Paula Gunn Allen

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Paula Gunn Allen (October 24, 1939 – May 29, 2008) was an American poet, literary critic, activist, professor, and novelist. Of mixed-race European-American, Native American, and Arab-American descent, she identified with her mother's people, the Laguna Pueblo and childhood years. She drew from its oral traditions for her fiction poetry and also wrote numerous essays on its themes. She edited four collections of Native American traditional stories and contemporary works and wrote two biographies of Native American women.

In addition to her literary work, in 1986 she published a major study on the role of women in American Indian traditions, arguing that Europeans had de-emphasized the role of women in their accounts of native life because of their own patriarchal societies. It stimulated other scholarly work by feminist and Native American writers.


  • The planet, our mother, Grandmother Earth, is physical and therefore a spiritual, mental, and emotional being. Planets are alive, as are all their by-products or expressions, such as animals, vegetables, minerals, climatic and meteorological phenomena. Believing that our mother, the beloved earth, is inert matter is destructive to yourself. (There's little you can do to her, believe it or not.) Such beliefs point to a dangerously diseased physicality. Being good, holy, and/or politically responsible means being able to accept whatever life brings and that includes just about everything you usually think of as unacceptable, like disease, death, and violence. Walking in balance, in harmony, and in a sacred manner requires staying in your body, accepting its discomforts, decayings, witherings, and blossomings and respecting them. Your body is also a planet, replete with creatures that live in and on it.
    • Article anthologized in The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women Writing on the Green World edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson (2001)

The Sacred Hoop (1986)[edit]

The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press. 1 September 1992. ISBN 978-0-8070-4617-3. 


  • There is a widespread belief that we, Native American and nonnative alike, have nothing to celebrate. All too many believe we should give forth with great trills of mourning. But it is of utmost importance to our continuing recovery that we recognize our astonishing survival against all odds; that we congratulate ourselves and are congratulated by our fellow Americans for our amazing ability to endure, recover, restore our ancient values and life ways, and then blossom.
  • I am Laguna, woman of the lake, daughter of the dawn, sunrise, kurena. I can see the light making the world anew. It is the nature of my blood and heritage to do this. There is surely cause to weep, to grieve; but greater than ugliness, the endurance of tribal beauty is our reason to sing, to greet the coming day and the restored life and hope it brings.


  • When I was small, my mother often told me that animals, insects, and plants are to be treated with the kind of respect one customarily accords to high-status adults. “Life is a circle, and everything has its place in it,” she would say. That’s how I met the sacred hoop, which has been an integral part of my life.
  • Indians endure—both in the sense of living through something so complete in its destructiveness that the mere presence of survivors is a testament to the human will to survive and in the sense of duration or longevity.
  • American Indians are not merely doomed victims of western imperialism or progress; they are also the carriers of the dream that most activist movements in the Americas claim to be seeking. The major difference between most activist movements and tribal societies is that for millennia American Indians have based their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused world-views.
  • The physical and cultural genocide of American Indian tribes is and was mostly about patriarchal fear of gynocracy. The Puritans particularly, but also the Catholic, Quaker, and other Christian missionaries, like their secular counterparts, could not tolerate peoples who allowed women to occupy prominent positions and decision-making capacity at every level of society. Wives telling husbands and brothers whether to buy or sell an item, daughters telling fathers whom they could and could not murder, empresses attending parleys with colonizers and being treated with deference by male leaders did not sit well with the invaders. The colonizers saw (and rightly) that as long as women held unquestioned power of such magnitude, attempts at total conquest of the continents were bound to fail. In the centuries since the first attempts at colonization in the early 1500s, the invaders have exerted every effort to remove Indian women from every position of authority, to obliterate all records pertaining to gynocratic social systems, and to ensure that no American and few American Indians would remember that gynocracy was the primary social order of Indian America prior to 1800.
  • There is such a thing as American Indian literature, and it can be divided into several interlocking categories. The major divisions are traditional literature and genre literature of the present. Traditional literature can be further divided into ceremonial and popular varieties—that is, into canonical works and those that derive from the canon but that are widely told and appeal to audiences gathered on social occasions. Contemporary works, or genre literature, can be divided into the classic western categories of poetry, short fiction, the novel, and drama, with the addition of autobiography, as-told-to narrative, and mixed genre works. Structural and thematic elements from the oral tradition, usually from the writer’s own tribe, always show up in contemporary works by American Indians, and elements from contemporary, non-Indian works sometimes show up in contemporaneous tribal social literature.
  • The whole body of American Indian literature, from its traditional, ceremonial aspects to its formal literary aspects, forms a field, or, we might say, a hoop dance, and as such is a dynamic, vital whole whose different expressions refer to a tradition that is unified and coherent on its own terms. It is a literary tradition that is breathtaking in its aesthetic realization and fundamental to coherent understanding of non-Indian varieties of American literature.
  • Americans divide Indians into two categories: the noble savage and the howling savage. The noble savage is seen as the appealing but doomed victim of the inevitable evolution of humanity from primitive to postindustrial social orders. The American belief in progress and evolution makes this a particularly difficult idea to dislodge, even though it is a root cause of the genocide practiced against American Indians since the colonial period. This attitude, which I characterize as the Progressive Fallacy, allows American Indians victim status only. And while its adherents suffer some anguish when encountering the brutal facts of exterminationist policies, they inevitably shrug resignedly and say—quite directly—that Indians have to assimilate or perish. So while the Progressives allow the noble savage to be the guardian of the wilds and on occasion the conscience of ecological responsibility, the end result of their view for Indians is the same as its counterpart view of American Indians as howling denizens of a terrifying wilderness.
  • The view of Indians as hostile savages who capture white ladies and torture them, obstruct the westward movement of peaceable white settlers, and engage in bloodthirsty uprisings in which they glory in the massacre of innocent colonists and pioneers is dear to the hearts of producers of bad films and even worse television. However, it is this view that is most deeply embedded in the American unconscious, where it forms the basis for much of the social oppression of other people of color and of women.
  • You can take the Indian out of Indian country but you can’t take the Indian out of the Indian.

