Paula Gunn Allen Allen, Paula Gunn (Vol. 84) - Essay

Paula Marie Francis


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paula Gunn Allen 1939–

American poet, critic, essayist, novelist, educator, and editor.

The following provides an overview of Allen's career through 1993.

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. Her fiction and poetry frequently refer to her identity as a mixed blood and, like her critical essays and the numerous anthologies she has edited, emphasize the status of Amerindian women in various Native cultures.

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. Her 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 credits these mixed origins as a major influence on her writing as well as a source of hope and inspiration: "I think in some respects the whole world is a multicultural event, and it's possible, if it's possible for me to stay alive, then it's possible for the whole world to stay alive. If I can communicate, then all the different people in the world can communicate with one another." 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 notes that her early attempts at writing were highly influenced by the American novelist and poet. Allen also cites 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. Since then she has taught there and at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-Los Angeles, and San Francisco State University. Allen has also been the recipient of numerous prizes: she has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and was awarded the 1990 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Spider Woman's Granddaughters (1989).

Major Works

Much of Allen's work is preoccupied with her identity as a woman, mixed blood, and lesbian in 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 (1982), and Skins and Bones (1988), often emphasize the female journey to spiritual transcendence. The search for self-actualization and an integrated self are also central to her 1983 novel, 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 folk tales, letters, legends, dreams, and Pueblo "thought singing." Allen's scholarly works, including her popular essay collection The Sacred Hoop (1986), deal with women's issues, the oral tradition, lesbianism, and female deities. In Spider Woman's Granddaughters, an anthology of 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.

Critical Reception

Allen's works have generally received positive acclaim. Her poetry is recognized for its musical qualities and her novel, 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, her nonfiction works have been lauded as attempts to preserve Native American culture for all individuals regardless of their ethnic heritage. Elizabeth I. Hanson has asserted: "Where Allen registers her strongest Western literary key is in the shade and movement of her hymns to the sacred in Native American experience. By discovering her own mode of American sacred, Allen creates her own myths; she reinvokes primordial sacred time with a contemporary profane time in order to recover and remake her self. That restored, renewed self suggests in symbolic terms a revival within Native American experience as a whole. Like Allen's own vision of self, contemporary Native Americans exist not in a romantic past but instead in a community which extends through the whole of American experience."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The 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 (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 Source-book (stories and essays) 1991

Kenneth Lincoln (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Now Day Indi'ns," in his Native American Renaissance, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 183-221.

[An American educator and critic, Lincoln is the author of several books on Native American literature and culture. In the excerpt below, which appeared in 1982 as the foreword to Shadow Country and which appeared in slightly different form in the Summer 1982 issue of Four Winds: The International Forum for Native American Art, Literature, and History, he offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Shadow Country.]

Laguna mother, Lakota grandfather, Lebanese father, life on the margins of mainstream and Indian: Paula Gunn Allen lives somewhere between American norms and Native American closures. She writes in the shadows of visions, "fingering silence and sound" with a poet's touching measure. She sings of desire and grief, confusion and rage over a horizon note of loss. Shadow Country: that marginal zone of interfusions, neither the shadower, nor the shadowed, both and neither, in liminal transition. "I looked about me and could see that what we then were doing was like a shadow cast upon the earth from yonder vision in the heavens, so bright it was and clear," Black Elk remembered [in Black Elk Speaks; Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, 1932]. "I knew the real was yonder and the darkened dream of it was here."

Paula Allen grew up in the halfway house of mixed ancestry. This woman lives not so much in a given tribe as working to articulate her sense of the tribal, without rhetorical claims. She chooses Native American definitions, defining Native American in her life. Her Laguna origins come mixed. Ruth Underhill sees the Laguna Pueblo in First Penthouse Dwellers of America as "a refugee town of Spanish days" back many centuries, a mixture of Keresan, Shoshonean, Tanoan, and Zuñian influx with Navajo, Spanish, and immigrant Anglo settlers. Edgar Hewett elsewhere describes this settlement as "an old aggregate of tribes and clans brought more or less together by acculturation and intermixes" (Indians of the Rio Grande Valley).

