views updated

ALLEN, Paula Gunn 1939-

PERSONAL: Born 1939, in Cubero, NM; daughter of E. Lee (a businessman and politician) and Ethel (Francis); married (divorced); children: three. Education: University of Oregon, B.A., 1966, M.F.A., 1968; University of New Mexico, Ph.D., 1975.

ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Author Mail, Harper San Francisco, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Fort Lewis College, Durango, CO, lecturer; San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, director of Native-American studies program; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, lecturer; University of California, Berkeley, lecturer, professor of Native American Studies/Ethnic Studies; University of California, Los Angeles, professor of literature, 1990-99.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978; postdoctoral fellow in American Indian Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 1981; postdoctoral fellowship grant, Ford Foundation-National Research Council, 1984; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1990, for Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women; Susan Koppelman Award, Popular and American Culture Associations, and Native American Prize for Literature, both 1990.



The Blind Lion, Thorp Springs Press (Berkeley, CA), 1974.

Coyote's Daylight Trip, La Confluencia (Albuquerque, NM), 1978.

A Cannon between My Knees, Strawberry Press (New York, NY), 1981.

Star Child: Poems, Blue Cloud Quarterly (Marvin, SD), 1981.

Shadow Country, University of California American Indian Studies Center (Los Angeles, CA), 1982.

Wyrds, Taurean Horn (San Francisco, CA), 1987.

Skins and Bones, West End (Albuquerque, NM), 1988.

Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems, 1962-1995, West End (Albuquerque, NM), 1997.


From the Center: A Folio of Native American Art and Poetry, Strawberry Press (New York, NY), 1981.

Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs, Modern Language Association of America (New York, NY), 1983.

Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1989.

(And author of introduction) The Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1994.

Song of the Turtle: American Indian Fiction, 1974-1994, Ballantine (New York, NY, 1995.

(With Carolyn Dunn Anderson) Hozho: Walking in Beauty: Native American Stories of Inspiration, Humor, and Life, Contemporary Books (Chicago, IL), 2001.


Sipapu: A Cultural Perspective, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1975.

The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (novel), Spinsters Ink (San Francisco, CA), 1983.

(Author of foreword) Brian Swann, Song of the Sky: Versions of Native American Songs and Poems, Four Zoas Night House (Boston, MA), 1985.

Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1991.

Indian Perspectives, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association (Tucson, AZ), 1992.

The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (essays), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1986, reissued with new preface, 1992.

(With Patricia Clark Smith) As Long As the Rivers Flow: Nine Stories of Native Americans, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.

Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting Border-Crossing Loose Canons, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.

Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2003.

Contributor to I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1987; and Columbus and Beyond: Views from Native Americans, edited by Randolph Jorgen, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association (Tucson, AZ), 1992.

SIDELIGHTS: Paula Gunn Allen is a registered member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, but her heritage has been enriched by many nationalities. Her father, E. Lee Francis, was born of Lebanese parents at Seboyeta, a Spanish/Mexican land grant village north of Laguna Pueblo. He spoke only Arabic and Spanish until he learned English at the age of ten. He owned the Cubero Trading Company and later served as Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico from 1967 through 1970. Allen's mother, Ethel, was of mixed Laguna Pueblo, Sioux, and Scots ancestry.

Allen grew up in Cubero, New Mexico, where she attended Catholic school. According to Kathy J. 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." In contrast, Allen found stability and what Whitson called the "thematic bedrock" in her New Mexican upbringing: "the land, the family, the road."

Allen married while in college and had two children before divorcing. After the divorce, she went back to school and studied writing. Her work as a writer was initially inspired by the success of N. Scott Momaday, a Native American writer whose novel House Made of Dawn has been widely recognized and acclaimed in mainstream American culture.

Although Allen has a diverse ethnic heritage, it is her American Indian roots that inform and direct 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." To help remedy this situation, Allen compiled The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, a collection of seventeen essays covering topics that range from the status of lesbians in Native American cultures, to literature's roots in the soil of tradition and ritual. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Quannah Karvar complimented the volume's "power and insight as a commentary on the perceptions and priorities of contemporary Native American women." Allen has also gained recognition as a poet. Her first published collection of poems, The Blind Lion, appeared in 1974, followed by Skins and Bones in 1988 and Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems, 1962-1995, published in 1997.

