very little of our literature is the literature of protest, of oppression. Very little of it. Most of it is the literature of the spirit or the literature of ritual. Almost all of it is, call it political voice and drama, is always informed by the presence of this knowledge that there is always this other world, with which we are always engaged. It isn't over “there” somewhere; it's in our presence and our midst and we are in its presence and its midst. You can't get a text if you don't get that, as a principle. You can't do that with African American literature or Chinese American literature or so on. Though I do … and I find all kind of things in their works that their own critics aren't finding, because they all have a tendency to stay connected to the spirit world. Women's literature often does, too, unless its pretending that it isn't x or y. In which case it turns out to be something else entirely.

Are you back to the genetic model [which we discussed during our final symposium meeting]?

I'm back to the genetic model of X and Y. Well, what's interesting about that is all zygotes are X, and for some reason, and nobody has talked about why (but maybe it's a mutation), one leg of the X gets dropped as the zygote becomes an [female] embryo. Okay, so then, what gets lost is that socialization capacity.

For a long time feminists talked about women networking but I know an awful lot of women who do no such thing. And so I couldn't understand. I knew there was something to it. It doesn't matter where I go. I sit down and we start talking about babies and shopping and hairdos and we're fine. All the woman needs are the culture she comes from and to share all this. And then there's the boy culture, the football and the sports, etc. Men tend not to communicate. All the studies show it, and they just don't and that's their way. And then women are at them all the time, “But you don't talk, but you won't share.” But then this study came out, and it was published in Nature magazine June 1997, … it explained to me the difference between the male and the female and I think it's significant.

Certainly in a Native world you have strongly gendered traditions and you can't really say “Kiowa is,” you have to say Kiowa male, or Kiowa female, because they really are different, and that's very important in oral traditions, and it continues to inform the literature. Look at the treatment of women in Welch and Momaday and so on, compared to the treatment of women in Allen or Hogan or what have you. It's not that we sit around and think “Well, let's see, the woman's tradition is …”; you just grow up being informed of these things, and nobody says that's “the Indian way.” It's just part of what you learn from your folks. They seldom identify it in any way, so you just think that's how reality is—at least that is how your reality is. It's going back to this genetic code, for how we understand reality. There's a male code and there's a female code. Neither one is better or more important, obviously, or they wouldn't both be here would they? And the truth is probably more complex than that. There's probably like nine genders. I was just reading about the Eskimos—they didn't say Inuit—a very contemporary documentary on the number of genders that these people experience within their communities. And if you look at the genders we recognize: there's male, female, homosexual male, bisexual male, lesbians who go both ways, estrogen conscious, but also in another valence, then there's the true hermaphrodite, and there's probably variations within there, like there's people with fundamental heterosexual feelings who have strong homosexual pulls, and that's probably pretty common. In each case there's the male partner and the female partner. There's people with XXY chromosomes and XYY chromosomes and all of this is going to have an effect, not just on gender but on consciousness. But the tribal people pay attention to this, and the modern people try to eradicate these differences.


Exactly, there's only one way. Instead of saying there are many ways and we need them all, unless this were true, we wouldn't all be here. It seems to me fairly straightforward.

And that goes for criticism too. Back to your question: what will happen, if we're lucky, is that American scholars will continue to work the way most of us are working, which is to open it up. Open it up. As chaos theory … and there's some new stuff, that I can't remember the name of, Change Theory or something like that, and I haven't had time to research it, but something called the principle of mediocrity, which is the idea of the golden mean, or the median: anything that is, will tend toward balance, will tend toward the median, which opens up everything. You don't have to find the extremes, because what will happen is that the patterns will keep reiterating but that also means varying. So we will always come back to what it was, but it will always go away from what it was.

Well, that kind of fits in with what you were talking about this morning, especially with the image of the swirling water. It's [the world views of Natives and non-Natives] fundamentally a very minor shift in one's point of view, but it's a world apart.

You're right. It turns out to be major, and all you have to do is shift your eyes a little bit and suddenly you realize that wider pattern: it's the tree pattern, it's the hill pattern, it's the grass pattern, it's the literature discussion pattern, it's the … it's the … it's the … and they are all singing to each other, you know, which is of course what we say. It was a dance sweetheart. There's Joy Harjo. And that's exactly why it works. “Something sacred is going on in the universe” Momaday says. Or grandson, this earth is fragile. And we're all saying the same thing. I'm saying chaos, Mandelbrot set, Julia set, pay attention here, look at fractals. Because in this way we can explain not only our literature, but now everybody, once we develop these process appropriately, we'll be able to give a fair shake to anybody's book, to take the book itself on its merits, where it comes from, rather than trying to make it an issue like the canonical blah blah blah. Well who cares? What is it? Not, what is it like?

Yeah, that's a good point. It has to go that way doesn't it? If it doesn't we're in deep trouble.

It just terrifies me.

It's going to be just that much more fragmentary and divisive.

Balkanized, as they like to say in the States. Fragmented. Bricolage! [Earlier in the day there was a long discussion about the implications of this French term.]

Bricolage! Let's talk about your bricolage.

I'll tell you about my bricolage; I huffed and I puffed and I couldn't blow it down.

Wonderful … wonderful. So what's on for you next? What about writing?

I've been working on a book called The Seven Generations. It's supposed to be a book about Native spiritual systems. A sort of “how to be an Indian without even really trying.” Everything you ever wanted to know about being an Indian but were afraid to ask. But I really mean that in the sense of what I mentioned in the talk today. There's this mythic sense and there is this way of perceiving, and that the dances are somehow connected to that, so you can't just get a drum and sit around and chant and feel good, and call yourself enlightened. That's not how it is. The idea is to work out a text, that will help people who are searching. This is not a literary text; it's not meant for literature people. In fact, I see this conference as my last literary thing that I'm doing in Native literature, perhaps in any literature because I want to move away from it. My own calling has always been of the spirit and I just want to do that before I get too old and can't. So that's happening. I've got a book of essays that Beacon has picked up and will be coming out within a year. All my essays until now.

A collection of your essays.

Everything. Stuff that was not in The Sacred Hoop but that predates it, and a number of things that I've written since. I don't know the title yet. I think I'm going to argue for Pocahontas Perplexed: An Indian Woman's View of Life, Literature and Philosophy. The publishers want it to be A Native American's View of … and I don't like that. I want, you know, just one person. It's just me, what I think. I'm saying these things. I know what I think; that's my responsibility. I'm not supposed to know what other people think.

I just had a book of poetry published called Life Is a Fatal Disease. West End Press brought it out. Nice book, Albuquerque. And I did a book called As Long as the Rivers Shall Flow, with Pat Smith. It's nine biographies, for young people. Scholastic picked it up.

Scholastic just did something by Tiffany Midge, too, and some other people are under contract. Looks like this going in the direction it needs to go in, that audience.

Absolutely, to get over these stupid images [of Native people] like the ones we were talking about yesterday.

Let's see, what else? Oh, Song of the Turtle came out, so that collection is complete. But I would like to write several more volumes: Son of Turtle,Turtle Island, and Turtle Soup. And The Revenge of Turtle

And Turtle XIII.

And Turtle XIII, yes. In some other life, perhaps.

About that anthology, when you talked about that anthology this morning, you said you conceived of it not as most editors, or publishers, do—as a collection of distinct and discrete units—but as a novel. That was wonderful!

