Published on January 12, 2012 by Carol
Paula Gunn Allen (October 24, 1939 – May 29, 2008) was a Native American poet, literary critic, lesbian activist, and novelist.
Born Paula Marie Francis in Albuquerque, 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 people among whom she spent her childhood and upbringing.
Having obtained a BA and MFA from the University of Oregon, Allen gained her PhD at the University of New Mexico, where she taught and where she began her research into various tribal religions.
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Allen’s studies would eventually result in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, a controversial text which argues that the accounts of Native beliefs and traditions were subverted by phallogocentric European explorers and colonizers, who downplayed or erased the central role that woman played in most Native societies. Allen argued that many Native tribes were “gynocratic”, with women making the principal decisions, while others believed in absolute balance between male and female, with neither side gaining dominance.
Allen’s arguments and research were much criticized in the years following publication of The Sacred Hoop. Gerald Vizenor and others have accused her of a simple reversal of essentialism, while historians and anthropologists have disproved or questioned some of her scholarship. However, her book and subsequent work also proved hugely influential, provoking an outpouring of feminist studies of Native cultures and literature. It remains a set text within many Native American Studies and Women’s Studies programs.
Allen also wrote many essays of literary criticism. These often stress the sacredness of Native religions, attempting to ensure that these are treated as religions rather than being patronized as “folklore” or “myths”
Allen was well-known as a novelist, poet and short story writer. Her work, like that of fellow Laguna writer Leslie Marmon Silko, drew heavily on the Pueblo tales of Grandmother Spider and the Corn Maiden, and is noted for a strongly political streak.
Her novel, The Woman Who Owned The Shadows, was published in 1983. The story revolves around Ephanie, a mixed-blood like Allen herself, and her struggle to express herself creatively. As a poet, Allen’s most successful collection so far is probably Life Is a Fatal Disease : Collected Poems 1962-1995. Allen has also been responsible for a number of collections of Native American writings, including Spider Womans Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women.
Allen’s work has been categorized as belonging to the Native American Renaissance, though she herself rejected the label.