Allen's novel, 1983's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, received a generally 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." After several unsuccessful attempts to fit into male-dominated white society, Ephanie attempts suicide, only to cut herself down from the rope by which she is hanging. Struck by a sudden appreciation for life, Ephanie begins her journey toward community and self-acceptance by learning what her woman-centered tribal heritage can mean for her. Within this tradition she finds the Spider Woman, known also as Thought Woman, who "enlightens Ephanie and helps her to enter the shadows of her psyche and to own them, to dream her own dreams and to own them," said Marcia G. Fuchs in Twentieth-Century Western Writers.

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. She has extended traditional storytelling into the modern form of the novel by weaving in the tribal history, cultural traditions, and mythology of the Laguna Pueblo to create a form of curing ceremony for her readers," noted Annette Van Dyke in Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions.

A few critics have suggested that the novel represents a vision quest, not only for Ephanie but for her readers, who learn that self-acceptance requires a feeling of connection with the past. Allen affirmed the notion that writing the novel was also a kind of vision quest: "That's what I am searching for, to pull the vision out of me, because it is here, I know it is…. That's what a vision quest is for, you know. You go out … and you find out who you are. Well, a writer goes into the wilderness and finds out who she is," she remarked in a 1987 interview with Annie O. Eysturoy published in This Is about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers.

In 1989 Allen edited Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, 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."

With the 1991 publication of Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook, Allen again focuses attention on the central role of women in many Native American cultures. A collection of twenty-one stories from the oral tradition of a variety of tribes, the book is divided into three sections that provide information for those seeking to possess something of the goddesses' supernatural and creative powers. In the Voice Literary Supplement, Suzanne Ruta asserted that "goddesses is probably the wrong word for these divinities, who don't dazzle or attack from distant thrones. Like the cultures that nourished them, they're down to earth, egalitarian, democratic, and resourceful, plunging their arms into the clay, the corn dough, the ashes, to come up with what's needed to create or sustain life."

Many of the stories are told in Allen's own voice as she combines them with her own critical insights into their meaning and their relevance to historical events. While some have noted the lack of critical references in Allen's nonfiction writing, reception generally has been positive. The tribes represented in the stories cover a wide geographic area, including the Navajo, the Cherokee, the Lakota, and the Mayan. While Allen admits that these tribes have very different cultures, she asserts that they all share similar worldviews with respect to the need for balance between the "mundane" and spiritual worlds. This notion of balance, she asserts, is the product of woman-centered societies where models of shared obligations replace struggles for power between men and women. Lucy Patrick said in a Library Journal review of Grandmothers of the Light that the "recovery of respect for complementary polarity and gynecratic tribal values are central to [Allen's] vision of the interrelationship of the human and super-natural worlds." One of Allen's continuing efforts is to counter the popular notion that Native American culture has been lost in today's world.

In Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing Loose Canons, Allen draws on her own mixed heritage of mixed Laguna and Lebanese origins to examine contemporary American culture. The collection of essays range widely, from political to spiritual to ecological issues, and are often very personal, as when she considers her Lebanese roots, or describes her return to Laguna Pueblo after a long absence. Writing in Library Journal, Faye Powell described the collection as "thought-provoking and informative." A Booklist reviewer called the essays "intelligent work from a renegade spirit."

In Allen's 2003 publication, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat, she examines the legend of the Native American woman and represents her as other than the tragic and forlorn historical figure who fell in love with Captain John Smith. LibraryJournal's John Burch criticized the book's lack of "authoritative biographical information," stating "it is the native perspective that apparently gives [Allen] license to construct an image of Pocahontas as a 'shaman priestess, sorcerer, adept pf high degree' without any cited evidence." A Publishers Weekly reviewer, however, enjoyed Allen's interpretation of history, and pointed out that Allen's Pocahontas "is a real visionary, a prodigiously gifted young woman fervently devoted to the spiritual traditions of her people." This reviewer praised Pocahontas, commenting, "When casting Pocahontas as 'the embodiment of … dual culture transformation,' her role, and the book, are at their clearest and are made manifest by Allen's often lyrical and powerful writing."