It goes back to the Flagstaff conference when [John] Rouillard said, “Yes, but is it Indian to write novels?” And I spent years thinking about that, and I thought, yes, actually, it is. We have something that would fit what folklorists call cycles; so there's the old woman cycle, the trickster cycle, or the warrior cycle, on and on, the deer dance cycle. Well, those are long involved narratives, that go quite a long time. Well a novel is a long involved narrative that goes on a long time. But in truth you can see that certain thematic concerns, preoccupations, will arise and then get reiterated and explored and deepened and then they'll get dropped and later they will be picked back up. So, in essence, our cycles are doing the same thing. Probably, novels developed out of the same kind of thing.

Yes, like you said, very event structured, but they are strung together by certain concerns. …

Yeah, there's a narrative coherence, or thematic units. …

So, then, given that, if you take a whole bunch of stories that are about Native female supernaturals, like my Grandmothers of the Light, why … what happened—and I didn't know this would happen—was all these different Native nations were telling the same story.

[Here, the tape ended. Once it was replaced and the recorder ready, we moved back into a discussion of criticism.]

You were saying that, that's what Aristotle did, he looked at the text, rather than trying to impose something on it.

That's what I was taught in criticism class.

Well, so was I. People look down on the New Critical approach and brand it as something outdated and insignificant, but actually it's all in how you use it. Isn't it?

I'm a firm defender of the New Critical approach. I just don't think there's anything else you can do. All the rest is extra. If you can't do that one, then you can't do the others.

It goes back to that coding we were talking about, too. All of a sudden you have a language there that you don't want to share or open up for other people. I've always considered some of the things happening today, especially in Native literary criticism, as a post-facto prophecy. In other words, this is what it's going to be, and if it doesn't fit this pattern or this mold, then it is something else. Very prescriptive.

Even the scientists do that and they're not supposed to. I read Francis Bacon and I know what they're supposed to do as scientists. But they have this wonderful thing called the null set. What you do, basically, is erect an hypothesis based upon what your important, high-status predecessors have done, and then compel the data to conform to it. If it doesn't, then you throw it into the null set. Isn't that cute?

Right. We need more null sets.

Yeah. I don't like that kid. Let's throw it in the trash.

Instead of saying that's going on for a reason, I wonder why? Maybe it's my approach, my methodology, a variety of things, but there it is, let's examine it. But if I understand Bacon, he said we are to look at what is there, examine it, and then, perhaps, come up with some comments which will lead us to the next plane of exploration. Something was said today, something about answers. And I wanted to say, no, no, no. That's not the point. It's not about answers; it's about good questions.

Good questions, yes.

One exploration leads to another, that's fractal.

Right. Answers are conclusive, questions open up possibilities.

Answers stop discussion, close out possibilities. Questions open them and encourage conversation.

Of course lots of people just want the answers.

My students, for instance. “Just give me the answers so I can get an A.”

I was talking about Green Grass, Running Water yesterday, and in the beginning King has the classroom with Mary Rowlandson and anthropologists in it, asking “Is this going to be on the test? Do we have to remember this?”

It's like the doctor who says I could really practice medicine here, if it weren't for the patients.

But that's what it's all about, isn't it? The students. That's what keeps us going.

Yeah. So often, I have good students. I'm lucky that way. They're always teaching me things I would have never thought. That's my idea of how to teach.

It blows them away when you say that, though. It's funny, you take 25 undergraduates and drop a text on them you've used before, and they'll see things you've never seen, even after reading it a dozen times.

And they'll see stuff, and they're always taken aback, because they are so used to professors who already know everything—or, who don't, but won't ever admit it. Not to undergraduates at least.

And the joy continues.

The story goes on.

Tara Prince-Hughes (essay date winter 1998)

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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 context” (22). This struggle for identity has required writers to engage actively and dispute dominant Western fictions of “Indianness” and to express the fragmentation experienced by people of mixed ancestry. Their sense of alienation, Owens claims, differs from that of postmodern European-American thinkers; unlike their European-descent contemporaries, who emphasize the instability of identity, Native American writers seek to recover an underlying sense of stability based on spiritual and cultural continuity and interconnection with the wider natural world (20). Even in the case of the “radically deracinated mixedblood of much Indian fiction,” who “find themselves between realities and wondering which world and which life might be theirs,” identity is real, inherent, and recoverable (Owens 19). For Native protagonists, “the self from which they are alienated is, in fact, shown to be potentially coherent and dependent upon a continuing and coherent cultural identity” (19).

This idea of identity coherence is particularly pressing for gay Native American writers, for their work reflects the complications not only of ethnicity and mixed heritage but of gender and sexuality as well. At a time when many European-American queer theorists are celebrating the instability of identity and the performativity of gender,1 gay American Indians are revitalizing traditional Native cultural roles for two-spirit people, people who manifest both male and female traits and who were thus accorded unique responsibilities and status in many traditional American Indian societies.2 Such traditions offer a stable, coherent pathway for the development of identities which include homosexuality as part of their characteristics but which in their defining traits—spiritual calling, childhood and adult propensities for the play, work, dress, and behavior of the other sex, mediative and healing work, and a sense of community responsibility—are primarily social. Although individual tribal groups have developed their own variations on the roles, two-spirit traditions are remarkably similar in their core features, allowing for the development of a pan-Indian awareness of the two-spirit as an alternative to Western concepts of gayness that are grounded primarily in sexuality and removed from any broader cultural context.3 As Randy Burns, co-founder of Gay American Indians, has noted, the cross-cultural figure of the two-spirit provides a model for gay American Indians regardless of their specific cultural heritage: “the message of the berdache [is] important no matter what tribal background a person comes from” (Williams 211).

In work by lesbian writers Paula Gunn Allen and Beth Brant, identity, and in particular two-spirit identity, are central issues. In Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, the alienation of the protagonist, Ephanie, occurs around her own internal split between cultural outlooks; her fundamental identity is that of a cultural mediator and healer, but she can recover this role only by recovering her identity as a two-spirit, an identity she lost in early adolescence. Beth Brant's stories in Mohawk Trail and Food & Spirits also focus on two-spirit identities and themes. Although her protagonists come from European-and African-American as well as Native cultural positions, their alternative gender behavior and roles as healers and mediators signify their common two-spirit traits. In the work of both authors, issues of gender and cultural identity are closely related; alternative genders and sexualities cross cultural boundaries, and characters help repair fragmentation by forging connections between as well as within cultures. In their insistence on social responsibilities for two-spirit characters, and in their exploration of complex manifestations of gender identity, Allen and Brant suggest definitions of gayness that are not reducible to Western definitions based on sexual object choice; rather, gay and alternative gender people participate in the work, behavior, and spiritual roles that were once accepted by many American Indian societies.