Chapter One[edit]

  • In the beginning was thought, and her name was Woman. The Mother, the Grandmother, recognized from earliest times into the present among those peoples of the Americas who kept to the eldest traditions, is celebrated in social structures, architecture, law, custom, and the oral tradition. To her we owe our lives, and from her comes our ability to endure, regardless of the concerted assaults on our, on Her, being, for the past five hundred years of colonization. She is the Old Woman who tends the fires of life. She is the Old Woman Spider who weaves us together in a fabric of interconnection. She is the Eldest God, the one who Remembers and Re-members; and though the history of the past five hundred years has taught us bitterness and helpless rage, we endure into the present, alive, certain of our significance, certain of her centrality, her identity as the Sacred Hoop of Be-ing.
  • There is a spirit that pervades everything, that is capable of powerful song and radiant movement, and that moves in and out of the mind. The colors of this spirit are multitudinous, a glowing, pulsing rainbow. Old Spider Woman is one name for this quintessential spirit, and Serpent Woman is another. Corn Woman is one aspect of her, and Earth Woman is another, and what they together have made is called Creation, Earth, creatures, plants, and light. [...] This spirit, this power of intelligence, has many names and many emblems. She appears on the plains, in the forests, in the great canyons, on the mesas, beneath the seas. To her we owe our very breath, and to her our prayers are sent blown on pollen, on corn meal, planted into the earth on feather-sticks, spit onto the water, burned and sent to her on the wind. Her variety and multiplicity testify to her complexity: she is the true creatrix for she is thought itself, from which all else is born. She is the necessary precondition for material creation, and she, like all of her creation, is fundamentally female—potential and primary. She is also the spirit that informs right balance, right harmony, and these in turn order all relationships in conformity with her law.
  • To address a person as “mother” is to pay the highest ritual respect.
  • The goddess Ixchel whose shrine was in the Yucatán on Cozumel Island, twenty miles offshore, was goddess of the moon, water childbirth, weaving, and love. The combination of attributes signifies the importance of childbirth, and women go to Ixchel’s shrine to gain or increase their share of these powers as well as to reinforce their sense of them. Ixchel possesses the power of fruitfulness, a power associated with both water and weaving and concerned with bringing to life or vitalization. Also connected with Ixchel is the power to end life or to take life away, an aspect of female ritual power that is not as often discussed as birth and nurturing powers are. These twin powers of primacy, life and death, are aspects of Ixchel as moon-woman in which she waxes and wanes, sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. Similarly, her power to weave includes the power to unravel, so the weaver, like the moon, signifies the power of patterning and its converse, the power of disruption.
  • Pre-Conquest American Indian women valued their role as vitalizers. Through their own bodies they could bring vital beings into the world—a miraculous power whose potency does not diminish with industrial sophistication or time. They were mothers, and that word did not imply slaves, drudges, drones who are required to live only for others rather than for themselves as it does so tragically for many modern women. The ancient ones were empowered by their certain knowledge that the power to make life is the source of all power and that no other power can gainsay it. Nor is that power simply of biology, as modernists tendentiously believe.
  • Democracy by coercion is hardly democracy, in any language, and to some Indians recognizing that fact, the threat of extinction is preferable to the ignominy of enslavement in their own land.
  • Now dependent on white institutions for survival, tribal systems can ill afford gynocracy when patriarchy—that is, survival—requires male dominance. Not that submission to white laws and customs results in economic prosperity; the unemployment rates on most reservations is about 50 to 60 percent, and the situation for urban Indians who are undereducated (as many are) is almost as bad.
  • Modern American Indian women, like their non-Indian sisters, are deeply engaged in the struggle to redefine themselves. In their struggle they must reconcile traditional tribal definitions of women with industrial and postindustrial non-Indian definitions. Yet while these definitions seem to be more or less mutually exclusive, Indian women must somehow harmonize and integrate both in their own lives. An American Indian woman is primarily defined by her tribal identity. In her eyes, her destiny is necessarily that of her people, and her sense of herself as a woman is first and foremost prescribed by her tribe. The definitions of woman’s roles are as diverse as tribal cultures in the Americas. In some she is devalued, in others she wields considerable power. In some she is a familial/clan adjunct, in some she is as close to autonomous as her economic circumstances and psychological traits permit. But in no tribal definitions is she perceived in the same way as are women in western industrial and postindustrial cultures.
  • The tribes see women variously, but they do not question the power of femininity. Sometimes they see women as fearful, sometimes peaceful, sometimes omnipotent and omniscient, but they never portray women as mindless, helpless, simple, or oppressed. And while the women in a given tribe, clan, or band may be all these things, the individual woman is provided with a variety of images of women from the interconnected supernatural, natural, and social worlds she lives in.
