Image credit: Christopher Felver

Paula Gunn Allen grew up in the 1940s in Cubero, New Mexico, right outside the Laguna Pueblo reservation. Despite mixed heritage (Lebanese-American, Laguna, Sioux, and Scottish), Allen identified most closely with the Laguna Pueblo culture which she grew up in.

Allen initially left college to get married, but after two children and a divorce returned to earn her B.A. in 1966 and then M.F.A. in 1968 from the University of Oregon. By the time she had graduated with her P.h.D. from the University of New Mexico, Allen had published her first book of poetry, The Blind Lion (1974).

Allen’s work is often centered around the intersection of feminism and Native American life. She compiled several anthologies on similar topics, such as Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales & Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989) and Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1974-1994 (1996). She was also a scholar,
breaking ground in the topic of Western patriarchal societies as they affect the view of Native American life. She published The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions in 1986, effectively introducing the topic to scholars in America and prompting similar arguments from her fellow Native American feminists.

Aside from working directly in the literary field, Allen also taught at a number of universities across the United States, including Fort Lewis College in Colorado and UCLA. She served as a professor of English at and American Indian studies at UCLA from 1990-1999 before retiring.

Allen received an American Book Award, the Native American Prize for Literature, the Susan Koppelman Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas in 2001. In 1999, the Modern Language Association awarded her the J. Hubbell Medal for American Literature.

Allen died in California in 2008 at the age of 68 after a long battle with lung cancer, surrounded by family and friends. “This is a profound loss for the American Indian academic and creative community,” said Hanay Geiogamah, interim director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center. “Professor Gunn Allen was one of the most widely respected and accomplished scholars and writers in the history of American Indian studies in this country.”

Video: “The Sacred Hoop” (Part 1), with Dr. Paula Gunn Allen. “In the following radio interview, aired seven months before her death in 2008, Dr. Paula Gunn Allen discusses her love of trees, nature’s sense of humour, and her terror of the sacred.” (There’s also a second part to this interview, which you can listen to here).