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A renowned literary figure, an eminent scholar, and a dedicated feminist, Paula Gunn Allen attempted to educate mainstream audiences about Native American themes, issues, and concerns. Throughout her life, she promoted Native American literature as a viable and rich source of study. Her fiction and poetry frequently refer to her identity as a mixed blood and, like her critical essays and the numerous anthologies she edited, emphasize the status of American Indian women in various native cultures.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Influence of a Mixed Ancestry
A registered member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Paula Gunn Allen was born in 1939 in Cubero, New Mexico, a rural land grant situated next to the Laguna Pueblo reservation, the Acoma reservation, and Cibola National Forest. Her mother was of Laguna Pueblo, Sioux, and Scottish descent, and her father, who grew up on a Mexican land grant in the American Southwest and once served as lieutenant-governor of New Mexico, was of Lebanese ancestry. Allen credits these mixed origins as a major influence on her writing as well as a source of inspiration: ”I think in some respects the whole world is a multi cultural event, and it’s possible, if it’s possible for me to stay alive, then it’s possible for the whole world to stay alive. If I can communicate, then all the different people in the world can communicate with one another.”
Although Allen had a diverse ethnic heritage, it was her American Indian roots that informed and directed her work. In an interview with Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times Book Review, Allen characterized Native Americans as ”something other than victims—mostly what we are is unrecognized.”
Reconciling Multiple Perspectives
After spending her early years in Cubero, Allen was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Albuquerque at age six. The influence of her religious education often surfaces in the symbolism and themes of her works, but Allen would not be considered a strictly religious writer. According to Kathy
- Whitson in the book Native American Literatures, Allen noted: ”Sometimes I get in a dialogue between what the Church taught me, what the nuns taught me, what my mother taught me, what my experience growing up where I grew up taught me. Often you can’t reconcile them. I can’t reconcile them.”
An avid reader, Allen encountered the works of Gertrude Stein in high school, and she noted that her early attempts at writing were highly influenced by the American novelist and poet. Allen also cited American poet Robert Creeley, under whose direction she once studied writing, and Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday as individuals who had a strong impact on her work. Initially intending to become an actress, Allen attended various schools before earning a BA in English in 1966. Allen married while in college and had two children before divorcing. After the divorce, she went back to school and studied writing, receiving an MFA in creative writing in 1968 from the University of Oregon. She received her PhD in American Studies and American Indian Studies from the University of New Mexico in 1975. Afterward she taught at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Los Angeles; and San Francisco State University.
Throughout her teaching career Allen published poetry, novels, and academic novels, as well as editing numerous anthologies of Native American writing. The subject matter of her poems and stories—domestic spaces and the experiences of the modern woman artist—led to her involvement with feminist causes and the women’s movement of the 1970s. In addition, her publication The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986) established her as a leader of the Native American Renaissance in literature, which followed the success of the works of writer N. Scott Momaday. In 1990 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Spider Woman’s Granddaughters (1989), a collection by various Native American writers. Allen died in May 2008 after a long struggle with lung cancer.
Works in Literary Context
The Search for Cultural and Gender Identity
Like the mixed-blood characters of her novels, Allen’s literary lineage is difficult to categorize. While her work certainly is influenced by Native American writers, such as N. Scott Momaday, she also cites feminist and lesbian poets, such as Adrienne Rich, as a source of inspiration. In almost all her work, Allen seeks to blend racial and gender identities, exploring their meanings and boundaries. Focusing on the themes of assimilation, self-identity, and remembrance, she frequently examines the quest for spiritual wholeness. For example, her poetry collections, which include The Blind Lion (1974), Shadow Country (1982), and Skins and Bones (1988), often emphasize the female journey to spiritual transcendence. The search for self-actualization and an integrated self are also central to her 1983 novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, in which the protagonist, a lesbian half-blood, eventually learns to accept her sexual orientation and cultural identity rather than conform to social stereotypes. This work, which is dedicated to the Native American deity Thought Woman, additionally emphasizes the importance of storytelling in Native American culture, incorporating such diverse narrative modes as folk tales, letters, legends, dreams, and Pueblo ”thought singing.” Allen’s scholarly works, including her popular essay collection The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, deal with women’s issues, the oral tradition, lesbianism, and female deities. In Spider Woman’s Granddaughters, an anthology of tales by Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Anna Lee Waters, Pretty Shield, and other Native American women, Allen attempts to introduce ”tribal women’s literature” to non-Native American readers.
Works in Critical Context
Allen’s works have generally received positive acclaim. Her poetry is recognized for its musical qualities and her novel, though faulted at times for its broad focus, has been praised for its examination of racism and sexism. While occasionally criticized for their lack of documentation, her nonfiction works have been lauded as attempts to preserve Native American culture for all individuals regardless of their ethnic heritage. Elizabeth I. Hanson has asserted: ”Allen creates her own myths; she reinvokes primordial sacred time with a contemporary profane time in order to recover and remake herself. That restored, renewed self suggests in symbolic terms a revival within Native American experience as a whole.”
The Woman Who Owned the Shadows
Allen’s 1983 novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows received a favorable review from Alice Hoffman in the New York Times Book Review. ”In those sections where the author forsakes the artifice of her style,” declared the critic, ”an absorbing, often fascinating world is created.” The novel’s heroine, Ephanie, is emotionally wounded as a young girl and struggles to mend her fractured core ”guided,” according to Hoffman, ”by the traditional tales of spirit women.” The Woman Who Owned the Shadows uses a variety of narrative elements, including Native American folklore, letters, dreams, and therapy transcripts to tell Ephanie’s story. While some critics, like Hoffman, found this compilation to be forced, others believed it to be effective and enjoyable. ”Allen continues her cultural traditional in her novel by using it in the same way in which the traditional arts have always functioned for the Laguna Pueblo,” noted Annette Van Dyke in Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, describing the work as ”a form of curing ceremony for her readers.”
Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women
In 1989 Allen edited Spider Woman’s Granddaughters, which Karvar called ”a companion in spirit” to the author’s book of essays The Sacred Hoop. In Spider Woman’s Granddaughters, Allen gives space not only to contemporary authors such as Vickie L. Sears, but also to legends of old deities such as the Pueblos’ mother goddess of corn. She also includes the words of Pretty Shield, a Crow native who told her life story to ethnographer Frank B. Linderman early in the twentieth century. In the New York Times Book Review, Ursula K. Le Guin praised the organization of the book, noting that Allen has arranged the pieces ”so that they interact to form larger patterns, giving the book an esthetic wholeness rare in anthologies.”
In equal parts reviewers have indicated that Allen succeeds at both entertaining and educating her audience. In Paula Gunn Allen, Elizabeth I. Hanson asserted that Allen combines the sacredness of the past with the reality of the present as a means of self-renewal. ”Like Allen’s own vision of self,” said Hanson, ”contemporary Native Americans exist not in a romantic past but instead in a community which extends throughout the whole of American experience.”
- Bataille, Gretchen M. and Kathleen M. Sands, eds. American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
- Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson, Ariz: University of Arizona Press, 1987.
- Coltelli, Laura, ed. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
- Crawford, C. F., John F. William Balassi, and Annie O. Ersturox. This about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
- Hanson, Elizabeth J. Paula Gunn Allen. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1990.
- Keating, Ana Louise. Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, and Audre Lorde. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
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