Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
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...
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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 context and poetics of her gynocratic Indian perspective. In two essays she sequentially describes the mythic and cosmogonic female traditions of Indian America in general and the Keresan people of Laguna Pueblo in particular, the historical influence of European culture—after contact—on matriarchal Indian societies. A third essay is a personal chronicle that provides a human illustration of a representative life. Furthermore, Allen essentially teaches Keresan cosmogony and cosmology as she introduces Ts’its’tsi’nako (Thought Woman) as the prime mover and informing spirit of the universe. She [Thought Woman] is the Old Woman who tends the fires of life. She is the Old Woman Spider who weaves us together in a fabric of interconnection. . . . [W]e endure into the present, alive, certain of our significance, certain of her centrality, her identity as the Sacred Hoop of Be-ing.
The primary potency is, therefore, female. Allen assumes an interpretive perspective that considers gender to be essential to the tradition, not marginal. She laments the demise of precontact Indian cultures that had healthy, collaborative, peace-centered, and ritual-oriented systems that also were female-centered. The status of women had declined, Allen argues, because the dominant and encroaching Euro-American culture considered matriarchy to be a system that societies grew out of as they matured and became more complex.
“The Word Warriors” section includes eight essays examining myth and vision in Indian literature. “The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective” helped solidify Allen’s reputation as an exemplary teacher and facilitator of a then-new ethnic American literature that demanded interpretive apparatus different from that used in other areas of the white American curriculum. Allen writes, for example, that Indian literature springs from a knowledge that all people can experience sincere and deep emotion, so, therefore, art can celebrate sincerity and deep emotion without reference to a sole individual. Contemporary American Indian literature, she argues, should have its value and significance “determined by its relation to creative empowerment, its reflection of tribal understandings, and its relation to the unitary nature of reality.”
Aware of her status as an academic Kochinnenako (Yellow Woman), a role model of sorts, Allen introduces five American Indian poets, all women, in her essay “The Wilderness In My Blood: Spiritual Foundations of the Poetry of Five American Indian Women.” Secured as part of the multicultural canon was Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Mary TallMountain, Wendy Rose, and Carol Lee Sanchez. During a period in which Leslie Marmon Silko’s remarkable novel Ceremony (1977) became one of the most widely taught texts on American college and university campuses, Allen’s essay on Silko’s novel provided teachers at all educational levels with a close reading of one of the controlling features of Ceremony. The essay affected the novel’s reputation, and related discussions, for decades to follow.
The section “Pushing Up the Sky” includes the essay “Angry Women Are Building: Issues and Struggles Facing American Indian Women Today,” in which she helps to set the agenda for and the future direction of American Indian literature and women’s studies. “Gynosophy” is the term Allen uses to describe her American Indian feminist perspective. In “Red Roots of White Feminism” she documents instances of tribal tolerance, if not celebration, of gay and lesbian individuals that persisted until the time of contact and colonization. Women’s leadership roles were reduced or eliminated, and new expectations for social community had been imposed.
In the essay “Stealing the Thunder: Future Visions for American Indian Women, Tribes, and Literary Studies,” Allen asserts that she is committed to “putting women at the center of the tribal universe.” She also hopes the contemporary idea of the American Indian “will shift from warrior/brave/hunter/chief to grandmother/mother/Peacemaker/farmer.”
With The Sacred Hoop, Allen has secured her place as a pioneer in ethnic literature, literary theory, women’s studies, and American Indian studies. Even after her death in 2008, her reputation as a critic and her achievements as a poet and novelist have not waned. Her opinions continue to matter to readers, teachers and scholars, and students.