A number of literary critics have noted the importance of lesbianism to Allen's and Brant's fiction, but the equal importance of two-spirit models has not been sufficiently explored. Vanessa Holford, for example, notes in reference to Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows that lesbianism is “vitally important because it is representative of woman's self-love” (105). Likewise, Renae Bredin, in her exploration of the constructionist versus essentialist debate regarding racial identity, discusses the figure of Double Woman as the prototype that offers Allen's protagonist a “culturally specific practice” in which to name her lesbianism: “It is precisely within the constitution of a lesbian identity that Ephanie is able to find balance and harmony” (47). Bonnie Zimmerman discusses Allen's novel in relation to twentieth-century lesbian fiction. Thus, she reads Ephanie's childhood relationship with Elena primarily in terms of sisterhood (88-89), a reading in keeping with lesbian feminist thought. At the end of the novel, Zimmerman suggests, Ephanie “enters into the song of the Doublewomen, the women who defy men and love women, who hold and use female power” (196).4

While lesbian-focused readings of the novel are in accord with Allen's own writings on women's same-sex relations in The Sacred Hoop, a reading that places Ephanie's journey in the context of two-spirit traditions resonates with Allen's concept of the “dyke” or “ceremonial lesbian” who possesses spiritual and social power (Sacred Hoop 257). Such a reading focuses on the ways in which Ephanie's experience parallels social patterns that are Native rather than European American. Using the Iroquois story of Sky Woman as a structuring metaphor, Allen's novel depicts Ephanie's recovery of her own power as a two-spirit mediator and storyteller.5

An interpretation of Ephanie's two-spirit identity seems especially appropriate given the prevalence of two-spirit people among Pueblo peoples, including Laguna. Barbara Cameron, co-founder of Gay American Indians, notes that:

Probably the most together tribe [sic] in the country, the ones who have best retained the old ways and traditions, are the Pueblos. Gay people are still accorded positions of respect in the tribe. Some are healers, medicine people.

(Gengle 334)

Walter Williams cites the Keres Pueblo belief in female completeness as one of the reasons for the high status of male two-spirits in Pueblo culture:

masculine qualities are [believed to be] only half of ordinary humanness. But feminine qualities are seen as automatically encompassing the masculine as well as many other characteristics that go beyond the limits of masculinity.


Allen herself has commented on the social importance of two-spirit people as mediators and preservers of social order:

If you make people hate berdaches, … they will lose their Indianness. The connection to the spirit world, and the connection between the world of women and men, is destroyed when the berdache tradition declines … We must recolonize ourselves. The issue of self-determination for Indian people means acceptance of lesbians and gays is central to accepting ourselves as Indian.

(Williams 228)

As for many Native American writers, identity for Allen is something stable and reclaimable, something that can be destroyed or revived. Her association of the survival of two-spirit traditions with the survival of cultural identity is born out in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.

Ephanie's childhood and early adolescent behavior manifests the alternative-gender inclinations that signal a developing two-spirit in many tribal cultures. Ephanie's childhood exploration with her friend Elena involves play that is normally expected only of boys; they pretend to be ranchers, trick riders, and stunt men, all specifically male roles (21).6 Ephanie is repeatedly warned by her Catholic community that “a twelve year old girl shouldn't be acting that way. That she might get hurt, she might fall and break something” (197). Like Sky Woman, however, Ephanie has physical power and endurance; like many two-spirit females, she rejects girls' clothing and activities for male play.

While her budding sexual relationship with Elena ends suddenly, Ephanie's sense of self depends far more on her gender expression than on her homosexuality. Her alternative gender behavior continues up until the day when, shaken by a dangerous fall from a rope jump, she abandons her sense of her identity. Just as Sky Woman is pushed into the abyss by her jealous husband, who feels threatened by her power, Ephanie is dared by her timid cousin Stephen to leap from a rope jump he has constructed in an old apple tree, one planted by Ephanie's white grandfather and symbolic throughout the novel of Ephanie's mixed-blood heritage. Sure of her own strength and agility, Ephanie takes the dare, thinking, “If he can do it, I can” (201). When the limb breaks beneath her and she falls, suffering broken ribs and a punctured lung, Ephanie gives in to community pressure and blames her masculine behavior for the accident. For Ephanie, as for Allen's Sky Woman, the fall precipitates a long period of forgetfulness.

When she is released from the hospital, Ephanie's behavior, speech, and appearance are restricted, signifying the loss of her alternative gender identity:

The old ease with her body was gone. The careless spinning of cowboy dreams. … Instead highheels and lipstick. … Instead full skirted dresses that she'd scorned only weeks before. Instead sitting demure on a chair, voice quiet, head down. … Curling endlessly her stubborn hair. To train it. To tame it. Her. Voice, hands, hair, trained and tamed and safe.


Ephanie begins to mimic other girls, adopting feminine attire and behavior and restricting her movements to keep them within Catholic ideals for female gender behavior. It is her “feminine” behavior, not her alternative gender, that is constructed or performed.

Ephanie's attempts to take on a female gender identity do not succeed, however, for although she marries a man and bears two children, she grows progressively more depressed. When her husband abandons her, she is unable to care for herself or her children. In her self-alienation, which is where we find her when the novel opens, she is incapacitated, dependent now on the assistance of Stephen for day to day survival.

Like Sky Woman awakening on Turtle's back, however, Ephanie begins a process of exploration, discovery, and ultimately creation. Unlike Sky Woman, Ephanie must endure a series of rebirths before she can undertake her creative work. Her awakening begins when, after a failed sexual encounter with Stephen, she realizes that she must change her own life; she must find a community in which to explore herself and contribute to a wider social group. Acting on intuition, she departs for San Francisco determined to “learn something about how the other half lives” (57). Like other contemporary two-spirits, she wants to find some social relevance for herself, a mediative position between the two worlds that make up her mixed-blood heritage.

In the city, Ephanie meets Teresa, a white wiccan healer who communicates with spirits. Ephanie is immediately and instinctively drawn to Teresa; like Sky Woman and First Woman, the two explore magic and ritual together, but Ephanie is not yet ready to undertake the spiritual and curative roles that typify two-spirit social positions. Instead, she shirks her power by marrying Thomas, a Japanese-American man whose pain from his family's internment in World War II camps parallels Ephanie's own dislocation and loss of cultural traditions. As with her former marriage, the union proves unfulfilling; she bears twin sons, one of whom dies in infancy, and she fails to rescue Thomas from his own self-absorption.7

It takes a near-death experience, the first of two in the novel, for Ephanie to recover the courage she needs to claim her two-spirit identity. Soon after the death of her son, she, Thomas, and Teresa make an excursion to the beach, where a longing for death entices her to swim so far out that she cannot return. When she begins to weaken, she is seized by a desire to live and looks for help, only to see Thomas running in the opposite direction on the shore. In his place Teresa comes to her aid:

Teresa, not much taller than Ephanie, had swum out into the pounding surf and pulled her out of the deeper water to where she could stand again on her own brown feet, walk out, lie on the sand, shivering, spent, mute. “I saw that you couldn't get your feet on the ground,” she had said.


Teresa's strength and calm-headedness stand out against Thomas's ineffectualness, and the incident jogs Ephanie's memory of her former strength. The rescue itself recalls that of the waterfowl who break Sky Woman's fall and plant her on the earth. Ephanie begins to recollect her two-spirit identity, first recalling her childhood adventures with Elena and the sense of self-awareness she possessed:

Ephanie remembered something, about Elena. A hand out to help her across a long jump on the mesas. She knew something then. Something she did not say aloud. … And talking with Teresa through long days after Thomas went back to the city she could see how it might be.


Impelled by this new understanding of what “might be,” Ephanie divorces Thomas and takes Teresa on a trip home to Guadalupe in an attempt to reconcile herself with the past and understand the relationship of that past to her adult self.

