Happy New Year, everyone! Welcome back to another edition of Belle Lettres. I hope 2016 has been good to you so far and will be filled with love and wonderful blessings. Paula Gunn Allen is the Belle for this month. Allen was a novelist, poet, and scholar, and she drew on the influences of feminism and her Native American background in her writing.
Paula Gunn Allen — née Paula Marie Francis — was born on October 24, 1939, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her mother was part Laguna-Sioux, which Allen closely identified with, and her father was Lebanese American. Allen received her B.A. in English Literature in 1966 and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon in 1968. In 1975, Allen received her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in Native American studies.
In 1973, Allen published her first book of poetry, The Blind Lion, which is divided into three sections: “The Blind Lion,” “The Amorclast,” and “The Separation.” The book as a whole looks at the breakdown of a romantic relationship with subtle references to Allen’s cultural background. Allen’s poetry collections after The Blind Lion included Star Child: Poems (1981), A Cannon Between My Knees (1981), and Life is a Fatal Disease (1997), which is considered to be her most successful.
Allen released her first and only novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, in 1983. Shadows centers around the character Ephanie (pronounced Epiphany), who has to take care of her two children after her husband leaves. Ephanie finds herself through her spiritual connection with the women in her family as well as her community.
Allen turned her attention to her roots in Native American culture when she released The Scared Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions in 1986. In The Scared Hoop, Allen focused on the importance of female figures in Native American families and mythology. She looks at how the effect of colonization broke down the role of women, dehumanized Native Americans, and was used to dissolve tribal identity and unity. Allen also showed how European colonizers were able to understand Native American tribes through the patriarchal lens.
Allen published a collection of stories in 1989 called Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women — which were told through the narratives of Native American women. Spider Woman’s Granddaughters features the stories of 17 women who reflect on their connection to their tribal identity, their co-existence with spirit beings, and their relationships with the Earth and all fellow beings. The narrators in Granddaughters also discuss how captivity, separation, and war have had a deep and lasting impact on Native American peoples for well over five centuries.
Studies in American Indian Literature (1993) and Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Source Book (1991) were among several books that were edited by Allen. She taught English and Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State. Allen was also the recipient of the following awards: the American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation, a Lifetime Award by the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americas (2001), and the J. Hubbell Medal for American Literature by the Modern Language Association in 1999.
In 2004, Allen published a biography called Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat. Allen presents Pocahontas as a gifted young woman who was intimately connected to the traditions of her people. Unlike the accounts of Captain John Smith and Disney’s animated movie, Allen’s main goal is to show Pocahontas as an influential figure who helped to shape American history. According to Allen, Pocahontas, along with Malinche and Sacagawea, “occupied a leadership position among her own people, and each acted as an agent of change, bridging worlds so that eventually harmony might ensue.”
On May 29, 2008, Paula Gunn Allen passed away at the age of 68. She had four children from her two marriages: Eugene John Brown, Fuad Ali Allen, Suleiman Allen, and Lauralee Brown. The first two preceded her in death.
Allen’s writing was and is a great influence on the way feminist studies were interwoven with Native American literature and culture — which led the way for indigenous feminism. Even though her work has been criticized by scholars such as Gerald Vizenor, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), it hasn’t stopped books such as Scared Hoop from being a point of reference in Native American and Women’s Studies.
Paula Gunn Allen’s writings show us how storytelling and cultural traditions shaped the role of Native American women in their tribal communities. In a society that marginalizes the narratives of people of color, Allen reminded us of the significance of the voices and stories of Native American women.