(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions is a distinguished scholarly exposition of American Indian traditions with an emphasis upon women-centered tribal life. In Native American tradition, the Sacred Hoop, or Medicine Wheel, is the all-encompassing circle of universal life. The Spider Woman is the central figure who thought the universe into being and who continues to weave her web of existence. The first section, “The Ways of Our Grandmothers,” deals with her many aspects in tribal myth, tradition, and ritual. The genocidal impact through the centuries of patriarchal colonization upon the gynocracies is detailed. Allen also dispels several popular misinterpretations of Native American behavior toward women. The last essay in the section is a personal account of the author’s experiences as a Keres Laguna woman.

Oral tradition has been an integral factor in tribal survival, and the second section of The Sacred Hoop is titled “The Word Warriors.” Both traditional and modern tribal literature is studied in terms of Native American culture; thought, structure, symbolism, style, ceremony, and authenticity are among the analytic considerations. Allen not only explicates the tribal perspective but also clarifies the problems inherent in approaching tribal literature from a Western bias.

The final section of The Sacred Hoop, “Pushing Up the Sky,” concentrates upon modern American Indian women and the social issues (such as feminism, personal power, the female spiritual way, politics, lesbianism, and reformation of a gynocentric tribal structure) that affect them. “Pushing Up the Sky” is pro-female advocacy at its best. For women who lack a sense of continuity, community, self-esteem, or belonging, the essays in this section are healing words. For the self-alienated, The Sacred Hoop in its entirety offers the tools for survival.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The collection of essays The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions documents the continuing vitality of American Indian traditions and the crucial role of women in those traditions. The title comes from a lesson Allen learned from her mother: that all of life is a circle—a sacred hoop—in which everything has its place. These essays, like tribal art of all kinds, support the principle of kinship and render the beautiful in terms of the harmony, relationship, balance, and dignity that are the informing principles of Indian aesthetics. Indians understand that woman is the sun and the earth: She is grandmother, mother, thought, wisdom, dream, reason, tradition, memory, deity, and life itself.

The essays are all characterized by seven major themes that pertain to American Indian identity. The first is that Indians and spirits are always found together. Second, Indians endure. Third, the traditional tribal lifestyles are never patriarchal and are more often woman-centered than not. Tribal social systems are nurturing, pacifist, and based on ritual and spirit-centered, woman-focused worldviews. The welfare of the young is paramount, the complementary nature of all life forms is stressed, and the centrality of powerful, self-defining, assertive, decisive women to social well-being is unquestioned. Fourth, the physical and cultural destruction of American Indian tribes is and was about patriarchal fear and the inability to tolerate women’s having decision-making capacity at every level of society. Fifth, there is such a thing as American Indian literature, and it informs all American writing. Sixth, all Western studies of American Indian tribal systems are erroneous because they view tribalism from the cultural bias of patriarchy. Seventh, the sacred ways of the American Indian people are part of a worldwide culture that predates Western systems.

These powerful essays are divided into three sections: “The Ways of Our Grandmothers,” “The Word Warriors,” and “Pushing Up the Sky.” All of them testify to the value of American Indian traditions and the strength of the voices of Indian women. Allen identifies the Indian roots of white feminism as well as the role of lesbians in American culture, and she projects future visions for American Indian women, tribes, and literature.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop is a landmark work both in American Indian studies and in literary theory. Allen posits, with ample documentation from the written and oral histories of white Americans as well as of American Indians, that many indigenous beliefs and traditions had been either suppressed or altered by the conquering phallocentric culture of Euro-Americans. She argues that Euro-Americans have not respected or even recognized the “gynocratic” nature of many indigenous American cultures, in which women held positions of tribal leadership.

Allen’s authority as a literary critic began with her participation in the landmark 1977 curriculum-development seminar on American Indian studies at Northern Arizona University (sponsored by the Modern Language Association of America, or MLA). In the years that followed this seminar, there was an overwhelming demand for notes and handouts from the gathering. Allen compiled materials from the seminar and edited the collection Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (1983), which laid the foundation for the study of American Indian literature. While pursuing parallel careers as a poet and novelist, Allen completed her next work of literary criticism, The Sacred Hoop. The book merits the attention and acclaim it has received.

In The Sacred Hoop’s introductory chapter, Allen outlines seven essential themes or issues that are critical to her work: Indians and spirits are always found together; Indians endure; traditional tribal lifestyles are usually gynocratic; the physical and cultural genocide of American Indian tribes was due mostly to a patriarchal fear of gynocracy; the definition of American Indian literature necessarily includes both traditional literature and the genre literature of the present; Western studies of American Indian tribal systems are culturally biased and essentially erroneous because of a predilection to “discount, degrade or conceal gynocratic features or recontextualize those features so that they will appear patriarchal”; and the sacred, ritual ways of American Indian peoples are similar to sacred cultures elsewhere on the planet. Although most of these assumptions have been accepted by many contemporary artists and critics working within American Indian studies, Allen’s gender-specific premises, on the other hand, have at times been met with polemics rather than collaboration and learning.

In “The Ways of Our Grandmothers,” the first section of the text, Allen establishes...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Albers, Patricia, and Beatrice Medicine. The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.

Bataille, Gretchen M., Kathleen Mullen Sands, and Charles L. P. Silet, eds. The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1980.

Brandon, William. The Last American: The Indian in American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. God Is Red. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973. Reprint. New York: Dell Books, 1983.

Etienne, Mona, and Eleanor Leacock, eds. Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Praeger, 1980.