  • My ideas of womanhood, passed on largely by my mother and grandmothers, Laguna Pueblo women, are about practicality, strength, reasonableness, intelligence, wit, and competence. I also remember vividly the women who came to my father’s store, the women who held me and sang to me, the women at Feast Day, at Grab Days, the women in the kitchen of my Cubero home, the women I grew up with; none of them appeared weak or helpless, none of them presented herself tentatively. I remember a certain reserve on those lovely brown faces; I remember the direct gaze of eyes framed by bright-colored shawls draped over their heads and cascading down their backs. I remember the clean cotton dresses and carefully pressed hand-embroidered aprons they always wore; I remember laughter and good food, especially the sweet bread and the oven bread they gave us. Nowhere in my mind is there a foolish woman, a dumb woman, a vain woman, or a plastic woman, though the Indian women I have known have shown a wide range of personal style and demeanor.
  • I have memories of tired women, partying women, stubborn women, sullen women, amicable women, selfish women, shy women, and aggressive women. Most of all I remember the women who laugh and scold and sit uncomplaining in the long sun on feast days and who cook wonderful food on wood stoves, in beehive mud ovens, and over open fires outdoors.
  • The oral tradition is vital; it heals itself and the tribal web by adapting to the flow of the present while never relinquishing its connection to the past. Its adaptability has always been required, as many generations have experienced. Certainly the modern American Indian woman bears slight resemblance to her forebears—at least on superficial examination—but she is still a tribal woman in her deepest being. Her tribal sense of relationship to all that is continues to flourish. And though she is at times beset by her knowledge of the enormous gap between the life she lives and the life she was raised to live, and while she adapts her mind and being to the circumstances of her present life, she does so in tribal ways, mending the tears in the web of being from which she takes her existence as she goes.
  • My mother told me stories all the time, though I often did not recognize them as that. My mother told me stories about cooking and childbearing; she told me stories about menstruation and pregnancy; she told me stories about gods and heroes, about fairies and elves, about goddesses and spirits; she told me stories about the land and the sky, about cats and dogs, about snakes and spiders; she told me stories about climbing trees and exploring the mesas; she told me stories about going to dances and getting married; she told me stories about dressing and undressing, about sleeping and waking; she told me stories about herself, about her mother, about her grandmother. She told me stories about grieving and laughing, about thinking and doing; she told me stories about school and about people; about darning and mending; she told me stories about turquoise and about gold; she told me European stories and Laguna stories; she told me Catholic stories and Presbyterian stories; she told me city stories and country stories; she told me political stories and religious stories. She told me stories about living and stories about dying. And in all of those stories she told me who I was, who I was supposed to be, whom I came from, and who would follow me. In this way she taught me the meaning of the words she said, that all life is a circle and everything has a place within it. That’s what she said and what she showed me in the things she did and the way she lives.
  • Most Indian women I know are in the same bicultural bind: we vacillate between being dependent and strong, self-reliant and powerless, strongly motivated and hopelessly insecure. We resolve the dilemma in various ways: some of us party all the time; some of us drink to excess; some of us travel and move around a lot; some of us land good jobs and then quit them; some of us engage in violent exchanges; some of us blow our brains out. We act in these destructive ways because we suffer from the societal conflicts caused by having to identify with two hopelessly opposed cultural definitions of women. Through this destructive dissonance we are unhappy prey to the self-disparagement common to, indeed demanded of, Indians living in the United States today. Our situation is caused by the exigencies of a history of invasion, conquest, and colonization whose searing marks are probably ineradicable. A popular bumper sticker on many Indian cars proclaims: “If You’re Indian You’re In,” to which I always find myself adding under my breath, “Trouble.”
  • No Indian can grow to any age without being informed that her people were “savages” who interfered with the march of progress pursued by respectable, loving, civilized white people. We are the villains of the scenario when we are mentioned at all. We are absent from much of white history except when we are calmly, rationally, succinctly, and systematically dehumanized. On the few occasions we are noticed in any way other than as howling, bloodthirsty beings, we are acclaimed for our noble quaintness. In this definition, we are exotic curios. Our ancient arts and customs are used to draw tourist money to state coffers, into the pocketbooks and bank accounts of scholars, and into support of the American-in-Disneyland promoters’ dream.
  • Through all the centuries of war and death and cultural and psychic destruction have endured the women who raise the children and tend the fires, who pass along the tales and the traditions, who weep and bury the dead, who are the dead, and who never forget. There are always the women, who make pots and weave baskets, who fashion clothes and cheer their children on at powwow, who make fry bread and piki bread, and corn soup and chili stew, who dance and sing and remember and hold within their hearts the dream of their ancient peoples—that one day the woman who thinks will speak to us again, and everywhere there will be peace. Meanwhile we tell the stories and write the books and trade tales of anger and woe and stories of fun and scandal and laugh over all manner of things that happen every day. We watch and we wait. My great-grandmother told my mother: Never forget you are Indian. And my mother told me the same thing. This, then, is how I have gone about remembering, so that my children will remember too.

