As a scholar and literary critic, Paula Gunn Allen (born 1939) has worked to encourage the publication of Native American literature and to educate others about its themes, contexts, and structures. Having stated that her convictions can be traced back to the woman-centered structures of traditional Pueblo society, she is active in American feminist movements and in antiwar and antinuclear organizations.
Paula Gunn Allen is one of the foremost scholars of Native American literature as well as a talented poet and novelist. She also collects and interprets Native American mythology. She describes herself as a "multicultural event," citing her Pueblo/Sioux/Lebanese/ Scottish-American ancestry. Her father, E. Lee Francis, born of Lebanese parents at Seboyeta, a Spanish-Mexican land grant village north of Laguna Pueblo, spoke only Spanish and Arabic until he was ten. Due to the lack of a Marionite rite in the area, he was raised Roman Catholic. He owned the Cubero Trading Company and was Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico from 1967 through 1970. Her mother, Ethel, is Laguna Pueblo, Sioux, and Scots. She converted to Catholicism from Presbyterianism to marry Francis.
Allen's great-grandfather, the Scottish-born Kenneth Gunn, immigrated into the area in the 1800s and married her great-grandmother, Meta Atseye, whose Indian name was Corn Tassel. Meta had been educated at the Carlisle Indian School to be, as Allen says in her introduction to Spider Woman's Granddaughters, "a literate, modest, excruciatingly exacting maid for well-to-do white farmers' and ranchers' wives," but "became the farmer-rancher's wife instead." Her grandmother, half Laguna, half Scottish-American, Presbyterian, first married a Sioux (Ethel's father) and then remarried a German Jewish immigrant, Sidney Solomon Gottlieb. Her mother grew up speaking and writing both English and Mexican Spanish.
Allen was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and grew up in Cubero, New Mexico, a Spanish-Mexican land grant village abutting the Laguna and Acoma reservations and the Cibola National Forest. She attended mission schools in Cubero and San Fidel, but she did most of her schooling at a Sisters of Charity boarding school in Albuquerque, from which she graduated in 1957. Her 1983 novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows and some of her poetry draws from this experience of being raised Catholic. However, Allen is well aware of the conflicting influences in her background: Catholic, Native American, Protestant, Jewish, and Marionite. In an interview with Joseph Bruchac for Survival This Way, Allen says: "Sometimes I get in a dialogue between what the Church taught me, the nuns taught me, and what my mother taught me, what my experience growing up where I grew up taught me. Often you can't reconcile them." Her novel speaks to this confusion as the main character attempts to sort through the varying influences to reclaim a Native American women's spiritual tradition. On her journey, her protagonist uses traditional Laguna Pueblo healing ceremonies as well as psychotherapy, the Iroquois story of Sky Woman, and the aid of a psychic Euro-American woman.
Allen received both her bachelor's degree in English (1966) and her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing (1968) from the University of Oregon after beginning her studies at Colorado Women's College. She had three children and is divorced. She received her doctorate in American studies with an emphasis on Native American literature (1975) from the University of New Mexico. Two other writers from Laguna Pueblo are related to Allen—a sister, Carol Lee Sanchez, and a cousin, Leslie Marmon Silko.
Contributions to Native American Literary Scholarship
Allen is recognized as a major scholar, literary critic, and teacher of Native American literature. Her teaching positions include San Francisco State University, the University of New Mexico, Fort Lewis College in Durango, California, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California at Los Angeles, where she was a professor of English. Allen's 1983 Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, an important text in the field, has an extensive bibliography in addition to information on teaching Native American literatures. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, published in 1986, contains her 1975 germinal essay "The Sacred Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective," which was one of the first to detail the ritual function of Native American literatures as opposed to Euro-American literatures. Allen's belief in the power of the oral tradition embodied in contemporary Native American literature to effect healing, survival, and continuance underlies all of her work.
Allen writes from the perspective of a Laguna Pueblo woman from a culture in which the women are held in high respect. The descent is matrilineal—women owned the houses, and the major deities are female. A major theme of Allen's work is delineation and restoration of this woman-centered culture. Her work abounds with the mythic dimensions of women's relationship to the sacred, as well as the plight of contemporary Native American women, many of whom have lost the respect formerly accorded to them.
Elaborating on the roles and power of Native American women, Allen's "Who Is Your Mother: Red Roots of White Feminism" was published in Sinister Wisdom in 1984. In this startling article, Allen articulated Native American contributions to democracy and feminism, countering a popular idea that societies in which women's power was equal to men's never existed. She also has been a major champion to restore the place of gay and lesbian Native Americans in the community. These ideas were first published in 1981 in a groundbreaking essay in Conditions, "Beloved Women: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures," and then reworked for the Sacred Hoop.
Allen says that her focus on women is intended to affect the consciousness of Euro-American women rather than men because, until the last ten years or so, the women in her culture were never considered weak, and she wants others to know that women were not held down in all cultures. Allen feels some ambivalence about the feminist movement because of this misunderstanding and the cultural chauvinism of Euro-American women, which has been personally hurtful to her and other Native women, but she admits that feminists provide the best audience for her work and have given her much support. In her family, the woman-centered tradition was so strong that her grandfather wanted to name her mother Susan B. Anthony.
