Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although “Spirit Woman” constitutes the conclusion of Paula Gunn Allen’s novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983), its self-contained unity justifies its separate treatment as a short story. In it, Allen develops her own idiosyncratic interpretation of traditional Keres myths, especially those dealing with creation and death. Through the character of Ephanie, Allen demonstrates the need for a return to the principles, if not the exact rituals, that patterned ancient Native American life. Although most of her myths come from her own Keres people, she imagines these principles as being pervasive throughout pre-Columbian North America.

Most notable among these principles is that of matriarchy. Allen has argued that traditional Indian cultures across the continent were originally gynocentric and matrilineal. The Keres creation story told by the spirit woman to Ephanie pictures Thinking Woman as the first creator, and sees her two sisters (Uretsete and Naotsete) as containing within themselves both male (Utset/the Sun) and female (Naotsete/the Woman of the Sun) natures, making the male a derivative of, and secondary to, the female.

A second theme is the idea that the essential relationship for any woman to achieve is not that of wife or mother but that of sister. It is through her discovery of her sisterhood with the women of the Spider Medicine Society and her participation in their ritual dance that Ephanie finds the true meaning and purpose of her existence. The story concludes with the words of the song, “I am walking—Alive . . . I am Entering—Not alone,” indicating that Ephanie has found true life and meaning in the company of women.