Chapter Two[edit]

  • Literature is one facet of a culture. The significance of a literature can be best understood in terms of the culture from which it springs, and the purpose of literature is clear only when the reader understands and accepts the assumptions on which the literature is based. A person who was raised in a given culture has no problem seeing the relevance, the level of complexity, or the symbolic significance of that culture’s literature. We are all from early childhood familiar with the assumptions that underlie our own culture and its literature and art. Intelligent analysis becomes a matter of identifying smaller assumptions peculiar to the locale, idiom, and psyche of the writer.
  • The great mythic and ceremonial cycles of the American Indian peoples are neither primitive, in any meaningful sense of the word, nor necessarily the province of the folk; much of the literature, in fact, is known only to educated, specialized persons who are privy to the philosophical, mystical, and literary wealth of their own tribe. Much of the literature that was in the keeping of such persons, engraved perfectly and completely in their memories, was not known to most other men and women. Because of this, much literature has been lost as the last initiates of particular tribes and societies within the tribes died, leaving no successors.
  • One’s emotions are one’s own; to suggest that others should imitate them is to impose on the personal integrity of others.
  • The tribes seek—through song, ceremony, legend, sacred stories (myths), and tales—to embody, articulate, and share reality, to bring the isolated, private self into harmony and balance with this reality, to verbalize the sense of the majesty and reverent mystery of all things, and to actualize, in language, those truths that give to humanity its greatest significance and dignity. To a large extent, ceremonial literature serves to redirect private emotion and integrate the energy generated by emotion within a cosmic framework. The artistry of the tribes is married to the essence of language itself, for through language one can share one’s singular being with that of the community and know within oneself the communal knowledge of the tribe. In this art, the greater self and all-that-is are blended into a balanced whole, and in this way the concept of being that is the fundamental and sacred spring of life is given voice and being for all.
  • Those reared in traditional American Indian societies are inclined to relate events and experiences to one another. They do not organize perceptions or external events in terms of dualities or priorities. This egalitarianism is reflected in the structure of American Indian literature, which does not rely on conflict, crisis, and resolution for organization, nor does its merit depend on the parentage, education, or connections of the author. Rather, its significance is determined by its relation to creative empowerment, its reflection of tribal understandings, and its relation to the unitary nature of reality.
  • At base, every story, every song, every ceremony tells the Indian that each creature is part of a living whole and that all parts of that whole are related to one another by virtue of their participation in the whole of being. In American Indian thought, God is known as the All Spirit, and other beings are also spirit—more spirit than body, more spirit than intellect, more spirit than mind. The natural state of existence is whole. Thus healing chants and ceremonies emphasize restoration of wholeness, for disease is a condition of division and separation from the harmony of the whole. Beauty is wholeness. Health is wholeness. Goodness is wholeness. The Hopi refer to a witch—a person who uses the powers of the universe in a perverse or inharmonious way—as a two-hearts, one who is not whole but is split in two at the center of being. The circle of being is not physical, but it is dynamic and alive. It is what lives and moves and knows, and all the life forms we recognize—animals, plants, rocks, winds—partake of this greater life.
  • Because of the basic assumption of the wholeness or unity of the universe, our natural and necessary relationship to all life is evident; all phenomena we witness within or “outside” ourselves are, like us, intelligent manifestations of the intelligent universe from which they arise, as do all things of earth and the cosmos beyond. Thunder and rain are specialized aspects of this universe, as is the human race. Consequently, the unity of the whole is preserved and reflected in language, literature, and thought, and arbitrary divisions of the universe into “divine” and “worldly” or “natural” and “unnatural” beings do not occur.
  • The two forms basic to American Indian literature are the ceremony and the myth. The ceremony is the ritual enactment of a specialized perception of a cosmic relationship, while the myth is a prose record of that relationship. [...] The formal structure of a ceremony is as holistic as the universe it purports to reflect and respond to, for the ceremony contains other forms such as incantation, song (dance), and prayer, and it is itself the central mode of literary expression from which all allied songs and stories derive. The Lakota view all the ceremonies as related to one another in various explicit and implicit ways, as though each were one face of a multifaceted prism. This interlocking of the basic forms has led to much confusion among non-Indian collectors and commentators, and this complexity makes all simplistic treatments of American Indian literature more confusing than helpful. Indeed, the non-Indian tendency to separate things from one another—be they literary forms, species, or persons—causes a great deal of unnecessary difficulty with and misinterpretation of American Indian life and culture. It is reasonable, from an Indian point of view, that all literary forms should be interrelated, given the basic idea of the unity and relatedness of all the phenomena of life. Separation of parts into this or that category is not agreeable to American Indians, and the attempt to separate essentially unified phenomena results in distortion.
  • The purpose of a ceremony is to integrate: to fuse the individual with his or her fellows, the community of people with that of the other kingdoms, and this larger communal group with the worlds beyond this one. A raising or expansion of individual consciousness naturally accompanies this process. The person sheds the isolated, individual personality and is restored to conscious harmony with the universe. In addition to this general purpose, each ceremony has its own specific purpose. This purpose usually varies from tribe to tribe and may be culture-specific.
  • The structures that embody expressed and implied relationships between human and nonhuman beings, as well as the symbols that signify and articulate them, are designed to integrate the various orders of consciousness. Entities other than the human participants are present at ceremonial enactments, and the ceremony is composed for their participation as well as for that of the human beings who are there. Some tribes understand that the human participants include members of the tribe who are not physically present and that the community as a community, not simply the separate persons in attendance, enact the ceremony.
  • We Indians live in a world of symbols and images where the spiritual and the commonplace are one. To you symbols are just words, spoken or written in a book. To us they are part of nature, part of ourselves, even little insects like ants and grasshoppers. We try to understand them not with the head but with the heart, and we need no more than a hint to give us the meaning.
  • One sees life as part of oneself; a hint as to which particular part is all that is needed to convey meaning.
  • In a sense, the American Indian perceives all that exists as symbolic. This outlook has given currency to the concept of the Indian as one who is close to the earth, but the closeness is actual, not a quaint result of savagism or childlike naiveté. An Indian, at the deepest level of being, assumes that the earth is alive in the same sense that human beings are alive. This aliveness is seen in nonphysical terms, in terms that are perhaps familiar to the mystic or the psychic, and this view gives rise to a metaphysical sense of reality that is an ineradicable part of Indian awareness. In brief, we can say that the sun or the earth or a tree is a symbol of an extraordinary truth.
  • Indians believe that the basic unit of consciousness is the All Spirit, the living fact of intelligence from which all other perceptions arise and derive their power.
