June 07, 2008

Paula Gunn Allen dies

Paula Gunn Allen, 68; a key figure in putting Native American literature on the map

The author and educator advocated for the inclusion of Indian voices in the mainstream of American literature.In the 1960s, when some in academia still denied the existence of Native American literature, Paula Gunn Allen embarked on a career that proved them wrong--and altered the required reading lists of literature classes on U.S. college campuses.

The former UCLA professor helped define the canon of Native American literature, encouraged its development by anthologizing new American Indian writers and nurtured a broader audience for the work.

"This is great literature--American literature," Allen said in a 1990 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "What I want from readers is a fundamental recognition that American Indian culture is alive and thriving."

Allen, a leading scholar and feminist who advocated for the inclusion of Native American voices in the mainstream of American literature, died of lung cancer May 29 at her home in Fort Bragg, Calif. She was 68.
Countering the prevailing view of Native women in general:With her 1986 book, "The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions," Allen broke new ground again, countering the stereotypical view of Native American women with provocative essays examining female deities, the honored place of lesbians and the importance of mothers and grandmothers to Indian identity.

One of the most anthologized essays--"Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism"--asserts that early feminists in the United States owe a debt to women of the female-centered Iroquois, who were their role models.

"When Paula was writing this, the portrayal we had of native women was the docile squaw, or the savage woman, as this kind of sexual prey," said Mary Churchill, a former student and long-time friend who now teaches at Sonoma State. Allen showed the women in crucial roles, vital to their societies.
And of Pocahontas in particular:In the 2003 biography "Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat," Allen's Pocahontas bears little resemblance to the Disney version. The author writes of the young girl as a "beloved woman"--an honor given to females with spiritual power who are trained from birth in diplomacy and politics of the Algonquin tribe. She is an ambassador whose actions fulfill a prophecy of the birth of a New World.

"A biography of Pocahontas must tell her life in terms of the myths, the spirits, the supernaturals and the worldview that informed her actions and character," Allen wrote in the introduction.
Comment:  The fellow who claimed Indian cultures were misogynistic apparently didn't read much Paula Gunn Allen.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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