Allen was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Writing in 1978, and she received a postdoctoral fellowship grant from the Ford Foundation-National Research Council in 1984. Also at this time, she served as associate fellow at the Stanford Humanities Institute, coordinating the Gynosophic Gathering, A Woman Identified Worship Service, in Berkeley. She is active in the anti-nuclear and anti-war movements as well as the feminist movement. She won an American Book Award in 1990 for Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writings by Native American Women, which is an attempt to correct the lack of stories by and/or about Native Women in literature collections. In her 1991 Grandmother of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Source-book, Allen expands her interest in the ritual experience of women as exhibited in the traditional stories. She traces the stages in a woman's spiritual path using Native American stories as models for walking in the sacred way.
Contributions to Native American Poetry
Besides her extensive work as a scholar, Allen is the author of numerous volumes of poetry. Because of her multicultural background, Allen can draw on varying poetic rhythms and structures, which emanate from such sources as country-western music, Pueblo corn dances, Catholic masses, Mozart, Italian opera, and Arabic chanting. In her work, a finely detailed sense of place resonates with landscapes from the city, the reservation, and the interior. She has been recognized by critics such as A. Lavonne Ruoff for her purity of language and emotional intensity.
Allen became interested in writing in high school when she discovered the work of Gertrude Stein, whom she read extensively and tried to copy. Other influences have been the Romantic poets, Shelley and Keats. Allen took up writing more seriously in college when she read Robert Creeley's For Love and discovered that he was teaching at the University of New Mexico, where she was a student. She took his poetry class, although she considered herself a prose writer at the time. Creeley introduced her to the work of the poets Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, and Denise Levertov—all of whom have been major influences on Allen. She left New Mexico to finish her bachelor's degree at the University of Oregon and studied with Ralph Salisbury, who was Cherokee, though she did not know it at the time. Feeling isolated and suicidal, Allen says that the presence of a Santee Sioux friend, Dick Wilson, and the discovery of N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn made all the difference to her. Recent influences upon her work have been Adrienne Rich, Patricia Clark Smith, and E.A. Mares.
Allen's 1982 Shadow Country received an honorable mention from the National Book Award Before Columbus Foundation. Allen uses the theme of shadows—the not dark and not light—to bridge her experience of mixed heritage as she attempts to respond to the world in its variety. Allen's poetry has an infusion of spirits common to Native American literature, but represents not only her Native American heritage, but her multicultural heritage. She also uses her poetry to respond to personal events in her life, such as her mother's suffering with lupus ("Dear World" in Shadow Country) and the death of one of her twin sons ("On the Street: Monument" in Shadow Country). In the interview with Bruchac, Allen says, "My poetry has a haunted sense to it … a sorrow and grievingness in it that comes directly from being split, not in two but in twenty, and never being able to reconcile all the places that I am." Allen's multicultural vision allows her to mediate between her different worlds to make a rich contribution to Native American literature as a scholar, writer, and educator.
Allen continued to receive attention in the 1990s, having her work examined and critiqued in such publications as The Journal of Homosexuality, The Explicator and Ariel. Also, in 1996 she cowrote an anthology of nine stories about Native Americans for young readers titled As Long As the Rivers Flow.
Further Reading on Paula Gunn Allen
Aal, Katharyn Machan, "Writing as an Indian Woman: An Interview with Paula Gunn Allen," North Dakota Quarterly, spring 1989; 149-61.
Allen, Paula Gunn, "Beloved Woman: The Lesbians in American Indian Cultures," Conditions, 1981; 65-67.
Allen, Paula Gunn, "Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism," Sinister Wisdom, winter 1984; 34-46.
Ballinger, Franchot, and Brian Swann, "A MELUS Interview: Paula Gunn Allen," MELUS, summer 1983; 3-25.
Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen Mullen Sands, American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives, Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Bruchac, Joseph, "I Climb the Mesas in My Dreams: An Interview with Paula Gunn Allen," Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Tucson, Arizona, Sun Tracks and University of Arizona Press, 1987; 1-24.
Caputi, Jane, "Interview with Paula Gunn Allen," Trivia, a Journal of Ideas, fall 1990; 50-67.
Coltelli, Laura, Winged Words: American Writers Speak, Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1990; 11-39.
Crawford, C.F., John F. William Balassi, and Annie O. Ersturox,"Paula Gunn Allen," in This About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1990; 95-107.
Hanson, Elizabeth J., Paula Gunn Allen, Western Writers Series, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1990.
Milton, John R., "Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna-Sioux-Lebanese)," Four Indian Poets, Vermillion, South Dakota, 1974.
Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review and Selected Bibliography, New York, Modern Language Association, 1990; 92-4.
Ruoff, Literatures of the American Indian, New York, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991; 95-6.
Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, editors, "Paula Gunn Allen,'The Autobiography of a Confluence,"' I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1987; 141-54.
Van Dyke, Annette, "The Journey Back to Female Roots: A Laguna Pueblo Model," Lesbian Texts and Contexts, Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, editors, New York, New York University Press, 1990; 339-54.
Van Dyke, "Curing Ceremonies: The Novels of Leslie Marmon Silko and Paula Gunn Allen," The Search for a Woman-Centered Spirituality, New York, New York University Press, 1992.
Van Dyke, "Paula Gunn Allen," Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source-book, Sandra Pollack and Denise Knight, editors, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993.