Both part of and apart from Laguna, Allen knows only too well the tribal sense of alienation, the corresponding necessity for mutual assimilation. She lives America and Native America. And fall is always back of the country, under dreams of spring. Allen sees a changed America, unknown to her now, remembered lyrically as "native" for indigenous peoples. In "Tucson: First Night" she recalls,

"the Road," we said,
implying that time had no changing.
(Like Plato in our innocence)
clouds that were there
are here. Now. My mind and the sky,
one thing on the edge of surmise (sunrise).

Paula Allen rediscovers old traditions and records new Indian adaptations. Her poems shatter stereotypes of blood warriors and demure squaws. Shadow Country gives voice to the polychromatic shock of Indian modernism as, for example, visualized in Fritz Scholder's paintings: cowboy Indians slouch with cigarettes and dark glasses, Coors beer cans and American flag shawls, ice cream cones and flared umbrellas on horses. Scholder's Portrait of a Massacred Indian portrays an image of bow and plains buckskin, the warrior's head a blurred acrylic palette. Indian Power silhouettes a naked red torso on a lunging purple pony, Kafka not far away.

Paula Allen experiments with personal quests through poetic forms and subjects. A mood or technique carries her an uncharted distance through open forms; on the way she sets her own standards of honesty and love. The poet's body is her receptor, mind her tool, spirit her courage. Allen's impression leads toward thought; she follows a sentiment diversely, wherever it goes, without compulsion to answer or solve the problems encountered. Her poetry accepts a common "negative capability": the aloneness, irresolution, even tragedy a person lives out honestly and struggles to voice.

Allen explores a woman's self-images and self-esteems, with a girl-child's sensitivity to pain. Men stand in the distances, women foregrounded. In "Off Reservation Blues" she dreams the Lady of Laguna, locked in a tower of defeated fantasy, earth-fearing, behind glass and above a white-skinned figure who waves but cannot hear:

night was coming
and I had to speak
raise my hand and hit the glass
I groaned
sound too soft to hear

The grief language of her body registers in mute acts. She braves see-through barriers of sex, race, class, education, language, "civilization," even consciousness itself in its many definitions—out of that breed no (wo)man's...

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Jim Ruppert (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paula Gunn Allen and Joy Harjo: Closing the Distance between Personal and Mythic Space," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 27-40.

[In the following excerpt, Ruppert discusses Allen's use of personal and mythic space in her poetry.]

Much of Allen's work is a search for meaning, an attempt to understand natural harmony and to place the individual in that fusion of person, land, and spirit. Each moment is placed on a web of history, natural harmony and traditional understanding. Through this perceptive act, the moment is given significance such as in the poem "Jet Plane/Dhla-nuwa," where the flight on the plane is seen in scientific...

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Paula Gunn Allen with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets by Joseph Bruchac, Sun Tracks and the University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 1-21.

[A member of the Abenaki tribe, Bruchac is an American short story writer, poet, editor, novelist, translator, and critic whose works are informed by his experiences as a Native American. In the following interview, originally conducted in 1983, Allen discusses Laguna society and culture, her upbringing, her influences, and thematic and stylistic aspects of her work.]

[Bruchac]: In [your poem] "Recuerdo," there are images of movement, of loss, and of searching, images I see in many of your...

(The entire section is 7058 words.)

Alice Hoffman (review date 3 June 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ephanie's Ghosts," in The New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1984, p. 18.

[Hoffman is an American novelist, scriptwriter, and short story writer. In the following mixed review, she faults The Woman Who Owned the Shadows for its sentimentality, didacticism, and broad focus, but praises it as an "exploration of racism … [and] a powerful and moving testament to feminism."]

