Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What role does Paula Gunn Allen’s multiethnic background play in the subjects and themes of her works?

Discuss how the theme of alienation plays a part in Allen’s works.

Discuss how a sense of American Indian tribal community is expressed in Allen’s works.

Allen has said that humor is essential to life. Show how she uses humor to convey her themes.

How is environmentalism central to Allen’s works?

Explain how a poem or story by Allen is indicative of the American Indian perception of levels of reality.

How does Allen show that ceremony is central to American Indian culture in The Sacred Hoop?

Paula Gunn Allen

(Critical Survey of Native American Literature)

Author Profile

Non-Indians have often overlooked the power and significance of women in Indian communities. Paula Gunn Allen’s writing has attempted to reverse this trend and has emphasized Indian women’s strengths in spirituality and storytelling. Allen has also argued that Indian communities have not only included gays and lesbians but have given them respect and freedom.

Allen grew up in a multicultural household in Cubero, New Mexico. Her connection to Laguna Pueblo people comes from her mother’s side of the family; her father was a businessman and politician of Lebanese descent. Since receiving her Ph.D. in American studies from the University of New Mexico in 1975, Allen, a poet, novelist, and scholar, has become one of the most influential voices in Native American literature.

Allen’s best-known works include a novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983); a book of essays, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986); and an anthology, Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989). The latter won an American Book Award in 1990. Drawing on her experience as a professor of Native American literature, Allen also edited an influential volume of essays and course designs, Studies in American Indian Literature (1983). She has taught at San Francisco State University, the University...

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Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Paula Gunn Allen’s writing helped establish the literature of her American Indian cultural heritage as a legitimate and recognized genre. In addition to her extensive and innovative catalog of poetry, Allen published fiction, nonfiction, biographies, collections of myth and oral tradition, critical essays, pedagogical articles concerning the education of native peoples, and gender and sexuality studies. Allen collected, wrote, and edited personal histories as well as myths and legends of various tribes in her books The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986), Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989), and Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Sourcebook (1991). Allen’s motivation to raise awareness concerning American Indian literature, combined with her innovative academic endeavors, earned her acclaim from critics and readers alike, placing the author at the forefront of the American Indian, feminist, and gay and lesbian literary scenes.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Paula Gunn Allen’s literary achievements began in 1978, when the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a distinguished writing fellowship. She received two postdoctoral fellowships, the first from the University of California in 1981 and the second from the Ford Foundation-National Research Council in 1984. Allen received two awards for her groundbreaking work in 1990: the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for Spider Woman’s Granddaughters and the Native American Prize for Literature.

Accolades for Allen’s work increased throughout her career, in which she amassed honors such as the Susan Koppelman Award from the Popular Cultural Association and American Culture Association (1991), the Vesta Award for Essay Writing (1991), the Southern California Women for Understanding Award for Literature (1991), an honorary doctorate in humanities from Mills College (1995), the Hubbell Prize for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies (1999), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas (2001). In 2004, Allen’s Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat (2003) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and in 2007, she received the Lannan Literary Fellowship, designed to honor writers whose impact on English-language literature promotes increased interest and readership in both prose and poetry.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Paula Gunn. Interview by Quannah Karvar. Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 25, 1987. An interesting interview.

Allen, Paula Gunn. Interview by Robin Pogrebin. The New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1984. Includes biographical information.

Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987. Situates Allen in the American Indian literary tradition.

Cook, Barbara. “The Feminist Journey in Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.” Southwestern American Literature 22 (Spring, 1997): 69-74.

Ferrell, Tracy J. Prince. “Transformation, Myth, and Ritual in Paula Gunn Allen’s Grandmothers of the Light.” North Dakota Quarterly 63 (Winter, 1996): 77-88.

Fisher, Dexter, ed. The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Hanson, Elizabeth I. Paula Gunn Allen. Edited by Wayne Chatterton and James H. Maguire. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1990. A volume in the Boise State University Western Writers series. Includes bibliographical references.

Keating, AnaLouise. Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. A critical evaluation that examines these writers as “self-identified lesbians of color.”

McDaniel, Cynthia. “Paula Gunn Allen: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Sources.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 11 (Summer, 1999): 29-49.

Perry, Donna. “Paula Gunn Allen.” In Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, edited by Donna Perry. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Purdy, John.“’And Then, Twenty Years Later . . . ’: A Conversation with Paula Gunn Allen.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 9 (Fall, 1997): 5-16.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. Examines Allen in relation to other American Indian authors. Illustrates how her writing expands traditional definitions of American Indian literature.

Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, eds. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Allen writes of her own experiences as an American Indian, as a writer, and as a teacher.

Toohey, Michelle Campbell. “Paula Allen Gunn’s Grandmothers of the Light: Falling Through the Void.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 12 (Fall, 2000): 35-51.