PAULA GUNN ALLEN, native American poet and essayist, born (d: 2008) ; a Native American poet, literary critic activist and novelist Gunn was born Paula Marie Francis in Albuquerque. She grew up in Cubero, New Mexico, a Spanish-Mexican land grant village bordering the Laguna Pueblo reservation. Of mixed Laguna, Sioux, Scottish, and Lebanese-American descent, Allen has always most closely identified with the people among whom she spent her childhood and upbringing.
Having obtained a BA and MFA from the University of Oregon, Allen gained her PhD at the University of New Mexico, where she taught and where she began her research into various tribal religions. Allen’s studies would eventually result in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, a controversial text which argues that the accounts of Native beliefs and traditions were subverted by phallogo-centric European explorers and colonizers, who downplayed or erased the central role that woman played in most Native societies. Allen argued that many Native tribes were “gynocratic”, with women making the principal decisions, while others believed in absolute balance between male and female, with neither side gaining dominance.
Allen’s arguments and research have been much criticized in the years following publication of The Sacred Hoop. Gerald Vizenor and others have accused her of a simple reversal of essentialism, while historians and anthropologists have disproved or questioned some of her scholarship. However, her book and subsequent work has also proved hugely influential, provoking an outpouring of feminist studies of Native cultures and literature. It remains a set text within many Native American Studies and Women’s Studies programs.
Allen wrote many essays of literary criticism. These often stressed the sacredness of Native religions, attempting to ensure that these are treated as religions rather than being patronized as “folklore” or “myths”. She was awarded an “American Book Award” by the Before Columbus Foundation, the Native American Prize for Literature, the Susan Koppelman Award, and in 2001 she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americas. She was a Writing Fellow of the Lannan Literary Foundation. She died May 29, 2008 at her home in Fort Bragg, Calif., following a prolonged illness. She was 68 and was survived by her children, Lauralee Brown and Suleiman Allen; two granddaughters; two sisters; and one brother. Two sons, Fuad Ali Allen and Eugene John Brown, preceded her in death.