Published on May 30, 2014 by Amy
Paula Gunn Allen (October 24, 1939 – May 29, 2008) was a Native American poet, literary critic, lesbian activist, and novelist. Of mixed-race European-American and Native American descent, she identified with the Laguna Pueblo of her childhood years, the culture in which she’d grown up. She drew from its oral traditions for her fiction and poetry, and also wrote numerous essays on its themes. She edited four collections of Native American traditional stories and contemporary works, and wrote two biographies of Native American women.
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In addition to her literary work, in 1986 she published a major study on the role of women in American Indian traditions, arguing that Europeans had de-emphasized the role of women in their accounts of native life because of their own patriarchal societies. It stimulated other scholarly work by feminist and Native American writers.
Born Paula Marie Francis in Albuquerque, New Mexico Allen grew up in Cubero, New Mexico, a Spanish-Mexican land grant village bordering the Laguna Pueblo reservation. Of mixed Laguna, Sioux, Scottish, and Lebanese-American descent, Allen always identified most closely with the Laguna, among whom she spent her childhood and upbringing.
Allen received a BA and MFA from the University of Oregon. She earned a PhD at the University of New Mexico, where she worked as a professor and began research on tribal religions.
From Allen’s study of Native American religion, she wrote The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986). The text has provoked controversy, as she argues that accounts of Native beliefs and traditions were subverted by phallogocentric European explorers and colonizers, who downplayed or erased the central role women played in numerous Native American societies. Allen argued many Native American tribes were “gynocratic”, with women making the principal decisions. Other tribes believed in absolute balance between male and female, with neither side gaining dominance.
Allen’s arguments and research were strongly criticized in the years following the publication of The Sacred Hoop. Gerald Vizenor, also a Native American critic, and others have accused Allen of an enacting a simple reversal of essentialism, while historians and anthropologists have disproved or questioned some of her scholarship. Her book and subsequent work has proved highly influential, encouraging other feminist studies of Native American cultures and literature. It remains a classic text of Native American Studies and Women’s Studies programs.
Allen is well known as a novelist, poet and short story writer. Her work drew heavily on the Pueblo tales of Grandmother Spider and the Corn Maiden. It is noted for its strong political connotations. Critics have noted that Leslie Marmon Silko, also of Laguna descent, also draws on these traditional tales.
Her novel, The Woman Who Owned The Shadows (1983), features the woman Ephanie, who is of mixed-blood and struggles to express herself creatively.
As a poet, Allen published a collection of more than 30 years of work: Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1962-1995, judged to be her most successful. Allen’s work is often categorized as belonging to the Native American Renaissance, but the author rejects the label.
Allen was awarded an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation, the Native American Prize for Literature, the Susan Koppelman Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas in 2001.