  • Symbols in American Indian systems are not symbolic in the usual sense of the word. The words articulate reality—not “psychological” or imagined reality, not emotive reality captured metaphorically in an attempt to fuse thought and feeling, but that reality where thought and feeling are one, where objective and subjective are one, where speaker and listener are one, where sound and sense are one.
  • It might be said that the basic purpose of any culture is to maintain the ideal status quo. What creates differences among cultures and literatures is the way in which the people go about this task, and this in turn depends on, and simultaneously maintains, basic assumptions about the nature of life and humanity’s place in it. The ideal status quo is generally expressed in terms of peace, prosperity, good health, and stability.
  • Every tribe has a responsibility to the workings of the universe; today as yesterday, human beings play an intrinsic role in the ongoing creation.
  • Literature must, of necessity, express and articulate the deepest perceptions, relationships, and attitudes of a culture, whether it does so deliberately or accidentally.
  • Underlying all their complexity, traditional American Indian literatures possess a unity and harmony of symbol, structure, and articulation that is peculiar to the American Indian world. This harmony is based on the perceived harmony of the universe and on thousands of years of refinement. This essential sense of unity among all things flows like a clear stream through the songs and stories of the peoples of the western hemisphere. [...] It remains for scholars of American Indian literature to look at this literature from the point of view of its people. Only from this vantage can we understand fully the richness, complexity, and true meaning of a people’s life; only in this way can we all learn the lessons of the past on this continent and the essential lesson of respect for all that is.
  • Ritual provides coherence and significance to traditional narrative as it does to traditional life. Ritual can be defined as a procedure whose purpose is to transform someone or something from one condition or state to another. While most rituals are related in some way to communitas, not all have social relationship and communication as their purpose. Their communitarian aspect derives simply from the nature of the tribal community, which is assumed to be intact as long as the ritual or sacred center of the community is intact. [...] It is not so much an idea of community as it is a tangible object seen as possessing nonrational powers to unite or bind diverse elements into a community, a psychic and spiritual whole. Thus a healing ritual changes a person from an isolated (diseased) state to one of incorporation (health); a solstice ritual turns the sun’s path from a northerly direction to a southerly one or vice versa; a hunting ritual turns the hunted animal’s thoughts away from the individual consciousness of physical life to total immersion in collective consciousness. In tribal traditions beings such as certain people and beasts, the sun, the earth, and sacred plants like corn are in a constant state of transformation, and that transformative process engenders the ritual cycle of dying, birth, growth, ripening, dying, and rebirth. In the transformation from one state to another, the prior state or condition must cease to exist. It must die.
  • Ritual-based cultures are founded on the primary assumption that the universe is alive and that it is supernaturally ordered. That is, they do not perceive economic, social, or political elements as central; rather, they organize their lives around a sacred, metaphysical principle. If they see a cause-and-effect relationship between events, they would ascribe the cause to the operation of nonmaterial energies or forces. They perceive the universe not as blind or mechanical, but as aware and organic. Thus ritual—organized activity that strives to manipulate or direct nonmaterial energies toward some larger goal—forms the foundation of tribal culture. It is also the basis of cultural artifacts such as crafts, agriculture, hunting, architecture, art, music, and literature. These all take shape and authority from the ritual tradition. Literature, which includes ceremony, myth, tale, and song, is the primary mode of the ritual tradition. The tribal rituals necessarily include a verbal element, and contemporary novelists draw from that verbal aspect in their work.
  • From invasion, which stretches from 1492 in the Caribbean to the 1880s in the United States (and is still occurring in parts of Central and South America), onward as far as the colonizers, particularly Americans, were concerned, Native Americans were faced with a choice between assimilation and extinction. This choice, forced on them through wars and policies that made other options such as resistance appear untenable, was eventually accepted as inevitable by many Native Americans.
  • Colonization does not, after all, affect people only economically. More fundamentally, it affects a people’s understanding of their universe, their place within that universe, the kinds of values they must embrace and actions they must make to remain safe and whole within that universe. In short, colonization alters both the individual’s and the group’s sense of identity. Loss of identity is a major dimension of alienation, and when severe enough it can lead to individual and group death.
  • A man who has had a vision is a fully functioning adult, possessing an identity that is of both ritual and practical significance to himself and his peers. [...] Until he has a vision the youth is not an adult, that is, a ritually acknowledged member of his community. He has no adult name, a circumstance that marks him as a “child” who cannot take on his adult responsibilities in the community.
  • The nature of the cosmos, of the human, the creaturely, and the supernatural universe is like water. It takes numerous forms; it evaporates and it gathers. Survival and continuance are contingent on its presence. Whether it is in a cup, a jar, or an underground river, it nourishes life. And whether the ritual traditions are in ceremony, myth, or novel, they nourish the people. They give meaning. They give life.
  • The mythic dimension of experience—the psychospiritual ordering of nonordinary knowledge—is an experience that all peoples, past, present, and to come, have in common.
  • Myth may be seen as a teleological statement, a shaped system of reference that allows us to order and thus comprehend perception and knowledge, as Mann suggests. The existence of mythic structures supposes a rational ordering of the universe. The presence of myth in a culture signifies a belief in the teleological nature of existence and indicates that powers other than those of material existence, or what Carlos Castaneda calls “ordinary reality,” guide and direct the universe and human participation in it. As such myth stands as an expression of human need for coherence and integration and as the mode whereby human beings might actively fill that need.
  • Myth is more than a statement about how the world ought to work; its poetic and mystic dimensions indicate that it embodies a sense of reality that includes all human capacities, ideal or actual. These, broadly speaking, are the tendency to feel or emotively relate to experience and the tendency to intellectually organize it—the religious, aesthetic, and philosophical aspects of human cultures. Human beings need to belong to a tradition and equally need to know about the world in which they find themselves. Myth is a kind of story that allows a holistic image to pervade and shape consciousness, thus providing a coherent and empowering matrix for action and relationship. It is in this sense that myth is most significant, for it is this creative, ordering capacity of myth that frightens and attracts the rationalistic, other-centered mind, forcing it into thinly veiled pejoration of the mythic faculty, alienistic analysis of it, and counter myth-making of its own. Myth, then, is an expression of the tendency to make stories of power out of the life we live in imagination; from this faculty when it is engaged in ordinary states of consciousness come tales and stories. When it is engaged in nonordinary states, myth proper—that is, mystery mumblings—occur.
