- A Tribute to Paula Gunn Allen (1939–2008)
Out of her own body she pushedsilver thread, light, airand carried it carefully on the dark, flyingwhere nothing moved.
Out of her body she extrudedshining wire, life, and wove the lighton the void.
From beyond time,beyond oak trees and bright clear water flow,she was given the work of weaving the strandsof her body, her pain, her visioninto creation, and the gift of having created,to disappear.
After her,the women and the men weave blankets into tales of life,memories of light and ladders,infinity-eyes, and rain.After her I sit on my laddered rain-bearing rugand mend the tear with string.Paula Gunn Allen, "Grandmother" [End Page 68]
So goes one of Paula Gunn Allen's early published poems. "Grandmother" not only introduces the reader to Allen's particular Laguna Pueblo idea of the sacred but also defines her approach to her work as a scholar, poet, novelist, theorist, political activist, and professor: "After her I sit on my laddered rain-bearing rug / and mend the tear with string." In the tradition of The Grandmother/Spider Woman/Thought Woman, Allen attempts to repair what has gone awry in her Native American culture while acknowledging that she is inadequate to the task.
Nevertheless, Allen is rightly considered one of the founders of women's/Native American spirituality as an academic discipline, and, indeed, spirituality is central to her work. Her early scholarly work, her dissertation "Sipapu: A Cultural Perspective" (1975), became the exceedingly influential The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986). This text 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 Euroamerican literatures. The Sacred Hoop is considered a foundation for the study not only of Native American gender but also of culture. Drawing upon Allen's own experience as a Laguna Pueblo woman, it calls attention to her belief in the power of the oral tradition now embodied in contemporary Native American literature to effect healing, survival, and continuance.1 Further, Allen's work discusses the importance of women not only in her own society but also across the Native American panorama and through time.
Allen wrote 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 primary deities are female. A major theme of Allen's work is delineation and restoration of this woman-centered culture. Elaborating on the roles and power of Native American women, Allen's "Who is Your Mother: Red Roots of White Feminism" came out in Sinister Wisdom in 1984. In this startling article, Allen articulated Native American contributions to democracy and feminism, countering a popular idea that a society in which women's power was equal to men's never existed. [End Page 69]
She also has been a major champion to restore the place of gay and lesbian Native Americans, explaining their power as spiritual to be used for the good of the community. These ideas were first published in a groundbreaking essay in Conditions, "Beloved Women: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures" (1981), and then reworked for the Sacred Hoop.
Allen's work abounds with the mythic dimensions of women's relationship to the sacred, as well as with the struggles of contemporary Native American women, many of whom have lost the respect formerly accorded to them because of the incursions of Euroamerican culture. 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 referred to herself as a "multi-cultural event," recalling her Pueblo, Lakota, and Scottish ancestry from her mother, Ethel Haines Francis, and her Lebanese heritage from her father, Elias Lee Francis, a former lieutenant governor of New Mexico. These influences account for her ability to bridge perspectives and offer understandings across cultures, religions, and worldviews.
She attended mission...