Paula Gunn Allen Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Paula Gunn Allen, a specialist in American Indian/Native American studies, published The Sacred Hoop as a challenge to the Anglo-European erasure of indigenous American beliefs about gender and sexuality.

Summary of Event

In 1986, Native American scholar and lesbian Paula Gunn Allen published The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, the first collection of essays in which gender Gender;American Indian cultures and issues and sexuality Sexuality;and American Indians[American Indians] are examined from an American Indian perspective. The book combines autobiography with historical narrative, poetry, literary analysis, and myth, and explores how homophobia, sexism, and racism have significantly distorted how American Indian cultures are perceived and interpreted. The Sacred Hoop is of added significance to lesbian, gay, and transgender history because Allen comes out as lesbian in the book’s introduction. [kw]Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop (1986) [kw]Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn (1986) [kw]Publishes The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen (1986) [kw]Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The (1986) American Indians;and literature[literature] Literature;American Indian Feminism;American Indian cultures and [c]Publications;1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop[1660] [c]Race and ethnicity;1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop[1660] [c]Feminism;1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop[1660] [c]Literature;1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop[1660] [c]Transgender/transsexuality;1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop[1660] Allen, Paula Gunn

Paula Gunn Allen.

(Tama Rothschild)

Allen, born Paula Marie Francis in 1939 in Cubero, New Mexico, has a Laguna Pueblo-Lakota Sioux-Scottish mother and a Lebanese American father. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She spent much of her childhood absorbing the stories and beliefs of the female-centered Pueblo culture from her mother and grandmother. As a result, Allen’s thinking has been deeply influenced by the Native American experience. Allen, who received her bachelor’s degree in English in 1966 and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1968, both from the University of Oregon, also earned a doctorate in American studies with an emphasis in Native American studies from the University of New Mexico in 1976. She retired as a professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1999. In both nonfiction and fiction, Allen has addressed Native American lesbian and gay ways of life. Along with The Sacred Hoop, she has written poetry and novels and has edited several collections.

The Sacred Hoop journeys to the roots of American Indian cultures to find ways to challenge patriarchal constructions of gender identity. Native American cultures once celebrated people who were “two-spirited,” Two-spirit persons[two spirit];definition of that is, individuals, found in most tribes, who would now be called lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The Kaska culture would designate as a boy one girl in a family of only girls. The new “son” would dress in male clothing and then would function in the Kaska male role for the rest of his life. The Yuma culture had a tradition of gender designation based on dreams; a female who dreamed of weapons would become a male for all practical purposes. A Cocopah girl who chose to play with boys or with boys’ objects such as a bow and arrow would become a male functionary. Among the Mohave, the hwame, Hwame, definition of or lesbian, took a male name and was in all respects subject to ritual male taboos such as avoidance of contact with a menstruating wife. The hwame’s wife was considered not a hwame but simply a woman. The Navajo considered lesbians an asset to their culture, and the Mohave, Quinault, Apache, Ojibwa, and Eskimo all viewed homosexuals as a natural and necessary part of society.

This fluid definition and understanding of “gender” had been quickly dismissed and forgotten by European settlers. Allen reports that in the centuries following European colonization of the New World, American Indian tribes have seen a progressive shift from gynocentric, Gynocentricism;definition of egalitarian, ritual-based social systems to secularized systems closely imitative of the European patriarchal system. Patriarchy Patriarchy, and American Indian cultures is harmful to gender-bending Gender-bending[gender bending];and patriarchal cultures[patriarchal cultures] and rule-breaking gays and lesbians, whereas female-centered social systems, also called matriarchies, Matriarchy, and American Indian cultures accord honor to a diversity of people, including gays, lesbians, and those who are transgender; patriarchy, on the other hand, values masculinity and sameness. Female-centered societies and cultures are focused on social responsibility rather than on privilege. To the pre-Columbian American Indians who originated this female-centered system, it was a way of life to recognize and respect diversity rather than enforce conformity and sameness. Allen’s notion of gynocentrism is not the same as the idea of a matriarchy, however, in which females dominate males. To Allen, the genders operate in the context of balance and mutual respect.

European colonizers of the Americas also had been threatened by Native American culture because it was a culture of decisive, self-directing females and nurturing, pacifist males. To achieve total conquest, the Europeans needed to establish and practice a patriarchal social and cultural system. Along with the devaluation of women in patriarchy comes the devaluation of traditional spiritual leaders, and, largely because of their ritual power and status, the devaluation of lesbian and gay tribal members as leaders, shamans, healers, or ritual participants. Virtually all sexual customs among the tribes had been changed by colonialism, including marital, premarital, homosexual, and ritual sexual practices. Allen argues that this loss of tradition and memory, in particular the erasure of tribal gynocentric belief systems, represents the root of oppression.


Paula Gunn Allen was one of the most prominent American Indian intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. Her scholarship on Native American understandings of “two-spirits” represents some of the most significant work on the subject, laying the groundwork for more research in this area. Despite increased scholarly interest in women of color, Allen’s feminist writings have not attracted the attention they deserve. Scholars such as AnaLouise Keating have attributed this lack of attention to what many believe is the extreme nature of Allen’s views.

Reflecting Allen’s background as a feminist of color who came of age politically in the 1960’s, Allen takes a separatist stance grounded in a rigidly gynocentric American Indian life perspective. She has been criticized for taking what some consider to be a monolithic, essentializing view of spiritual forces and the feminine Femininity;American Indian culture and in American Indian traditions. In addition, because she conceives of an inner self that often receives guidance from the supernatural, Allen has been further challenged for perpetuating romantic images of a mythic tribal universe to which Euro-America can securely escape in a desire to find an exotic, authentic Native Other.

Allen nevertheless has made visible the lives of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people from the past. She has written these individuals into Native American history. In doing so, she has helped to undermine the notion that homosexuality is an “unnatural” concept. American Indians;and literature[literature] Literature;American Indian Feminism;American Indian cultures and

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Paula Gunn. Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-busting Border-crossing Loose Canons. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
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    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. 1986. New preface. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Kim. A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto, Ont.: Second Story Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Native American Women Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansen, Elizabeth. Paula Gunn Allen. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keating, AnaLouise. Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pulitano, Elvira. Toward a Native American Critical Theory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

January-June, 1886: Two-Spirit American Indian Visits Washington, D.C.

1975: Gay American Indians Is Founded

October 12-15, 1979: First National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference Convenes

October, 1981: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Is Founded

September, 1983: First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes

Categories: History