In one of the many legends told in this ambitious first novel [The Woman Who Owned the Shadows], a father forces his daughter to marry a sorcerer. Each time the young woman's courage is tested by impossible deeds, she manages to succeed. But her powers are mistrusted by her...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Tom King (review date Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Studies in American Indian Literature, in Western American Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 170-71.

[In the excerpt below, King discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Studies in American Indian Literature.]

Studies in American Indian Literature is a collection of essays on Indian oral literature, autobiography, and Indian women's literature. There is a section on modern and contemporary Indian literature, a section on the Indian in American literature, and a section on available resources in the field such as anthologies, texts, and scholarly articles. Each of the major sections in the book is followed by suggested...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Elaine Jahner (review date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, in Parabola, Vol. XI, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 102, 104.

[An educator, editor, and critic, Jahner teaches English and Native American Studies. In the review below, she offers a thematic discussion of The Sacred Hoop, praising Allen's incorporation of personal experiences and beliefs.]

Paula Gunn Allen is a leading American Indian poet, novelist, and essayist. The current collection, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, reprints the best of her earlier essays and adds several new ones. The twenty pieces that make up the...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)

Quannah Karvar (review date 25 January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 25, 1987, p. 11.

[Karvar is known for her English translations of Ponca and Lakota histories and myths. In the review below, she favorably assesses The Sacred Hoop.]

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.

In [The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions], a collection of 17 essays representing...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Paula Gunn Allen with Annie O. Eysturoy (interview date March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in This Is about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, William Balassi, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, eds., University of New Mexico Press, 1990, pp. 95-107.

[Eysturoy specializes in American Studies. In the following interview which took place in March, 1987, after a poetry reading held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Allen discusses the impact of the American Southwest on her work, her literary beginnings and aims, her cultural identity, the writing process, and feminist issues.]

[Eysturoy]: You were born and raised here [in Albuquerque.] How has that influenced you and your work?

[Allen]: My work is all...

(The entire section is 6858 words.)

Ursula K. Le Guin (review date 14 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Above All, Keep the Tale Going," in The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1989, p. 15.

[Le Guin is an American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, critic, editor, poet, playwright, and author of children's books. In the following, she discusses the arrangement and focus of the stories collected in Spider Woman's Granddaughters.]

Louise Erdrich has become a best seller, and Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan and other Native American women rank high among modern writers. First with her critical essays in The Sacred Hoop, and now with this fine collection of stories [entitled Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and...

(The entire section is 1497 words.)

Margaret Randall (review date September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Many-Colored Poets," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 12, September, 1989, pp. 29-31.

[An American poet, short story writer, and editor, Randall frequently writes on Hispanic themes. In the excerpt below, she offers a positive assessment of Skins and Bones, asserting that these are "poems of identity: moving back in time, conjuring, inventing, reclaiming memory and using it powerfully."]

Paula Gunn Allen, recently 50, is a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux/Lebanese woman whose critical work as well as her poetry and fiction have reached a powerful maturity. Born in 1939, she was raised on a Spanish land grant in New Mexico. Her life and work move back and...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Carol Bruchac (review date November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, in Parabola, Vol. XIV, No. 4, November, 1989, pp. 98, 102.

[An editor and critic, Bruchac helped establish the Greenfield Review Magazine and Press, which frequently promotes and publishes Native American literature. In the review below, she praises Spider Woman's Granddaughters as "unique historically, culturally, and creatively."]

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Robert L. Berner (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 344-45.

[In the following negative review of Spider Woman's Granddaughters, Berner claims that the book is at times historically inaccurate and that Allen's editorializing and rhetoric have the potential to mislead readers and reinforce stereotypes.]

[In Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women] Paula Gunn Allen has combined several traditional stories with short works by seventeen writers, eleven of them...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Yvonne J. Milspaw (review date April-June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, in Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 103, No. 408, April-June, 1990, pp. 245-47.

