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Category: Art and Entertainment, Great Women

Her Pueblo Round Place-A Remembrance of Paula Gunn Allen

| June 24, 2008

It was the summer of 1973 when I first met Paula Gunn Allen, the teacher and poet who was destined to create on her own terms a scholarly framework for native women’s culture. I was hugely pregnant, and Paula was still recovering from the death of one of her twin sons. We were two Indian students in a summer school class at the University of New Mexico, in what was probably one of the earliest attempts at an American Indian literature course. The professor knew nothing concrete about Indians or our literatures. She was either very brave or foolish, for in those times we had been admonished that no such thing as American Indian literature existed. She was non-Indian, which gave her more credibility. Still, the course held a glimmer of what might be possible.

We had no idea where the journey would take us after we left class that summer. I had just begun to write poetry. Paula was writing creatively to save her life, even as she jumped hoops to garner what she needed for her PhD in American Studies at the university. She had to convince the field that native literature was a genuine body of literature, worthy of study. For her mother’s people, the Laguna Pueblo people, words were alive and those stories and songs, or poetry that defined and took care of the spirit of the people, deserved to be acknowledged and honored by study. How do you translate this into academic terms?

When the field of native literature blew open in the later seventies, Paula was there to help anchor its place in the academy. The 1983 publication of Studies on American Indian Literature, Critical Essays and Course Designs, for which she was editor, laid the foundation for the study of American Indian literatures. “This was completely her vision,” says Patricia Smith, her longtime friend and colleague, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico. “Of Paula’s accomplishments, probably this is the most important one, the most seminal…”

Paula’s second landmark publication, an investigation into a native women’s feminism, naturally emerged in times in which the question of women’s rights in Indian Country became subsumed by the struggle for basic rights, for survival, in the midst of massive social change. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, published in 1986, became the standard for anyone teaching feminist or native contemporary culture or literature. In this collection of scholarly essays, Paula constructed a Laguna Pueblo female scholarly context, as she examined female deities, the honored place of lesbians and the importance of the female in indigenous cultures. The book provoked controversy even as it established itself as a classic.

Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Short Stories by American Indian Writers gave many native writers their start in publishing. She was generous in this way. She published six volumes of poetry, including Life is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1962-1995 and Skins and Bones.

In her last celebrated book, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat, Paula flips the Disney Barbie doll image of Pocahontas and renews a female native image of woman to honor the Algonquin Beloved Woman, Pocahontas, and to give an image of empowerment to her descendents. All native women in this country are essentially Pocahontas’s descendents.

Her final book of poetry, America the Beautiful, is forthcoming from West End Press.

Paula inspired many devoted students. As her former UCLA colleague and boss, Thomas Wortham, says: “The learned life for Paula was never something abstract, but always personal, spiritual.” This characterized her teaching. She never quite fit squarely in the rigid terms of the academy. She made her own Pueblo round place.

Throughout the years of our friendship, when we’d meet up at various women’s, native or literary conferences, the circumstances always amused us: two native writers who had no idea of what was to come. As I search back through memories, through online tributes, through many of the 17 books of scholarly and creative works that she authored, I hear Paula’s distinctive laugh. Her laughter could fly through closed doors. It was a witty and outrageous laugh. When I call Patricia Smith to verify a story, she tells me, “It’s her laugh I will miss.” We laugh. So will I.

Paula was awarded the prestigious Hubbell Medal from the Modern Language Association for lifetime achievement in American literary studies in 1999. The citation read: “To say that Paula Gunn Allen is multi-talented and to claim that she has had a major impact on the field of American literature are two statements that vastly over-simplify and understate her stature and importance.

“In fact, what can accurately be said of Paula Gunn Allen—that her work as a poet and novelist helped create basic texts in Native American literature and that her work as critic and anthologist has been instrumental in promoting the study and understanding of that literature—cannot be said of many other academics in any field, let alone in American literature.”

What it didn’t say was our friend, mentor, mother, teacher, poet, and writer Paula was a paradoxical whirlwind. She was also the rebellious scholar, the sensitive mystic, the independent survivor, the iconoclastic feminist, and the adventurous intellect who always did everything her own way, with no apology.  Even her last message contains remnants of her laugh:

“My goal in death is to die calmly and peacefully, and I don’t intend to spend the next few months in turmoil. I want to die a sacred death. I want everyone to know I have enjoyed every cigarette I have smoked!”

I can’t help but think of how seven years after Paula was born in 1939, the first nuclear bomb exploded in a test at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. The people in the Laguna village of Cubero, the village where Paula was raised, saw the flash of this terrible blast. They still speak of it. At seven you move out from your inner circle into the village. She moved into the community with the burden of this prophetic flash.

May your journey continue beautifully, Paula, with singing, with laughter…

Even so, the spirit voices are singing,
their thoughts are dancing in the dirty air.
Their feet touch the cement, the asphalt
delighting, still they weave dreams upon our
shadowed skulls, if we could listen.
If we could hear.
–Paula Gunn Allen

(from “Kopis’taya, a Gathering of Spirits”)

The Paula Gunn Allen Online Memorial is a site for family, friends, colleagues, and admirers of the American Indian scholar and poet. Paula joined the Ancestors on May 29, 2008 at her home in Ft. Bragg, California, after a long battle with illness. Her family has established a scholarship in Paula’s name. Donations may be sent to: Institute For Indigenous Knowledges, 1536 W. 25th St. #120, San Pedro, CA 90732 (310) 221-0057.

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