Before she can become fully creative, however, she must face the racism and homophobia of white society. On her trip, Ephanie begins to confront the rage, grief, and muteness she has suffered but never expressed. She meets Teresa's liberal feminist friends and confronts their romanticism of Indians as noble, spiritual victims by telling stories of her experience among her own people, “[w]ho never look like pathetic oppressed victims to me” (145). Split by two conflicting cultural traditions, Ephanie longs to mediate between them and facilitate understanding; she asks Teresa, “What do you do when you love everybody on every side of the war?” (146). Her desire to serve as an intermediary, to communicate the realities of her Indian people's experience to the whites with whom she also shares a history, marks another step in her recovery. In order to fulfill her responsibility, however, she must recognize two additional components of her two-spirit identity: her lesbianism and, more importantly, her gift as a cultural preserver and a teller of stories.

Imbedded in her memories of her warm tribal traditions and the cold hardness of Catholicism is the memory of two lesbian nuns, Sister Mary Grace and Sister Clair, who provided the only love and joy in her otherwise stark school experience. The love between the two nuns is brief, cut short when Sister Clair is sent away, but Ephanie and her friends realize that “they must have been in love” (156). “No one said anything about it being wrong,” Ephanie recalls, and the restored memory fills her with a sense of joy and purpose:

She was elated. She knew she had uncovered something very important … somehow it gave back to her, whole and entire, the memory of racing with the sky, the clouds, a piece of ripe juicy fruit. … Alive at last for that moment within that blessing so long craved.


Through the rediscovery of the lesbian nuns, Ephanie begins to understand the damage that they, and she, have sustained at the hands of Catholicism.

Her new perspective allows her to reread not only the suppression of gay people by Christianity but the relationship between her two cultures. She sees for the first time the “hopeless fear,” “unowned rage,” and “unfelt grief” of the Christians, who project their pain onto Indians and then try to destroy them (158). In discovering this dynamic, she starts to differentiate her own experience of her people's resourcefulness and creativity from white stereotypes and to assert her own worldview. She tells Teresa that Native people, far from being mere victims, are “co-creators” of the current state of the world (159).

Although at this point in her recovery Ephanie is actively seeking answers and confronting oppression against Indians and gays, she must also fight her own self-hatred. She experiences this hatred as an “alien, monstrous, other than her, in her, that wanted her dead” (132), which she can only exorcise by a second attempted suicide. After she fails to make Teresa understand the agency of Indian people in their own lives, an agency that she has not yet accomplished, she constructs a noose in her closet, overwhelmed by feelings of dirtiness and a determination not to “pollute anyone, anything,” including her own children (161). As she finishes the noose, she mockingly chants to herself, “I'm gonna get me an Indian” (163), giving voice to hundreds of years of racial hatred her white ancestors had for her Native people. Once she hangs herself, however, her self-preservation reasserts itself, and she frantically holds the rope with one hand while groping for her knife with the other: at last she has become capable of rescuing herself. As she weeps with relief on the floor, her rebirth is symbolized by her immediate interaction with a spider, the Laguna creator and a symbol of female power and creativity. She tells the spider, “Thanks Grandmother. I think I'm going to be all right” (164).

Having restored herself to her Indian heritage and destroyed her internalized racism and homophobia, Ephanie begins to research the horror and violence that she knows pervade the colonized world. As she reads, she begins to understand her role as a cultural go-between. She realizes that “[i]nside and outside must meet”: “she was the place where the inside and the outside came together. An open doorway” (174). She is able to recognize and accept her two-spirit inclinations; through her research and writing, she commits herself to her role as a mediator and translator between cultural perspectives and between the worlds of spirits and humans.

She also remembers Sky Woman's story, the story that she has been unconsciously re-enacting; the recollection brings her awakening to completion. For the first time since her childhood fall, she sleeps peacefully, feeling her body's power and strength, at peace with her identity (206). In her sleep she is visited by a spirit woman, who explains in Pueblo terms the significance of the twinning that has been so important to Ephanie's life:

It is the sign and the order of the power that informs this life and leads back to Shipap. Two face outward, two inward, the sign of doubling, of order and balance, of the two, the twins, the doubleminded world in which you have lived.


The image of doubleness also reflects the gender doubleness of the two-spirit, who dwells between worlds and embodies two in one. As the one called by the spirits to return balance and continue the stories, Ephanie receives the dream-vision that will inform her life. The spirit woman tells Ephanie that a change is occurring, that just as the people emerged from the fourth to the fifth world in Pueblo creation stories, another emergence is at hand, one that will take the people into the sixth world. Ephanie's role will be to guide in the people's journey by passing on the stories:

[a] door is closing upon a world, the world we knew … We go on to another place, the sixth world … [t]he work that is left is to pass on what we know to those who come after us. It is an old story. One that is often repeated. One that is true.


As has been the case with many two-spirits since Native/European contact, Ephanie undertakes to communicate her dual perspective, acting as a sort of cultural interpreter. The woman tells Ephanie to give the story “to your sister, Teresa. The one who waits. She is ready to know” (210). Teresa will become Ephanie's co-creator, and like Sky Woman and her daughter, the two will create a new world.

In accordance with traditional Native perspectives, Ephanie's role is never expressed solely in terms of sexuality. While she is clearly attracted to women, and while the novel aligns her with the female creativity of Sky Woman and Grandmother Spider, Ephanie's identity is finally based not on homosexuality but on the mediative and preservative work undertaken by many two-spirit people in the face of cultural change. A reading of Allen's novel within a two-spirit rather than a lesbian framework brings into focus Ephanie's spiritual and social propensities, gifts that the Western concept of homosexuality does not account for.

Like The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, Beth Brant's short fiction explores the place of two-spirit people in contemporary America. As Linda L. Danielson observes, survival amid difficulty and oppression is one of the central themes of Brant's work; her characters “are clinging with more or less courage to a place in a society that doesn't see or attend to their needs and that feels free to define them out of existence” (104). For her gay and two-spirit characters, the adversity is compounded by homophobic violence. Brant, like Allen, explores issues of gender identity and female creativity through Sky Woman's story, and her revisioning of Coyote gives a comic twist to gender and cross dressing. In addition, her work depicts the lives of working-class gay people whose gender behavior, healing work, mediative abilities, and community focus parallel those of traditional two-spirit people.

While Mohawk traditions have not been as thoroughly documented and preserved as those of Pueblo peoples, two-spirit men were described with horror by early explorers among the Iroquois nations, which include the Mohawk. In 1721, Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, a Jesuit explorer, wrote of the Southern Iroquois:

It must be confessed that effeminacy and lewdness were carried to the greatest excess in those parts; men were seen to wear the dress of women without a blush, and to debase themselves so as to perform those occupations which are most peculiar to the sex, from whence followed a corruption of morals past all expression; it was pretended that this custom came from I know not what principle of religion.


