Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738
Paula Gunn Allen was born in Cubero, New Mexico, in 1939, to Elias Lee Francis, a Lebanese American who had once been lieutenant governor of New Mexico, and Ethel Gunn Francis, a Laguna Sioux-Scottish woman of the Keres Indians, an intensely gynecocratic-centered culture. Allen’s multiethnic (or “breed”) origins are not...
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Paula Gunn Allen was born in Cubero, New Mexico, in 1939, to Elias Lee Francis, a Lebanese American who had once been lieutenant governor of New Mexico, and Ethel Gunn Francis, a Laguna Sioux-Scottish woman of the Keres Indians, an intensely gynecocratic-centered culture. Allen’s multiethnic (or “breed”) origins are not unusual in the Laguna Pueblo, which consists of a multitude of cultural worlds uniting through mutual desire into a reciprocal tribal whole.
Allen was born in the seventh year of a thirty-year drought and in the first year of the area’s uranium mining. She remembered blocking windows and doors to keep out dust, which at times was so thick that it was difficult to see across a room. Equally vivid were her memories of her stone-walled home, surrounded by white flowers and safely nestled in a hollow, where she would read and listen to her sister play classical music on the family’s upright piano. Both her parents were also musicians, and Allen learned early in life to recognize and value the distinctive rhythms of both music and language in the cultures that nurtured her.
The road by their house fascinated Allen. In one direction, it ran to a city; in another, it ran to a mountain. Yet it also remained there, in her homeland. This road was dominant in Allen’s life and in her writing. Allen sees herself as standing at a crossroads, valuing the mountain (sacred wilderness) more highly than the city (civilization) and measuring civilization in terms of the mountain.
The bicultural alienation that haunted Allen appears to have begun when she was sent to an Albuquerque convent school, where she was taught that all humans are innately hopeless, guilt-ridden sinners and that Indians are worthless savages. In “Easter Sunday: Recollection,” Allen describes herself on Good Friday “waiting for the earth to tear itself apart and swallow me,/ to reveal my murderous intent” and believing “cold wind and dust and snow sure signs of my guilt,/ the murderous compulsion of those I loved/ god-killers condemned to grief.” These teachings are in direct contradiction to the nonpunitive, life-affirming teachings of her mother and her tribal culture, yet they were pronounced as truth by purportedly holy women, convent nuns, and reinforced with punishments. Consequently, Allen as a young girl was unable to reconcile the dichotomies, hated school, and withdrew as quickly as possible into reading, with a strong preference for popular literature rather than the classics.
Nevertheless, her Laguna culture values learning, and Allen persevered. After attending Colorado Women’s College, she received her B.A. in English in 1966 and her M.F.A. in creative writing in 1968 from the University of Oregon. While working on her master’s degree, Allen felt so fragmented, dissociated, and alone that she experienced a suicidal despair. Her Laguna mother’s teachings to nurture all the living and to avoid self-indulgent negativity because it sickens the earth did not alleviate her depression. Allen’s poems in The Blind Lion: Poems (1974) come from this dark journey.
Allen credited the arrival of a Santee Sioux friend and the publication of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968) with restoring her sense of tribal community. “Land sickness” is a state of grief over not being with the land where one’s heart is. To the American Indian, experiences are related to and defined by the places in which they occur. House Made of Dawn helped Allen to restore her groundedness in the earth as well as her sense of humor. As she explained, any kind of humor, even gallows humor, is integral to life. Momaday’s book demonstrated to her that she was not crazy but, even if she were, at least she was no longer alone.
Although Allen wanted to continue her doctorate in English, no program was available for her to concentrate in Native American literature; therefore, she specialized in Native American literature under the University of New Mexico’s American Studies program and received her Ph.D. in 1975. Allen’s postdoctoral awards include a 1978 National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a 1980-1981 University of California at Berkeley fellowship in Native American Studies, and a 1984-1985 Ford Foundation research grant. Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989), edited by Allen under the Ford Foundation grant, won a 1990 American Book Award. Allen died at her home in Fort Bragg, California on May 29, 2008.