Authors: Paula Gunn Allen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and scholar

Identity: American Indian (Laguna Pueblo)

Author Works


The Blind Lion, 1974

Coyote’s Daylight Trip, 1978

A Cannon Between My Knees, 1981

Star Child: Poems, 1981

Shadow Country, 1982

Wyrds, 1987

Skins and Bones, 1988

Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems, 1962-1995, 1997

Long Fiction:

The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, 1983


The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, 1986

Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Source Book, 1991

As Long as the Rivers Flow: The Stories of Nine Native Americans, 1996 (with Patricia Clark Smith)

Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing Loose Canons, 1998

Edited Texts:

Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, 1989

Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970, 1994

Hozho: Walking in Beauty, 2001 (with Carolyn Dunn Anderson)


Paula Gunn Allen’s heritage was, as she once described it, “a mixture of various ethnicities and nationalities,” and her ancestral roots were grounded in both the Laguna Pueblo and Sioux cultures. An American Indian “at heart,” Allen let herself be guided by American Indian traditions in her poetry, fiction, and scholarship.{$I[AN]9810002070}{$I[A]Allen, Paula Gunn}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Allen, Paula Gunn}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Allen, Paula Gunn}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Allen, Paula Gunn}{$I[tim]1939;Allen, Paula Gunn}

Paula Gunn Allen

(Tama Rothschild)

Allen’s education included a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Mexico, and she held teaching appointments in various academic institutions throughout the South and the West, including San Francisco State University, the University of New Mexico, Fort Lewis College, and the University of California at Berkeley. In addition to teaching, Allen was active as a scholar of American Indian literature, and she produced poems, novels, and essays. Her writing, which reflects her heritage in technique as well as in subject matter, has been praised by reviewers and scholars in such diverse fields as literature, anthropology, and cultural studies. Allen was also the recipient of such prestigious prizes as the Susan Koppelman Award from the Popular and American Culture Associations and the National Prize for Literature.

Although the influence of her American Indian heritage is easily detected in her work, there were other sources behind Allen’s creativity. These influences include such writers as Gertrude Stein, the English Romantic poets, and the Beat poets. The works of Allen’s own contemporaries–among them Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Denise Levertov, and Judy Grahn–also inspired Allen’s creative efforts.

Allen began to write in the 1960’s. With the assistance of Robert Creeley, one of her instructors, Allen first learned to express her vision in verse. Her first volume of poems, The Blind Lion, which was published in 1974, focused, as do all of her poems, primarily on the experiences of American Indians. Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems, 1962-1995 brings together her poetry published over thirty years, along with a few new poems.

Allen’s interests were not, however, limited to American Indian concerns. She was an activist in the antiwar, antinuclear, and American feminist movements. She also spoke and wrote on the roles of gay men and lesbians in contemporary society and the world. Allen found a place for these political interests in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. In this novel, Ephanie, the heroine, validates her lesbianism through a spiritual and emotional quest. Ephanie then empowers herself by establishing a connection with her tribal heritage.

In addition to establishing herself as a writer through her poetry and fiction, Allen’s scholarly work on the traditions and history of American Indians made her one of the leading scholars in that field of study. According to Allen, American Indians are “something other than victims–mostly what we are is unrecognized.” Making Native Americans a more recognizable entity has been Allen’s mission. In the collection of essays The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, she examines, among other topics, the roots of American Indian literature. With Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Source Book, she narrows her focus slightly to deal specifically with women. Drawing on various Indian traditions, Allen reveals in this volume the stories behind the female spiritual figures who have played important roles in American Indian history. The twenty pieces collected in Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing Loose Canons chart Allen’s intellectual evolution since the 1960’s and offer a provocative introduction to what she called “contemporary coyote Pueblo American thought.”

Allen’s work–fiction, nonfiction, and poetry–has contributed significantly to the constantly expanding canon of American Indian literature. Critics have pointed out that what makes Allen’s writing significant is her ability, as an author, to transcend traditional definitions. Throughout her career, Allen continually concentrated on making visible the invisible and on allowing the silent to speak. Allen died at her home in Fort Bragg, California on May 29, 2008.

BibliographyAllen, Paula Gunn. Interview by Quannah Karvar. Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 25, 1987. An interesting interview.Allen, Paula Gunn. Interview by Robin Pogrebin. The New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1984. Includes biographical information.Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987. Situates Allen in the American Indian literary tradition.Cook, Barbara. “The Feminist Journey in Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.” Southwestern American Literature 22 (Spring, 1997): 69-74.Ferrell, Tracy J. Prince. “Transformation, Myth, and Ritual in Paula Gunn Allen’s Grandmothers of the Light.” North Dakota Quarterly 63 (Winter, 1996): 77-88.Fisher, Dexter, ed. The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.Hanson, Elizabeth I. Paula Gunn Allen. Edited by Wayne Chatterton and James H. Maguire. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1990. A volume in the Boise State University Western Writers series. Includes bibliographical references.Keating, AnaLouise. Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. A critical evaluation that examines these writers as “self-identified lesbians of color.”McDaniel, Cynthia. “Paula Gunn Allen: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Sources.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 11 (Summer, 1999): 29-49.Perry, Donna. “Paula Gunn Allen.” In Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, edited by Donna Perry. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.Purdy, John.“’And Then, Twenty Years Later . . . ’: A Conversation with Paula Gunn Allen.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 9 (Fall, 1997): 5-16.Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. Examines Allen in relation to other American Indian authors. Illustrates how her writing expands traditional definitions of American Indian literature.Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, eds. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Allen writes of her own experiences as an American Indian, as a writer, and as a teacher.Toohey, Michelle Campbell. “Paula Allen Gunn’s Grandmothers of the Light: Falling Through the Void.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 12 (Fall, 2000): 35-51.
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