Episode 48: The Sacred Hoop, by Paula Gunn Allen

The Sacred Hoop

The Book

In 1986, Paula Gunn Allen wrote The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions based on her own experiences and studies. This groundbreaking work argued that the dominant cultural view of Native American societies was biased and that European explorers and colonizers understood Native Peoples through a patriarchal lens. Gunn described the central role women played in many Native American cultures, including roles in political leadership, which were either downplayed or missed entirely by explorers and scholars from male-dominated European cultures. Allen argued that most Native Americans at the time of European contact were matrifocal and egalitarian, with only a small percentage reflecting the European patriarchal pattern. Allen’s book and subsequent work has proved highly influential, encouraging other feminist studies of Native American cultures and literature, including an emergence of Indigenous feminism. It remains a classic text of Native American Stsudies and Women’s Studies programs.

The Author

Paula Gunn Allen was born Paula Marie Francis, to Elias Lee Francis, former Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico, and Ethel Francis, in 1939. She grew up on the Cubero land grant in New Mexico, which is a Spanish-Mexican land grant village bordering the Laguna Pueblo reservation. Allen was of mixed Laguna, Sioux, Scottish, and Lebanese-American descent, and she always identified most closely with the Laguna, among whom she spent her childhood. Both her father’s Lebanese and her mother’s Laguna Pueblo heritages shaped her critical and creative vision. Allen was a powerful voice in Native American literature and the study of American literature, and a founding mother of the contemporary women’s spirituality movement. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, a collection of critical essays, is a cornerstone in the study of American Indian culture and gender. A prolific writer, Allen also published many other nonfiction works as well as six volumes of poetry. She received her BA degree in English in 1966 and her MFA in creative writing in 1968, both from the University of Oregon. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies in 1976 from the University of New Mexico, and taught at universities in Colorado, California, and New Mexico prior to joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where she became a professor of Native American and Ethnic Studies. In 1999, she retired from the University of California, Los Angeles as a professor of English, Creative Writing, and American Indian Studies. She passed away at her home in Ft. Bragg, California, on May 29, 2008, after a prolonged illness at the age of 68.

“The colonizers saw (and rightly) that as long as women held unquestioned power…, attempts at total conquest of the continents were bound to fail. In the centuries since the first attempts at colonization in the early 1500’s, 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.”

The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen

Our Guest

Sherrie Crawford

Sherrie Crawford was born in Utah, the fifth of six children, and grew up in Arizona. She graduated from BYU-Idaho with a degree in Social Work, and completed a Master’s degree in Social Work from Boise State University. She is an elementary school counselor, and lives in Idaho with her husband and four children. Sherrie enjoys spending time with her family and friends, hiking, nature, adventures, learning, and any time spent in any body of water.

“When I was small, my mother often told me that animals, inssects, 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.”

The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen

Amy’s Takeaways

My most important takeaway from this book was the realization that because the “dominator” culture is the one that writes the history books, we often learn about subjugated cultures through the lens of their oppressors. Paula Gunn Allen writes that one of the biggest errors European colonizers committed was misunderstanding (and perhaps even purposely erasing) the “partnership,” egalitarian aspect of many Native American cultures. It was an honor for me to learn more about the beautiful beliefs and practices of indigenous Americans, and all the more meaningful to do so alongside my dear friend Sherrie, whose ancestors on her mother’s side were of the Pueblo Nation. Sherrie is always so insightful and so deeply compassionate, it was a privilege to hear her takeaways from this important (and personally significant) book.

“Colonization means the loss not only of language and the power of self-government but also of ritual status of all women and those males labeled ‘deviant’ by the white Christian colonizers. The usual divisions of labor—generally gender-based—were altered, prohibited, or forced underground, from whence they have only recently begun to reemerge as the tribes find themselves engaged in a return to more traditional ways of life.”

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