Despite the tone of the commentary, it seems clear that the men Charlevoix saw undertook the work and dress of women and felt their behavior was guided by spiritual directive. Because the Mohawk and Iroquois were among the first peoples to experience European persecution and homophobia, their two-spirit traditions have not enjoyed the continuity that they have in the Southwest; Gay American Indians, for example, have found no Mohawk or Iroquois words for two-spirits, although they have documented such terms in 133 other tribal groups (Living the Spirit 217-22). Even so, contemporary Mohawk writers such as Brant and Maurice Kenny find meaning in the two-spirit traditions.9

Noteworthy in Brant's collections is her retelling of Sky Woman's story in “This Is History,” a retelling that focuses on the relationship and love between Sky Woman and her daughter First Woman. Just as Allen uses Sky Woman as a structuring metaphor for Ephanie's recovery in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, Brant, in retelling the story, establishes cultural precedents for alternative gender behavior and creativity.

In the story, Sky Woman is marked from the beginning as different from other people in her sky world because of her “queer” curiosity: “The others were tired of her peculiar trait and called her an aberration, a queer woman who asked questions, a woman who wasn't satisfied with what she had” (19). Like that of other two-spirit people, Sky Woman's behavior doesn't match the gender expectations for her sex; she desires knowledge of and connection with the world beyond her community, and her boldness matches that of the warrior women and negotiators documented in historical accounts.10 Brant's Sky Woman actively chooses to jump through the hole under the tree of light, fighting off people who attempt to stop her, and her response to her fall is not forgetfulness but joy. She is quickly scooped up by Eagle, who lays her on Turtle's back where a world is already growing. Turtle charges Sky Woman with the duty of watching over her creation; as the woman sleeps, Turtle's back becomes full of creatures and Sky Woman becomes pregnant. Sky Woman learns how to live from the animals and eventually gives birth to First Woman, who becomes her companion and her lover; together they create songs and prayers, name things, make medicine, and create sexuality: “[t]hey touched each other and in the touching made a new word: love. They touched each other and made a language of touching: passion” (24). From Sky Woman's initial refusal of female gender behavior comes lesbian sexual desire. In contrast to more traditional versions of the story, Brant does not focus on the birth of the male twins. In her story, Sky Woman ages and dies before the twins are born; First Woman follows her instructions and creates corn, beans, and squash from her heart and the stars and moon from pieces of her body (25-26).

Complementing Brant's telling of Sky Woman's story is her revision of the trickster figure in “Coyote Learns a New Trick.” Here again, Brant plays with traditional material, transforming Coyote's gender play and extravagant sexuality into domestic responsibility and lesbian passion.11 In this story, Coyote, a female with a litter of puppies at home, decides to cross-dress as a dapper “traveling man” (33) in order to play a joke on the other animals. Her domestic stability (she has had other litters before this) and her disguise as a wanderer reverse the traditional plot in which wandering Coyote disguises himself as female in order to infiltrate a household or achieve a sexual conquest.12 Much like a butch lesbian, Coyote binds her breasts, dons a sweaty undershirt, white dress shirt, pegged slacks, and tie. She even stuffs her underwear with diapers “so it looked like she had a swell inside. A big swell” (32). While the traditional Coyote sometimes has a penis so big he has to carry it, Brant's character creates hers out of a symbol of her motherhood. Thus, her cross-dressing signals the presence of both male and female impulses, of play coupled with an underlying connection to family.

Once outside, Coyote struts vainly, causing Turtle to declare that she is “too weird to even bother with” (32). She hits on Fox, who is equally proud of her wits, as the target of her joke. Fox proves to be the ultimate femme, with a thick coat of red fur, batting eyelashes, and a gift for cooking. Her flirting disconcerts Coyote:

“Food is one of the more sensual pleasures in life, don't you think?” she said, pouring Coyote a glass of red wine. “But I can think of several things that are equally as pleasurable, can't you?” And she winked her red eye. Coyote almost choked on her wine. She realized that she had to get this joke back into her own paws.


Unlike the traditional Coyote, who does the conning and the manipulating until he is discovered or meets disaster, Brant's Coyote is undone from the beginning, the happy victim of a femme seduction.

After more flirting and wine, Coyote tries to gain control by suggesting they have “a roll in the hay” (34), but the scene quickly gets away from her again. As with many butch/femme couples, the femme determines the course of the encounter, and Coyote's pretenses to machismo are undercut. Coyote enjoys the foreplay so much that she delays revealing her sex until Fox finally unzips her fly and demands that she “take that ridiculous stuffing out of your pants” (34). Coyote's identity isn't truly male any more than it is purely female, and Fox has her unbind her breasts and remove her clothes “so we can get down to serious business” (34). While the narrator states at the beginning of the adventure that “Coyote knows truth is only what she makes it” (31), by the end of the story, it is clear that Coyote has been duped. Truth has instead been a joint project, created by their mutual efforts. Unfazed and delighted with the turn of events, Coyote declares, “This is the best trick I ever heard of. Why didn't I think of it?” (35). As in Allen's novel, where Ephanie's collaboration with Teresa holds creative power that crosses cultural lines, Coyote's mating with Fox suggests the potential pleasures of intercultural coupling. Brant's Coyote links contemporary butch/femme relations with traditional narrative forms, remembering yet transforming.

While “Coyote Learns a New Trick” and “This Is History” retell traditional materials with an emphasis on women's gender nonconformity, several other stories explore the lives of two-spirit people in contemporary cities and reservations. Like Ephanie, Brant's characters are homosexual, but their sexual behavior is not the foundational component of their identities. Instead, their identities are manifested through their work, mannerisms, dress, aesthetic tastes, and spiritual propensities. In addition, Brant's characters show strong inclinations toward community responsibility and participation. Like many alternative gender people, Brant's characters live in contexts where their abilities are ignored or condemned. Even so, they manage to find ways of healing and mediating for the people around them.

Brant's short piece, “Danny,” reflects this focus on two-spirit traits. Danny, a young working-class drag queen who has been murdered by gay bashers, tells his story from the spirit world. Like many two-spirit boys, Danny's early behavior and self-definition were feminine; he describes himself as “a pretty kid. Wanted to be like my ma. Wanted to be a girl” (57). Although he knows from a young age that his family and society condemn alternative gender behavior, as a child he “liked to dress in Ma's clothes … I wanted to be pretty and dressing up made me feel pretty” (58). He is beaten by his father for his cross dressing, and even his first boyfriend finds his dresses disturbing. Despite social disapproval and his own judgment that he is perverted, however, Danny cannot help but follow his nature: “it's like I had to do it, you know?” (59). Like many two-spirits, Danny feels his gender orientation is innate, and he is compelled to act on his inclinations despite the danger they expose him to. Far from being theatrical play, as many postmodern theorists would have it, his drag signifies an act of courage and honesty in a culture that denies his existence. His cross-dressing is reminiscent of traditional two-spirit men who adopted the dress and mannerisms of women.

In addition to his gender orientation, Danny's career as a nurse marks his proclivities for female work and healing arts. His nurturing tendencies lead him to a job at a children's hospital emergency room, where he repairs children molested and beaten by men. Horrified by the pain they suffer, he counters male violence by trying to “take the hurt away” (59), thinking “God, I hated being a man, if that's what men were!” (59). To cope with his world, he dulls his grief and rage with Valium and parades in drag on Friday nights. Like many contemporary gay people, he has no meaningful social avenues for his alternative gender expression, and without any awareness of older traditions that render his proclivities socially useful, he is alienated from himself and from his family and culture.