  • In the culture and literature of Indian America, the meaning of myth may be discovered, not as speculation about primitive long-dead ancestral societies but in terms of what is real, actual, and viable in living cultures in America. Myth abounds in all of its forms; from the most sacred stories to the most trivial, mythic vision informs the prose and poetry of American Indians in the United States as well as the rest of the Americas. An American Indian myth is a story that relies preeminently on symbol for its articulation. It generally relates a series of events and uses supernatural, heroic figures as the agents of both the events and the symbols. As a story, it demands the immediate, direct participation of the listener. American Indian myths depend for their magic on relationship and participation. Detached, analytical, distanced observation of myth will not allow the listener mythopoeic vision. Consequently, these myths cannot be understood more than peripherally by the adding-machine mind; for when a myth is removed from its special and necessary context, it is no longer myth; it is a dead or dying curiosity. It is akin, in that state, to the postcard depictions of American Indian people that abound in the southwestern United States.
  • I have said that an American Indian myth is a particular kind of story, requiring supernatural or nonordinary figures as characters. Further, a myth relies on mystical or metaphysically charged symbols to convey its significance, and the fact of the mystical and the teleological nature of myth is embodied in its characteristic devices; the supernatural characters, the nonordinary events, the transcendent powers, and the pourquoi elements all indicate that something sacred is going on. On literal levels of analysis, the myth tells us what kind of story it is. It focuses our attention on the level of consciousness it relates to us and relates us to. Having engaged our immediate participation on its own level, the myth proceeds to re-create and renew our ancient relationship to the universe that is beyond the poverty-stricken limits of the everyday.
  • The Indian way includes ample room for vision translated into meaningful action and custom and thought, and it is because of the centrality of the vision to the life of the peoples of America that the religious life of the tribe endures, even under the most adverse circumstances. Vision is a way of becoming whole, of affirming one’s special place in the universe, and myth, song, and ceremony are ways of affirming vision’s place in the life of all the people. Thus it renews all: the visionary and his relatives and friends, even the generations long dead and those yet unborn.
  • Myth is a story of a vision; it is a presentation of that vision told in terms of the vision’s symbols, characters, chronology, and import. It is a vehicle of transmission, of sharing, of renewal, and as such plays an integral part in the ongoing psychic life of a people.
  • In Love and Will, Rollo May recounts an experience he had with a Cézanne painting, contending that the painting was “mythic” because it encompassed “near and far, past, present and future, conscious and unconscious in one immediate totality of our relationship to the world.” In this way, myth acts as a lens through which we can discover the reality that exists beyond the limits of simple linear perception; it is an image, a verbal construct, that allows truth to emerge into direct consciousness. In this way, myth allows us to rediscover ourselves in our most human and ennobling dimensions. Through it we are allowed to see our own transcendent powers triumphant; we know, experientially, our true identity and our human capacity that is beyond behaviorism, history, and the machine.
  • Myth functions as an affirmation of self that transcends the temporal. It guides our attention toward a view of ourselves, a possibility, that we might not otherwise encounter. It shows us our own ability to accept and allow the eternal to be part of our selves. It allows us to image a marriage between our conscious and unconscious, fusing the twin dimensions of mind and society into a coherent, meaningful whole. It allows us to adventure in distant, unfamiliar landscapes while remaining close to home. Thus myth shows us that it is possible to relate ourselves to the grand and mysterious universe that surrounds and informs our being; it makes us aware of other orders of reality and experience and in that awareness makes the universe our home. It is a magic: it is the area of relationship between all those parts of experience that commonly divide us from ourselves, our universe, and our fellows.
  • In the myth, and especially the mythopoeic vision that gives it birth, past, present, and future are one, and the human counterparts of these—ancestors, contemporaries, and descendents—are also one. Conscious and unconscious are united through the magic of symbolic progression so that the symbols can convey direct, rational meanings and stir indirect memories and insights that have not been raised to conscious articulation. In mythopoeic vision and its literary counterparts, the near and the far must come together, for in its grasp we stand in a transcendent landscape that incorporates both. Lastly, the mythic heals, it makes us whole. For in relating our separate experiences to one another, in weaving them into coherence and therefore significance, a sense of wholeness arises, a totality which, by virtue of our active participation, constitutes direct and immediate comprehension of ourselves and the universe of which we are integral parts.
  • We are the land, and the land is mother to us all.
  • All tales are born in the mind of Spider Woman, and all creation exists as a result of her naming.
  • The earth is the source and the being of the people, and we are equally the being of the earth. The land is not really a place, separate from ourselves, where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies; the witchery makes us believe that false idea. The earth is not a mere source of survival, distant from the creatures it nurtures and from the spirit that breathes in us, nor is it to be considered an inert resource on which we draw in order to keep our ideological self functioning, whether we perceive that self in sociological or personal terms. We must not conceive of the earth as an ever-dead other that supplies us with a sense of ego identity by virtue of our contrast to its perceived nonbeing.
  • The fragility of the world is a result of its nature as thought. Both land and human being participate in the same kind of being, for both are thoughts in the mind of Grandmother Spider.
  • The true nature of being is magical and that the proper duty of the creatures, the land, and human beings is to live in harmony with what is.
  • While lovelessness is not usually named by sociologists as an aspect of alienation, it may be the primary factor. For without relationships with significant others, meaning, self-esteem, a sense of belonging expressed in the establishment of norms and experienced as a sense of power cannot exist.
  • Perhaps the most destructive aspect of alienation is that: the loss of power, of control over one’s destiny, over one’s memories, thoughts, relationships, past, and future. For in a world where no normative understandings apply, where one is perceived as futile and unwanted, where one’s perceptions are denied by acquaintance and stranger alike, where pain is the single most familiar sensation, the loss of self is experienced continually and, finally, desperately.
  • The traditional tribal concept of time is of timelessness, as the concept of space is of multidimensionality. In the ceremonial world the tribes inhabit, time and space are mythic.
  • Timelessness—that place where one is whole.
  • In the ancient bardic tradition the bards sang only of love and death. Certainly these twin themes encompass the whole of human experience. Loving, celebrating, and joining are the source of life, but they necessarily occur against a background of potential extinction. Thus, these themes become the spindle and loom of the poets’ weavings, for from the interplay of connection and disconnection come our most significant understandings of ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our tradition, our past.
  • We are the dead and the witnesses to death of hundreds of thousands of our people, of the water, the air, the animals and forests and grassy lands that sustained them and us not so very long ago.
  • Reconciling the opposites of life and death, of celebration and grief, of laughter and rage is no simple task, yet it is one worthy of our best understanding and our best effort. If, in all these centuries of death, we have continued to endure, we must celebrate that fact and the fact of our vitality in the face of what seemed, to many, inevitable extinction. For however painful and futile our struggle becomes, we have but to look outside at the birds, the deer, and the seasons to understand that change does not mean destruction, that life, however painful and even elusive it is at times, contains much joy and hilarity, pleasure and beauty for those who live within its requirements with grace.
  • There is a permanent wilderness in the blood of an Indian, a wilderness that will endure as long as the grass grows, the wind blows, the rivers flow, and one Indian woman remains alive.