[In the following, Milspaw faults the uneven quality of the essays included in The Sacred Hoop, but argues that the collection "is enormously important to our understanding of the growing body of superb Native American Literature."]

Paula Gunn Allen's collection of essays on contemporary American Indian literature [The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions] focuses on her conviction that Native American cultures were essentially gynocentric, and, as...

(The entire section is 1172 words.)

Charlotte Tsoi Goodluck (review date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 40, 42.

[In the review below, Goodluck positively assesses Spider Woman's Granddaughters and praises the collection's focus and organization.]

Paula Gunn Allen, the editor of Spider Woman's Granddaughter, is a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux scholar, feminist, and professor of Native American studies. In The Sacred Hoop, she gave her audience a vision of the feminine in traditional native thought and literature. In this book [Spider Woman's...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Annette Van Dyke (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Journey Back to Female Roots: A Laguna Pueblo Model," in Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, edited by Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 339-54.

[In the essay below, Van Dyke offers a thematic analysis of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, arguing that Allen employs tribal concerns to discuss alienation, sexual identity, lesbianism, and, more specifically, "a journey to healing—a journey to the female center."]

Paula Gunn Allen is a mixed-blood Native American lesbian who says she is Laguna Pueblo/Sioux/Lebanese-American and that she "writes out of a Laguna Indian woman's perspective" (Sacred Hoop)....

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Elizabeth I. Hanson (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Paula Gunn Allen, Boise State University, 1990, 50 p.

[In the excerpt below, Hanson provides an overview of Allen's literary career through 1983.]

At the center of Paula Gunn Allen's vision of self and art is an individual alienated within. For Allen the idea of the "breed" reflects a preoccupation with alienation as a personal and as an aesthetic experience. Allen's biography, her understanding of Native American literature, and her works of art and criticism are informed by the consciousness that "breeds" are aliens to traditional Native Americans and yet also aliens among whites. To know Allen's life and work is to reflect deeply on the meaning of "breed" in...

(The entire section is 10467 words.)

Suzanne Ruta (review date November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Myth America," in VLS, No. 100, November, 1991, p. 26.

[Ruta is an American short story writer. In the following, she praises Allen's storytelling skills, focus on Native American myth, and incorporation of historical fact in Grandmothers of the Light.]

Paula Gunn Allen is a lesbian feminist scholar of Native American literature, a critic (The Sacred Hoop), an anthologist (Spider Woman's Granddaughters), a mother, a grandmother, Laguna Pueblo and Lakota Sioux by birth, Cherokee by marriage. Grandmothers of the Light is a collection of Native American creation myths in which goddesses do all the work and even get the credit. But...

(The entire section is 998 words.)

Gretchen Ronnow (review date December 1992– January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sorcery of Her Own," in American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 5, December, 1992–January, 1993, p. 12.

[Author of various critical essays on such Native American writers as John Milton Oskison and Leslie Marmon Silko, Ronnow has served as vice-president of the Association for the Study of Native American Literatures. In the following, she offers a mixed assessment of Grandmothers of the Light.]

Paula Gunn Allen's Grandmothers of the Light—A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook is divided into three main parts—"Cosmogyny: the Goddesses," "Ritual Magic and Aspects of the Goddesses," and "Myth, Magic, and Medicine in the Modern World"—plus an introductory...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gomez, Jewelle. "Who Tells the Stories Rules the World." The Women's Review of Books VI, Nos. 10-11 (July 1989): 8.

Favorable assessment of Spider Woman's Granddaughters.

Karvar, Quannah. "Tribal Women Speak." Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 July 1989): 10.

Praiseworthy review of Spider Woman's Granddaughters. Karvar notes: "These remarkable narratives represent the oral tradition as it journeys into its contemporary form, bringing with it all that is sacred and significant to tribal women and tribal people as a whole."


(The entire section is 182 words.)