Danny shares with two-spirits the gift of vision; he is able to predict the future and move between worlds. He realizes that enacting his alternative gender identity will mean his own early death: “I could see myself as an old man doing this, and it scared the shit out of me. That's when I started thinking I wouldn't live to be thirty. I couldn't see any other kind of life for me” (59). In another cultural context, Danny's alternative gender might have been seen as a gift; as it is, he follows his nature and is gunned down in the street. He ironically concludes, “So, there's one less queer on the streets, and I guess that means that respectable people are resting easier in their lives” (60). Readers are left to wonder who will now heal the children to whom he has devoted his life. While Linda L. Danielson, one of the few commentators on Brant's work, criticizes Danny's posthumous narrative as a “bit of melodrama” (106), the blurring of the dichotomy of living and dead is common to much fiction by Native writers as well as to traditional stories; Danny's ability to cross the boundary between human and spirit worlds testifies to his skills as a transformer and mediator.

Brant creates another two-spirit healer in “Turtle Gal.” This time, the character is James William, an eighty-year-old African-American blues singer who lives across the hall from a Native woman, Dolores, and her daughter Sue Linn in a dingy urban apartment building somewhere in an unnamed city. James William takes in the nine-year-old girl when her mother, exhausted from years of welfare and alcoholism, gives up and dies. Sue Linn is, in Van Dyke's words, “one of the society's throw-a-way children, but she is safe within the shelter that the gay man provides for her—both society's discards” (109). James William's adoption of the girl testifies to his sense of community responsibility. Like Danny, James William has a love of children and a desire to heal them; he is adept at spiritual boundary crossing, and he guides Sue Linn through her grief assisted by his dead lover, Big Bill.

James William's apartment immediately marks him as different, for his domestic skills have transformed it into a warm, colorful haven. African violets, symbolic of his cultural past and associated with his gayness, grow in the windowsill, “queer, exotic plants in the middle of a tired, dirty street” (102). His kitchen is small and neat with plenty of food, and the place is accentuated by his “favorite chair, a gold brocade throne with arms that curved into high, wide wings” (102). He sings and cooks for Sue Linn, telling her, “You gonna be my little gal. We be mama and little gal. We be a family” (106). As is consistent with his alternative gender identity, James William identifies as female, acting as Sue Linn's foster mother rather than father. His feminine identification and his proclivities for domestic work and family resonate with the traits of traditional Native two-spirit people.13

Like many two-spirits, James William is also adept at mediating between worlds, reconciling Sue Linn with the past and with death, and preparing her for the transition into a new existence. He convinces Sue Linn to sing the blues with him, and they sing for Dolores, for James William's long-dead lover, Big Bill, and for their longings for a home where “[y]our name was real, and the people knew your name and called you by that name” (107). Under the pretext of thinking “on things what ails us” (108), James William rocks Sue Linn in his chair until she sobs, and he assures her that despite Christian condemnation of her mother's actions, Dolores will be content being with the land again (109).

Exhausted from memories, Sue Linn finally falls asleep. James William puts her to bed and then sits awake talking with Big Bill, who is still part of his family: “This here baby need me. Yes, ma'am. … It be a fix we in … I needs a little a that talk you always so ready with … I sittin' here waitin' on you, honey. Sweet William, he waitin' on you” (115-16). James William's immediate connection with Big Bill's spirit testifies to his ability to mediate between the human and spirit worlds. After a night of “conversation and song” with his lover (116), James William gets the answer he has needed. He looks at the sleeping girl and tells her, “Child, sleep on and dream. Sweet William, he here. Me and Big Bill take care of our baby, turtle gal. You be alright” (116). His naming of the girl resonates not only with traditional two-spirit naming customs, in which two-spirits give children secret sacred names, but with the story of Sky Woman, who is placed on Turtle's back at the beginning of creation; the implication is of a new beginning and a new world.14 In creating his family, James William calls equally on the worlds of the living and the dead, establishing ties not only cross culturally but across spiritual realms as well. Like Allen's Ephanie, he serves as a doorway, remembering his own songs and stories and ushering Sue Linn into her new existence. Like Danny's, his gift is for healing children from the ravages of social violence. While he remains isolated from a larger community, his inclinations toward social responsibility move him to create his own community with the orphaned girl and his lover in the spirit world.

“This Place,” Brant's story of a Mohawk man returning to his reservation to die of AIDS, explores similar issues of homophobia, social violence, and alternative gender power. Here, the violence takes place both on the reservation and in the city. As a young man, David chose to leave the reservation because his “people don't want queers, faggots living among them” (63). Faced with Native homophobia, David feels he “had to make a choice, be gay or be an Indian” (63), a choice which has allowed him to explore his sexual identity among other gay people, but which has cost him his ties with his homeland and with his mother.

Afraid of death and of being alone, David finds an ally in Joseph, the medicine man who comes to help him die. When Joseph arrives, David notices the man's unusual appearance, his bird-like face, which is “lean and unlined,” as well as the “long, beaded earrings that draped across the front of his shirt. … His fingers were covered with silver-and-garnet-studded rings, his hands delicate but used” (58). It is not until dinner, however, when Joseph presents David and his mother, Grace, with homemade butter tarts, that David catches the significance of Joseph's feminine traits: “As David bit into the sweetness of the tart, he looked at Joseph, his earrings swinging against his shoulders, his hands making patterns in the air as he described the making of the tarts, and David thought, He acts like a queen” (61). Joseph's shamanic role, jewelry, gestures, and domestic work—here, cooking—mark him as a two-spirit. David laughs out loud at the recognition, and Joseph reads his mind, saying, “Catchin' on my young friend?” (61). Joseph has accommodated the homophobia of his community by wearing only token pieces of women's attire (earrings) and limiting his alternative gender behavior to hand gestures and cooking arts. David's identification of Joseph as a queen, a contemporary Western shadow of the two-spirit, reflects his absorption into mainstream gay culture.

Joseph's role as medicine man, an undertaking of significant spiritual responsibility, goes far beyond the definition of “queen,” however, for it requires healing skills and an ability to mediate between humans and the spirit world.15 The role also emphasizes Joseph's community commitment; despite Native homophobia, he has stayed on the reservation and performed traditional two-spirit work. Joseph tells David, “I stayed because I was supposed to. I fought it, but I had to stay. It was my job” (67). As the community's medicine person, Joseph has found an avenue for contributing his gifts to his people, an avenue that David has lacked.

With his talk, interspersed with Patsy Cline and Hank Williams songs, Joseph reconciles David to his dead father and to his life away from home, repairing the fragmentation David has undergone in his life. He gives David a special tea that sends him into an alternative consciousness, then performs a ceremony using traditional medicines and instruments that further reconnect David to his ancestors. Like Allen's Ephanie, David is conscious of how his people have been disparaged and violated by white domination; Joseph helps him face the hateful voices he has internalized, telling him that worse than death are division and fragmentation:

They turned us into missing parts. Until we find those missing parts we kill ourselves with shame, with fear, with hate. All those parts just waitin' to be gathered together to make us. Us. A whole people. The biggest missing piece is love.


