Paula Gunn Allen (1939-2008)

By Betty Booth Donohue

By Carla Mulford

6 June 2008

For those who may not have heard, Paula Gunn Allen died May 30th and I am posting a memorial about her. For anyone wanting more information the site is available along with

Betty Booth Donohue

Laguna writer, critic, feminist, instructor, and American Indian Studies program conceptualist, Paula Gunn Allen, died Friday, May 30, 2008 in her home at Fort Bragg, California. She leaves behind a host of former students and intellectual followers whose academic mindsets have been molded by her thought. In 1977, she directed the first Modern Language Association-National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar on modern American Indian Literature. Later she edited a volume resulting from that seminar, a work entitled Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (1983). Many of the participants in this seminar became leaders in the field of American Indian literature and the volume they produced became the gold standard for American Indian Studies programs and critical approaches to the field.

Her first major work, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986) takes readers to Thought Woman aka Spider Woman aka Selu aka Ever Changing Woman and advises them to learn from the sacred oral tradition and to respect the feminine half of existence. Perhaps more important, this work establishes the notion that American literature is informed by American Indian literature and visibly operates in the works of writers ranging from Cotton Mather to William Carlos Williams. Paula’s emphasis upon the significance of American Indian literature to the American canon opens her work to Early Americanists who must keep in mind the Native perspective present in America’s first writings. She has insisted that we see beyond the howling savage and the noble savage and find the human. In the last several days following her death, critics like Carla Mulford and Joanna Brooks have pointed out that one consequence of her work has been seeing more traditional indigenous texts anthologized as “early American,” and that trend has helped those who teach the colonial era approach it with respect for Native peoples and with a deeper appreciation for American culture before Contact.

After the publication of The Sacred Hoop, other volumes followed: Grandmother’s of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Source Book; Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature 1900-1970; Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing, Loose Canons; and Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat. Of course there are many other publications and a fairly complete list can be found at her Wikipidia entry.

The reason for this particular memorial, however, is to state that Paula inspired some of us who work in the field of Early Americana. We knew her personally, loved her, and respected her work which influences our own. Regardless of our various disciplines, Paula kept us centered on the notion that American Indians are the nation’s dream carriers and we must advocate for political, educational, and social systems that are sustainable to the earth and balanced in terms of gender and race.

Because we knew her, we were aware that Paula’s last years here were laden with sorrow. One of her sons died; her home with its contents was completely destroyed by fire; she was diagnosed with terminal illness; and she survived a serious automobile crash. When we learned of her closely approaching passing, we reacted viscerally. At the end she asked only for corn songs, but I had a protection ceremony performed for her; Stephanie sent a shawl to replace the one the fire took; and Joanna composed a magnificent poem which truly captures the Paula we knew, a woman whose, as Joanna puts it, “fierce love

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the thoughtworlds colonists could not claim”. Despite our grief at her passing, we smile fondly and remember that Paula said once:

walking on water
isn’t too difficult
there is a certain
spider does it all the time
(plane and angle to be properly
it’s what they said
the surface tension
creates its own momentum
making many things

These words we take to heart, and may Spider Woman’s granddaughters continue their spinning.




2 June 2008

Dear colleagues,
A friend wrote to me a few days ago to let me know that Paula Gunn Allen has passed on. I remember quite well getting to know her work, at the time I had signed on to handle the colonial materials for the Heath Anthology of American Literature, before it *was* the Heath anthology. Paula Gunn Allen’s work
helped me come to know and understand better the cultures of indigenous peoples of the Americas, as I struggled to find a way toward speaking about the difficult colonial past. I credit my Heath Anthology colleagues Dan Littlefield and Paul Lauter for suggesting that reading her writings would help me find a way to talk about what was on my mind. I found a notice about Paula on NativeWiki. It’s here:

Paula died from cancer-related illness. Her spirit remains.
Best wishes,

Carla Mulford
Department of English
Pennsylvania State University

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