Chapter Three[edit]

  • The years between time immemorial and the present are long and bloody and filled with despair. But we cannot despair, we children of the mother, Earth Woman, and the grandmother, Thought Woman. American Indian women not only have endured, but we have grown stronger and more hopeful in the past decade. Our numbers grow, our determination to define ourselves grows, and our consciousness of our situation, of the forces affecting it, and of the steps we can take to turn our situation around grows.
  • We are busily stealing the thunder back, so it can empower the fires of life we tend, have always tended, as it was ever meant to.
  • The American Indian people are in a situation comparable to the imminent genocide in many parts of the world today. The plight of our people north and south of us is no better; to the south it is considerably worse. Consciously or unconsciously, deliberately, as a matter of national policy, or accidentally as a matter of “fate,” every single government, right, left, or centrist in the western hemisphere is consciously or subsconsciously dedicated to the extinction of those tribal people who live within its borders.
  • American Indian women struggle on every front for the survival of our children, our people, our self-respect, our value systems, and our way of life. The past five hundred years testify to our skill at waging this struggle: for all the varied weapons of extinction pointed at our heads, we endure. We survive war and conquest; we survive colonization, acculturation, assimilation; we survive beating, rape, starvation, mutilation, sterilization, abandonment, neglect, death of our children, our loved ones, destruction of our land, our homes, our past, and our future. We survive, and we do more than just survive. We bond, we care, we fight, we teach, we nurse, we bear, we feed, we earn, we laugh, we love, we hang in there, no matter what.
  • We are doing all we can: as mothers and grandmothers; as family members and tribal members; as professionals, workers, artists, shamans, leaders, chiefs, speakers, writers, and organizers, we daily demonstrate that we have no intention of disappearing, of being silent, or of quietly acquiescing in our extinction.
  • The genocide practiced against the tribes is aimed systematically at the dissolution of ritual tradition. In the past this has included prohibition of ceremonial practices throughout North and Meso-America, Christianization, enforced loss of languages, reeducation of tribal peoples through government-supported and Christian mission schools that Indian children have been forced to attend, renaming of the traditional ritual days as Christian feast days, missionization (incarceration) of tribal people, deprivation of language, severe disruption of cultures and economic and resource bases of those cultures, and the degradation of the status of women as central to the spiritual and ritual life of the tribes.
  • Patriarchy requires that powerful women be discredited so that its own system will seem to be the only one that reasonable or intelligent people can subscribe to.
  • The oral tradition is more than a record of a people’s culture. It is the creative source of their collective and individual selves.
  • The oral tradition is a living body. It is in continuous flux, which enables it to accommodate itself to the real circumstances of a people’s lives.
  • The cultural bias of the translator inevitably shapes his or her perception of the materials being translated, often in ways that he or she is unaware of. Culture is fundamentally a shaper of perception, after all, and perception is shaped by culture in many subtle ways. In short, it’s hard to see the forest when you’re a tree.
  • No people is broken until the heart of its women is on the ground. Then they are broken. Then will they die.
  • The power of imagination, of image, which is the fundamental power of literature, is the power to determine a people’s fate.
  • Our heart is in the sky. We understand that woman is the sun and the earth: she is grandmother; she is mother; she is Thought, Wisdom, Dream, Reason, Tradition, Memory, Deity, and Life itself.