Joseph's abiding concern is with building identity based on community connection, culture continuity, and spirit, and his mediation between David and his past and the spirits is a role for which his alternative gender identity makes him especially well suited. Under the effects of the tea, David experiences himself falling into Turtle's mouth and meeting his ancestors, who ask him “are you ready?” (76). When Joseph leaves, he gives David a snakeskin and a swan feather, symbolic of his transformation, and David tells his mother goodbye. As a two-spirit medicine person, Joseph is able to pull David's shattered self into wholeness and ease him through the door into the spirit world. More than the rest of Brant's characters, Joseph is able to find a community role and perform the mediative and healing work so central to two-spirit traditions.

In the fiction of Paula Gunn Allen and Beth Brant, two-spirit people come from mixed and varied ancestries, and although they live in a world without sanctioned alternative gender roles, a world that is hostile to their identities, they still persist in carrying out their spiritual directives and healing work in whatever way they can. The presence of two-spirits in fiction by Allen and Brant suggests that, within the fictional worlds they inhabit, there is still the possibility of enduring, of reestablishing continuity with the past and of healing division within individuals and communities and across cultural boundaries. Their persistence in recovering and maintaining their roles is consistent with the journeys of self-recovery undertaken by the protagonists of most fiction by American Indian writers, from D'Arcy McNickle's Archilde in The Surrounded to Leslie Marmon Silko's Tayo in Ceremony. Two-spirit survival testifies to Native beliefs in the stability and rootedness of identity, not only cultural and racial identity, but gender identity as well.


  1. Judith Butler's work on performativity exemplifies this approach, particularly her influential Gender Trouble, which argues for the illusionary quality of gender and, indeed, any sense of identity. She uses the example of cross dressing (drag) as a structuring metaphor. On the dangers of constructionist theories that figure gender identity as performance, see Jay Prosser's discussion of transgender identity in “No Place Like Home.”

  2. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use “gay” as a general term encompassing the range of alternative gender and sexual expressions, including gay men, lesbians, and transgender people. I will use “homosexual” to indicate sexual orientation alone, without any gender implications. Although many contemporary Indian people refer to themselves as “gay” or “lesbian,” it is important to remember that those terms derive from a radically different cultural context than does “two-spirit”; because of this difference, two-spirit identity should not be confused with identities based only on homosexuality. For a discussion of the differences between two-spirits, lesbians, and gay men see Lester B. Brown, “Women and Men, Not-Men and Not-Women, Lesbians and Gays: American Indian Gender Style Alternatives”; Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, Two-Spirit People; and Walter William's The Spirit and the Flesh. Since many American Indian people have rejected the term “berdache,” the term commonly used in anthropological literature, as inaccurate and offensive, I have chosen to use “two-spirit,” the English language phrase that seems to best communicate the meaning of Native alternative gender identities.

  3. Since there has recently been a fair amount of work that provides extensive definitions and interpretations of two-spirit (or “berdache”) roles, I will avoid repeating it here. For discussions of two-spirit people, both contemporary and historical, see Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop; Julie Barak, “Blurs, Blends, Berdaches”; Evelyn Blackwood, “Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes”; Lester B. Brown, ed., Two Spirit People; Charles Callender and Lee M. Kochems, “The North American Berdache”; Judy Grahn, Another Mother Tongue; David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality; Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds., Two-Spirit People; Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History; Maurice Kenny, “Tinselled Bucks”; Beatrice Medicine, “‘Warrior Women’”; Midnight Sun, “Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America”; M. Owlfeather, “Children of Grandmother Moon”; Will Roscoe, coord. editor, Living the Spirit (compiled by Gay American Indians); Will Roscoe, “Strange Country This” and The Zuni Man-Woman; Mark Thompson, Gay Soul; Ruth Underhill, Papago Woman; Harriet Whitehead, “The Bow and the Burden Strap”; and Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh.

  4. The lesbian feminist stance of separatism attributed to Allen by Zimmerman is antithetical to Pueblo cultural practices that emphasize balance between male and female powers. As Allen has argued in The Sacred Hoop, heterosexism and misogyny have resulted from the colonization of Native cultures by Europeans. Since women at Laguna hold significant power in terms of property and lineage, separatism seems like an unnecessary strategy.

  5. While oral traditions vary and stories change from storyteller to storyteller, the basic outline of Sky Woman's story is as follows. Sky Woman is instructed by the spirit of her dead father to travel to a distant village to the man who will be her husband. Upon arrival, she fulfills strenuous tasks that he assigns her. Her husband becomes jealous of her power, however, and plots to kill her, either with the help of a dream or with the aid of his counselors. He coerces her to look through a hole under the tree of life, and when she does so, he pushes her through into the abyss below. Birds collaborate to break her fall, and animals dive below the endless expanse of water to bring up some earth to lay on Turtle's back to provide Sky Woman with ground to lie on. She becomes pregnant and bears a daughter, and although explanations of the daughter's paternity vary, the two women work together to create the earth. Finally, the daughter becomes pregnant and bears twin sons, one of whom is evil and tears open his mother's side in order to birth himself, thus killing her. The evil twin lies about which has caused their mother's death, and the good twin, who is outcast by Sky Woman, goes on to create more good things for the people, teaching them to fend for themselves and designating the clans. The evil brother leads Sky Woman in undoing the good twin's work but is finally defeated. (For a more complete account, see Daniel K. Richter's composite in The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 8-11, and Joseph Bruchac's telling of the story in Iroquois Stories: Heroes and Heroines, Monsters and Magic.) Allen and Brant both attribute far more agency to Sky Woman than the above summary allows. They also focus on the creative work of the mother and daughter rather than on the twin sons.

  6. Given that Ephanie attends a Catholic school and grows up in a community heavily influenced by media and mainstream Anglo culture, it is not surprising she expresses her two-spirit identity through the behaviors and imaginative play common to European-American boys. While the details of alternative gender expression vary from culture to culture, though, the underlying sense of being neither male nor female, or a combination of both, is constant.

  7. There are, of course, parallels between the birth and fate of Ephanie's twins and those of First Woman's twins in the Sky Woman story which deserve further exploration.

  8. Leslie Marmon Silko, another Laguna writer, uses a similar concept of stories in Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead. Stories in Silko's work are alive, actively shaping the course of human lives. As a storyteller, Ephanie is a conduit of the stories, which have their source in Grandmother Spider, and her role makes her an active participant in her people's future.

  9. See, for example, Kenny's poems “United” and “Winkte” and his historical essay “Tinselled Bucks.”

  10. See Will Roscoe's essay “Strange Country This” in Living the Spirit, Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang's Two-Spirit People, Jonathan Katz's Gay American History, and Beatrice Medicine's “‘Warrior Women’” for discussions and historical accounts of two-spirit women. See also Evelyn Blackwood's “Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes” and Harriet Whitehead's “The Bow and the Burden Strap.”

  11. Julie Barak, in “Blurs, Blends, Berdaches: Gender Mixing in the Novels of Louise Erdrich,” argues that trickster figures and two-spirits in Erdrich's work support constructionist claims by revealing the instability of gender. I would suggest, however, that Brant's trickster cross dresses not to suggest the performativity of identity, but rather to emphasize by contrast her “true” or underlying identity, which is not male or purely female. Such a claim would be consistent with those made by “butch” women, whose identities hinge on a combination of male and female but which is equivalent to neither. See Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy's and Madeline Davis' study, “‘They Was No One to Mess With’: The Construction of the Butch Role in the Lesbian Community of the 1940s and 1950s.”