Allen's "powerful writing" has entranced, enriched, and educated, according to many reviewers, while also offering up many aspects of Native American heritage to culturally enrich readers and add valuable morsels to the collective American history. 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, editors, American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1984.

Bataille, Gretchen M., and Laurie Lisa, editors, Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, 2nd edition, Routledge (London, England), 2001.

Bruchac, Joseph, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1987, pp. 1-24.

Coltelli, Laura, editor, Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1990, pp. 11-39.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 84, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.

Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Crawford, C. F., John F. William Balassi, and Annie O. Eysturoy, This Is about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1990, pp. 95-107.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Green, Carol Hurd, and Mary Grimley Mason, editors, American Women Writers, Continuum (New York, NY), 1994.

Hanson, Elizabeth J., Paula Gunn Allen, Boise State University (Boise, ID), 1990.

Jay, Karla and Joanne Glasgow, editors, Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1990, pp. 339-354.

Keating, Ana Louise, Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, and Audre Lorde, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1996.

Lincoln, Kenneth, Native American Renaissance, University of California Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1983, pp. 183-221.

Literature Lover's Companion, Prentice Hall Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Milton, John R., Four Indian Poets, [South Dakota], 1974.

Moss, Maria, We've Been Here Before: Women in Creation Myths and Contemporary Literature of the Native American Southwest, Lit (Münster, Germany), 1993.

Native North American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Pollack, Sandra, and Denise Knight, editors, Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1993.

Riggs, Thomas, editor, Reference Guide to American Literature, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Ruoff, A. La Vonne Brown, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography, Modern Language Association (New York, NY), 1990, pp. 92-94.

Scanlon, Jennifer, editor, Significant Contemporary American Feminists, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT).

Twentieth-Century Western Writers, 2nd edition, edited by Geoff Sadler, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Van Dyke, Annette, The Search for a Woman-Centered Spirituality, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Whitson, Kathy J., Native American Literatures: An Encyclopedia of Works, Characters, Authors, and Themes, American Bibliographic Center-Clio (Santa Barbara, CA).


American Book Review, December, 1992-January, 1993, p. 12.

Belles Lettres, summer, 1990, pp. 40, 42.

Booklist, July, 1994, p. 1917; September 15, 1991, pp. 101-102; March 15, 1998, review of Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, p. 1235; October 1, 1998, review of Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting Border-Crossing Loose Canons, p. 303.

Choice, November, 1983, p. 427; September, 1986, p. 114.

Journal of American Folklore, April-June, 1990, pp. 245-247.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1991, p. 976.

Kliatt, November, 2001, review of Hozho: Walking in Beauty: Native American Stories of Inspiration, Humor, and Life, p. 23.

Library Journal, January, 1986, p. 89; September 15, 1991, p. 84; November 15, 1998, Faye Powell, review of Off the Reservation, p. 74; October 1, 2003, John Burch, review of Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat, p. 88.

Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1990, pp. E1, E7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 25, 1987, p. 11; July 9, 1989, p. 10.

MELUS, summer, 1983, pp. 3-25.

New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1984, p. 18; May 14, 1989, p. 15.

North Dakota Quarterly, spring, 1989, pp. 149-161.

Parabola, November, 1986, pp. 102, 104; November, 1989, pp. 98, 102.

Publishers Weekly, July 5, 1991, p. 51; October 26, 1998, review of Off the Reservation, p. 51; September 1, 2003, review of Pocahontas, p. 76.

Village Voice, September 19, 1989, p. 57.

Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1991, p. 26.

Women's Review of Books, March, 1984, p. 8; July, 1989, p. 8; September, 1989, pp. 29-31.

World Literature Today, spring, 1990, pp. 344-345; summer, 1997, Robert L. Berner, review of Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems, 1962-1995, p. 631.*

Allen, Paula Gunn 1939-

Updated About content Print Article Share Article