Interview (1987)[edit]

in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets by Joseph Bruchac

  • My poetry has a haunted sense to it and it has a sorrow and a grievingness in it that comes directly from being split, not in two but in twenty, and never being able to reconcile all the places that I am. I think of it as Wordsworth did when he said we come into this world "trailing clouds of glory," when he said nothing can bring back the hour when we saw "splendor in the grass and glory in the flower." We shall not weep but find strength in what remains behind. That poem-I was in college, I was a sophomore when I read it, and I just wept. I was completely, absolutely desolate because I thought he understood. He understood, of course, in his own way exactly what happens when your reality is so disordered that you can't ever make it whole, but you have the knowledge of what has happened, what has been done.
  • (JB: Certain anthropologists, such as Elsie Clew Parsons, have "written off" Laguna, saying it no longer has a kiva, it's no longer really a Pueblo. Parsons comes close to saying it's not even Indian. How do you respond to that point of view?) ALLEN: I usually laugh because it's such a limited point of view. But then I say, "Okay, why are people always looking further back?" They've got to find a utopia-the perfect place-and Indians always fail them. Indians are always not quite something or other, whatever the something or other is that they want. People will come up to you and say, "There aren't any Indians anymore. You know, Indians put Pampers on their babies! They watch T. V.!" And all of this means that Indians are not Indian to the white world which loves Indians and is looking for the lost noble savage or something like that. I will say Parsons's work in itself indicates that they were so thoroughly primitive, so thoroughly wilderness people, that how she could write them off simply astonishes me.
  • I wouldn't be writing now if Momaday hadn't done that book. I would have died. (JB: What did it do for you?) ALLEN: It told me that I was sane-or if I was crazy at least fifty thousand people out there were just as nutty in exactly the same way I was, so it was okay. I was not all alone. It did that and it brought my land back to me.
  • What the novel does is what novels do and what the critical articles do is what criticism can do and what the poems do is what poems can do. My form is determined by my purpose, my point. They're all writing and that's what I'm doing. I'm a writer. It's like asking a seamstress if making dresses is somehow separate from making skirts and blouses. Sure, one has a waistband that's separate and in the others one part is connected to the other, but it's all sewing.
  • (JB: What is it that is unique and important?) ALLEN: Our spiritual vision, our ability to be fundamentally practical and spiritual because Indian people are practical and spiritual. We don't horseshit around.
  • Ideally, what a writer does is talk to two perspectives. I don't know a writer who doesn't feel essentially alienated and that's what a breed is. It's fundamentally, "I'm not this and I'm not that and I am two of everything."
  • Old women are powerful. They really are powerful. That's not a culture perception, that's a fact. So, what you do with powerful people whom you don't wish to have powerful is you put a mind trick on the whole society. You convince them that those who have power do not have power. You do that by degrading them, trivializing them, disappearing them, and murdering them. They were murdered in great numbers toward the end of the Middle Ages. And that thing is kept up by talking about "old bags" and "old witches" and "old crones" and making fun of them, laughing, and saying, "Don't go near her-she's got the Evil Eye," which is what immigrant populations do. All those sorts of things instill in the minds of all people that old women are not powerful because, of course, they are. If they weren't really powerful, would it be necessary to do all we do to them? It wouldn't be. (JB: Isn't this one of the lessons now being learned by many women in the United States?) ALLEN: Finally. (JB: A lesson that American Indian women could have taught...) ALLEN: If non-Indians had bothered to pay attention. Yes. I think of old women not as grotesque and ugly, but as singular with vibrancy, alive just as the leaves get before they fall...the older you get the more you come into your own and the more your stability increases and your knowledge and your sense of who you are and how things ought to go.

"Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism" (1986)[edit]

  • America does not seem to remember that it derived its wealth, its values, its food, much of its medicine and a large part of its "dream" from Native America. It is ignorant of the genesis of its culture in this Native American land, and that ignorance helps to perpetuate the long standing European and Middle Eastern monotheistic, hierarchical, patriarchal cultures' oppression of women, gays and lesbians, people of color, working class and unemployed people. Hardly anyone in America speculates that the constitutional system of government implaced here might be as much a product of American Indian ideas and practices as it is of colonial American and/or Anglo-European revolutionary fervor. However Indians are officially and informally ignored as intellectual movers and shapers in the United States, Britain and Europe, they are peoples with ancient tenure on this soil. During the ages when the tribal societies existed in the Americas largely untouched by patriarchal oppression, they developed elaborate systems of thought that included sciences, philosophy and governmental systems based on a belief in the central importance of female energies, systems that highly valued autonomy of individuals, cooperation, human dignity, human freedom, and egalitarian distribution of status, goods and services. Respect for others, reverence for life, and as a by-product of this value, pacifism as a way of life, importance of kinship ties and customary ordering of social transactions, a sense of the sacredness and mystery of existence, balance and harmony in relationships both sacred and secular were all features of life among the tribal confederacies and nations. And in those that lived by the largest number of these principles, gynarchy was the norm rather than the exception. Those systems are as yet unmatched in any contemporary industrial, agrarian, or post-industrial society on earth.
  • Beliefs, attitudes and laws such as these resulted in systems that featured all that is best in the vision of American feminists and in human liberation movements around the world. Yet feminists too often believe that no one has ever experienced the kind of society that empowered women and made that empowerment the basis of its rules of civilization. The price the feminist community must pay because it is not aware of the recent if not contemporary presence of gynarchical societies on this continent is unnecessary confusion, division, and much lost time. Wouldn't it be good for feminists to know that there have been recent social models from which its dream descends and to which its adherents can look for models?
  • Not until recently have American Indian women chosen to define themselves politically as Indian women—a category that retains American Indian women’s basic racial and cultural identity but distinguishes women as a separate political force in a tribal, racial, and cultural context—but only recently has this political insistence been necessary. In other times, in other circumstances more congenial to womanhood and more cognizant of the proper place of Woman as creatrix and shaper of existence in the tribe and on the earth, everyone knew that women played a separate and significant role in tribal reality.
  • Ethnohistorians have traditionally assigned male gender to native figures in the documentary record unless otherwise identified. They have also tended to not identify native individuals as leaders unless so identified in the specific source. This policy, while properly cautious, has fostered the notion that all native persons mentioned in the documentation were both male and commoners unless otherwise identified. This practice has successfully masked the identities of a substantial number of Coastal Algonkian leaders of both sexes. And that’s not all it successfully achieves. It falsifies the record of people who are not able to set it straight; it reinforces patriarchal socialization among all Americans, who are thus led to believe that there have never been any alternative structures; it gives Anglo-Europeans the idea that Indian societies were beneath the level of organization of western nations, justifying colonization by presumption of lower stature; it masks the genocide attendant on the falsification of evidence, as it masks the gynocidal motive behind the genocide. Political actions coupled with economic and physical disaster in the forms of land theft and infection of native populations caused the Mid-Atlantic Algonkians to be overwhelmed by white invaders.

Quotes about Paula Gunn Allen[edit]

  • Paula Gunn Allen's description of the tribal culture is helpful in understanding this concept of energy dispersal: "The closest analogy in Western thought is the Einsteinian understanding of matter as a special state or condition of energy. Yet even this concept falls short of the Native American understanding, for Einsteinian energy is essentially stupid, while energy in the Indian view is intelligence manifesting yet another way."
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)

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