  12. See, for example, “Coyote and Fox Marry Husbands,” “Seal and Younger Brother,” and “The Revenge against the Sky People” in Jarold Ramsey's Coyote Was Going There. In Reading the Fire, Ramsey interprets the trickster as a mediative figure who is both a source of amusement and a “mythic transformer of reality” (27). Rather than demonstrating the illusionary nature of human identity and roles, Ramsey's reading suggests, Coyote transforms by “creating possibility” and by “setting human limits” (27), reinforcing social limits and values by hyperbolically defying them.

  13. Although the English language assigns gender pronouns on the basis of anatomical sex, many Native Americans refer instead to internal gender identity when describing two-spirit people. James Williams' use of feminine language to refer to himself and to Big Bill is therefore consistent with American Indian usage. See, for example, early ethnographic accounts of We'Wha in Roscoe's The Zuni Man-Woman and the description of Shining Evening in Underhill's Papago Woman.

  14. I'm grateful to Jarold Ramsey for calling this parallel to my attention, and for his criticism of an earlier draft of this essay.

  15. Brant's depiction of a two-spirit medicine man suggests that two-spirit identities among the Mohawk people survive despite Native internalization of European homophobia. Given the subtlety of Joseph's cross dressing and David's decision to leave his home for the urban gay scene, it is clear that the Mohawk community is comfortable with neither two-spirits nor homosexuality. That Joseph continues to enact a two-spirit identity in such a context makes the continuity of the traditions and the stability of the identity seem even more striking.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. 1986. Boston: Beacon P, 1992.

———. The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. San Francisco: Spinsters, Ink, 1983.

Barak, Julie. “Blurs, Blends, Berdaches: Gender Mixing in the Novels of Louise Erdrich.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 8.3 (Fall 1996): 49-62.

Blackwood, Evelyn. “Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: The Case of Cross-gender Females.” The Lesbian Issue: Essays from Signs. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 27-42.

Brant, Beth. “Coyote Learns a New Trick.” Mohawk Trail, 31-35.

———. “Danny.” Mohawk Trail, 57-60.

———. Food & Spirits. NY: Firebrand Books, 1991.

———. Mohawk Trail. NY: Firebrand Books, 1985.

———. “This Is History.” Food & Spirits, 19-26.

———. “This Place.” Outrage: Dykes and Bis Resist Homophobia. Ed. Mona Oikawa et al. Toronto: Women's P, 1993, 56-76.

———. “Turtle Gal.” Food & Spirits, 101-16.

Bredin, Renae. “‘Becoming Minor’: Reading The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.Studies in American Indian Literatures 6.4 (Winter 1994): 36-50.

Brown, Lester B., ed. Two Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men. NY: The Haworth P, 1997.

———. “Women and Men, Not-Men and Not-Women, Lesbians and Gays: American Indian Gender Style Alternatives.” Brown Two Spirit People, 5-20.

Bruchac, Joseph. Iroquois Stories: Heroes and Heroines, Monsters and Magic. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing P, 1985.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. NY: Routledge, 1990.

Callender, Charles, and Lee M. Kochems. “The North American Berdache.” Current Anthropology 24.4 (1983): 443-70.

Charlevoix, Pierre Francois Xavier de. Journal of a Voyage to North-America Undertaken by Order of the French King; Containing the Geographical Description and Natural History of that Country, Particularly Canada. Together with an Account of the Customs, Characters, Religion, Manners and Traditions of the Aboriginal Inhabitants. In a Series of Letters to the Duchess of Lesdiquieres. 2 vols. London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1761. Excerpted in Katz 290.

Danielson, Linda L. Review of Mohawk Trail. Studies in American Indian Literatures 5.1 (Spring 1993): 103-07.

Gengle, Dean. “Gay American Indians (GAI).” Katz, 332-34.

Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon P, 1984.

Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Holford, Vanessa. “Re Membering Ephanie: A Woman's Re-Creation of Self in Paula Gunn Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.Studies in American Indian Literatures 6.1 (Spring 1994): 99-113.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1997.

Katz, Jonathon Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians & Gay Men in the U.S.A.: A Documentary History. 1976. Revised ed. NY: Meridian, 1992.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline Davis. “‘They Was No One to Mess With’: The Construction of the Butch Role in the Lesbian Community of the 1940s and 1950s.” The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Ed. Joan Nestle. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992. 62-79.

Kenny, Maurice. “Tinselled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality.” Roscoe Living, 15-31.

———. “United.” Roscoe Living, 156.

———. “Winkte.” Roscoe Living, 153-54.

Medicine, Beatrice. “‘Warrior Women’: Sex Role Alternatives for Plains Indian Women.” The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. Ed. Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine. NY: U P of America, 1983, 267-80.

Midnight Sun. “Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America.” Roscoe Living, 32-47.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Owlfeather, M. “Children of Grandmother Moon.” Roscoe Living, 97-105.

Prosser, Jay. “No Place Like Home: The Transgendered Narrative of Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues.Modern Fiction Studies 41.3-4 (Fall-Winter 1995): 483-514.

Ramsey, Jarold. Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1977.

———. Reading the Fire: Essays in the Traditional Indian Literatures of the Far West. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983.

Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

Roscoe, Will, coord. ed. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. Compiled by Gay American Indians. NY: St. Martin's, 1988.

———. “Strange Country This: Images of Berdaches and Warrior Women.” Roscoe Living, 48-76.

———. The Zuni Man-Woman. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1991.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. 1991. NY: Penguin, 1992.

———. Ceremony. 1977. NY: Penguin, 1986.

Thompson, Mark. Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature with Sixteen Writers, Healers, Teachers, and Visionaries. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.

Underhill, Ruth M. Papago Woman. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland P, 1979.

Van Dyke, Annette. Review of Food & Spirits. Studies in American Indian Literatures 5.1 (Spring 1993): 108-09.

Whitehead, Harriet. “The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America.” Sexual Meanings. Ed. Shelly Ortner and Harriet Whitehead. NY: Cambridge U P, 1981.

Williams, Walter. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon P, 1992.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969-1989. Boston: Beacon P, 1990.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 September 2003)

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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 river port of Gravesend, England, at the age of 20 or 21). Allen's Pocahontas [in Pocahontas], by contrast, is a real visionary, a prodigiously gifted young woman fervently devoted to the spiritual traditions of her people: a loose-knit group of Algonquin tribes known as the Powhatan Alliance, or Tsenacommacah. When the English colonists who began establishing Jamestown in 1607 invaded the Tsenacommacah, Pocahontas immediately identified it as the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretold the end of their world and the beginning of a new one, argues Allen. It was “world change time,” she writes, and Pocahontas (also called Matoaka, Amonute and finally Lady Rebecca Rolfe) was nothing if not mutable—as implied by the book's subtitle. Still, notwithstanding Pocahontas's significant role in American history, Allen's claims that Pocahontas “set in motion a chain of events that would,” among other things, “liberate the starving and miserable peoples of Europe and beyond” can seem overstated. More persuasive are Allen's comments about the cultural similarities between the English and Algonquin and the idea that each group changed the other. When casting Pocahontas as “the embodiment of this dual cultural transformation,” her role, and the book, are at their clearest, and are made manifest by Allen's often lyrical and powerful writing.


Paula Gunn Allen Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Allen, Paula Gunn (Vol. 84)