The Woman Who Owned the Shadows Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: The 1970’s and 1980’s

Locale: Albuquerque, New Mexico; San Francisco, California; and Oregon

Characters DiscussedEphanie Atencio

Ephanie Woman Who Owned the Shadows, TheAtencio (EHF-uhn-ee ah-TEHN-see-oh), a woman who grew up among the Guadalupe Indians in New Mexico learning tribal stories from her grandmother. Because of her mixed racial background, she was never fully accepted by either whites or Native Americans. Her childhood friend Elena feels guilty about their closeness and deserts her. Ephanie’s other childhood friend, Stephen, also betrays her by invalidating her capabilities and her memories. It takes Ephanie a lifetime to remember the particular incident that sparked her change to a fearful, unhappy existence. When she was twelve years old, Stephen dared her to swing from a high tree, and the branch broke. She fell, breaking both her ribs and her spirit. Without understanding what she is doing, she acquiesces to the voices around her who urge her to be more ladylike, to be passive and silent. Ephanie’s first husband abuses and deserts her, leaving her with two children, Ben and Agnes. She moves to San Francisco, marries a Japanese American, suffers the loss of an infant son, and is divorced. She becomes absorbed in the history of the Native Americans and their systematic slaughter by whites. She sees that even those who romanticize or pity Native Americans perpetuate divisiveness and victimization. Increasingly, she feels isolated, fragmented, hopeless, and suicidal. What helps Ephanie regain a sense of self-worth and purpose are the old songs and stories from the women of the past. They show her that she is not alone and that she must do her part to pass on what she has learned.


Shimanna, called Sylvia by the whites, Ephanie’s maternal grandmother. She attended a mission school in Albuquerque and a school for Indians in Pennsylvania. She married a white man, and although she returned to the Guadalupe pueblo, she was not entirely welcome. Ephanie’s mother and Ephanie both inherited the label “half-breed.” Shimanna teaches Ephanie Indian mythology, including songs and stories about the spider woman who created all the worlds. Even after she dies, she appears to Ephanie at various times as a presence who cares for her and encourages her by reminding her of the old stories.


Elena, a Chicana neighbor, Ephanie’s childhood friend and true love. They grow and play together and share their dreams. In early adolescence, on the day they daringly climb Picacho Peak, Elena announces that she cannot see Ephanie again. Absorbing the homophobic prejudices of those around her, Elena had asked a nun at school about hugging and giggling with Ephanie, and the nun had pronounced that it was a sin. Thus Ephanie is betrayed and denied love before she even recognizes it as love. She never sees Elena again, but she thinks of their early years together as the only time she was truly happy.


Teresa, a white woman Ephanie meets in a therapy group in San Francisco. Teresa does a psychic reading and tells Ephanie that an older woman who wears a spider pin is watching over her, but that Ephanie needs to investigate something from her past that still troubles her. Ephanie recognizes the woman as her grandmother, who told her stories of the spider woman and her daughters. Teresa introduces Ephanie to some women in a lesbian commune. Ephanie likes them, but she cannot seem to make them or Teresa understand her anxieties and her problematic status as an Indian in a white-dominated culture.


Stephen, an older Indian friend, as close as a cousin or brother, who worked in the trading store run by Ephanie’s father. He sees himself as Ephanie’s teacher and guide; she sees him as bright and self-assured. He hovers around her over the years, helping out when her first husband abandons her and again when her infant son Tommy dies. Stephen is psychologically abusive, telling Ephanie that she needs him because she is helpless, saying he would marry her if he were not so much older, and denying her memories of the past. Ephanie has love/hate feelings toward him without understanding why.

Thomas Yoshuri

Thomas Yoshuri, Ephanie’s second husband and father of their twin sons, Tommy and Tsali. Tommy dies when he is a few weeks old, and they wrap his body in the Japanese flag that Thomas’ sister Sally had given to Ephanie. Thomas is bitter and isolated, a heavy drinker never able to overcome his childhood years in a relocation camp to which the U.S. government had sent Japanese Americans during World War II. The marriage soon ends in divorce.

BibliographyAllen, Paula Gunn. “Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism.” Sinister Wisdom 25 (1984): 34-36. This article, in which Allen discusses what she calls “gynarchial societies,” illuminates Allen’s vision of a holistic female-centered society. She explains the similarities between Native American female-centered traditions and the peace-seeking radical movements of the West. Allen suggests that it is vital for feminists and society in general to turn toward this tradition to heal a warring existence.Allen, Paula Gunn. “Whose Dream Is This Anyway? Paula Gunn Allen: Generation, Regeneration, and Continuance.” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Allen describes the Keres supreme being Grandmother Spider and shows how her novel reflects the relationship between woman lore and the events in an individual’s life. She also discusses time and structure, suggesting that the four geographic locations in the novel parallel the four female life phases in Keres cosmology. Finally, in this short but useful discussion, Allen explains her attempt to emulate the oral tradition and her belief that traditional rituals are life-affirming in whatever form they are presented.Keating, Analouise. Women Reading Women: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, and Audre Lorde. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. Provides an excellent overview of feminist literature written by women of minority cultures. The essay on Paula Gunn Allen focuses on Native American origin myths that emphasize the “mother” aspect of creation. A useful lens through which to view The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.Lang, Nancy H. “Through Landscape Toward Story/Through Story Toward Landscape: A Study of Four Native American Women Poets.” Dissertation Abstracts International 52 (September, 1991): 918A. Although Lang does not discuss The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, she does examine Allen’s poetry in regard to its emphasis on land and the significance land holds in tribal tradition. Intended for academic readers.Scanlon, Jennifer, ed. Significant Contemporary American Feminists: A Biographical Source Book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. The book highlights fifty feminists of the late twentieth century, including Paula Gunn Allen. The entry offers valuable insight into her life, education, work, and accomplishments. Although the entry does not extensively analyze specific novels, it does provide useful information on themes, characters, and other aspects of Allen’s work.Van Dyke, Annete. “The Journey Back to Female Roots: A Laguna Pueblo Model.” In Lesbian Texts and Contexts, edited by Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Van Dyke discusses the basic Pueblo belief system, establishing an understanding of this culture as vital to the understanding of Allen’s novel. The chapter is easily accessible to most readers and thoroughly explores The Woman Who Owned the Shadows as a “ritual handbook” that reclaims “woman-ness” and the importance of female self-affirmation. Van Dyke additionally analyzes how Allen leads the reader through the same healing process as experienced by her protagonist, Ephanie.
Categories: Characters