1999-Paula Gunn Allen

Report of the Hubbell Committee

This year’s Hubbell Award committee was composed of Shari Benstock, Thadious Davis, Judith Fetterley, Rafael Perez-Torres, Eric Sundquist, and Jackson R. Bryer, chair. After what has seemingly become an annual intense and close contest focusing on several worthy recipients, this year’s winner emerged. She is Paul Gunn Allen, recently retired as Professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles.


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. When one adds to these roles those of feminist, political activist, and theorist, we begin to see just how Paula’s work has reflected and attempted to reconcile a number of the developments and tensions in our field over the last four decades.

In many ways, as with so many of the writers we teach and study, a good deal of what Paula became can be traced directly to where she came from and who she is. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1939, she grew up in Cubero, a small town in northern New Mexico that abuts the Laguna Reservation, the Acoma Reservation, and the Cibola National Forest. As she has said in many interviews, one of her most enduring images and metaphors is the road which ran in front of her house. In one direction it led to the hills and the mountains and in the other to “the highway, . . .the urban Western World.” For most of her creative life, Paula has tried to negotiate her way between these two destinations, the one reflecting her Native American heritage and the other the “civilizing” forces of the dominant culture. This negotiation was made more complicated by her upbringing and background in what she calls a “confluence of cultures.” Her mother, Ethel Haines Gottlieb, was a Laguna half-breed of Scotch-American, Laguna, and German Jewish extraction; her father, Elias Lee Francis, was a Lebanese-American who didn’t speak English until he was nine or ten and was raised Roman Catholic. As she has said about her childhood, “My life was more chaos than order in any ordinary American, Native American, Mexican-American, Lebanese-American, German-American, any heathen, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, aesthetic sense.” She is, she points out, “a multi-cultural event” who can “attest to the terrible pain of being a bridge.”

And it is as a bridge that Paula has functioned in her creative and critical careers. After early Catholic schooling and two years at Colorado Women’s College, she married, had two children, and got divorced. Returning to Albuquerque, she studied for two years with poet Robert Creeley and fell under the spell of Olson, Ginsberg, Levertov, and the other Black Mountain poets who were her early literary models. It was not until the late 1960s, when she was living in Eugene and getting an MFA at the University of Oregon, that she read N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and found her voice as a Native American writer. Momaday’s novel, she says, saved her life because “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 brought my land back to me.”

Thereafter, Paula stopped trying to adapt her writing to Euro-centric Western literary conventions and instead wrote out of her own multi-cultural Native American background. She published four small books of poetry– The Blind Lion (1974), Coyote’s Daylight Trip (1978 ), A Cannon Between My Knees (1981), and Star Child (1981)–and one larger volume of verse, Shadow Country (1982), which received an honorable mention from the National Book Award Before Columbus Foundation. During this time also, in 1975, she earned a Ph.D. in American Studies with an emphasis on Native American Studies from the University of New Mexico–the first advanced degree in Native American studies awarded anywhere in the world. When she arrived at the University in 1969, she told the graduate dean that she wanted to get a Ph.D. in English with a focus on Native American literature and he told her that there was no such thing; that is why her degree is in American Studies.

After completing her doctorate, Paula taught at San Diego State University, the College of San Mateo, and San Francisco State University (where she was the department chair of American Indian Studies). In the summer of 1977, she directed for the MLA and the NEH the first curriculum development seminar on American Indian literature, the results of which were published in her ground-breaking edition, Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (1983), a volume which laid the groundwork for the field of Native American studies in the academy. From 1982 to 1990, she taught at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1983, her autobiographical novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows appeared; and in 1986, her major critical study, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, was published (a revised edition appeared in 1992).

Next came two more books of poetry, Wyrds (1987) and Skins and Bones (1988), followed by the first of her anthologies, Spider Woman’s Granddaughter (1989), a collection of contemporary and traditional writing by Native American women which won the American Book Award. Her two other major anthologies are Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature 1900-1970 (1994) and Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature 1974-1994 (1996). Taken together, these volumes have pretty much defined the canon of modern Native American literature and are a perfect example of Paula’s unselfish desire to promote the work and the community of Native American writers. Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1968-1995 appeared in 1996; in the same year, she co-wrote with Patricia Clark Smith As Long As the River Flows: The Stories of Nine Native Americans . Her most recent book is Off-Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing Loose Canons.

Paula Gunn Allen has received many honors. Besides the American Book Award already mentioned, she has been awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship (1977), the Native American Prize for Literature for her life’s work (1990), the Susan Koppleman Award (twice), the Vesta Award for Essay Writing (1991), the Southern California Women for Understanding Award for Literature (1992), and an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Mills College (1995).

As important as Paula’s work has been in giving a voice to Native Americans, especially women, and in providing them with valid venues in which to write about their experiences, she has played just as important a role in making Native American texts accessible and relevant to persons outside her community. In fact, Paula’s technique in bridgebuilding has been to stress similarities, not differences. As she has pointed out, “I think that Native American literature is useful to everybody who’s trying to move from one world to another. And in America, certainly that’s two-thirds of us.”

So now we are back to the image of the road outside Paula’s childhood home which ran between the mountains and civilization. Because she did not choose either of these destinations exclusively, she has been able to act as the intermediary between those two worlds. The world of the “big city” is grateful to her for introducing it to the culture and voices of her native peoples; but just as surely her Native American brothers and sisters are in her debt for making sure that their voices are heard outside their villages–in classrooms, libraries, bookstores, and communities throughout the world. For what she has done for Native American studies and for what Native American studies has done for the study of American literature, we are pleased to present Paula Gunn Allen with the 1999 Jay B. Hubbell Award.

Jackson R. Bryer

A note from Professor Allen, read at the Section’s 1999 Awards Ceremony

I am very sad that I cannot be with you for this occasion. The years have been very demanding, and have, I’m afraid, taken their toll on my body. On the other hand, my spirit is feeling rather accomplished and very gratified!

Although I can’t be here to greet you all and have a party, alas, I have sent my very able young colleague, Dr. Karen Wallace, to accept the medal on my behalf. Dr. Wallace graduated from UCLA with her Ph.D. in English in 1998, and gained an appointment at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Her dissertation (happily under my direction, lucky me!) focused on Erdrich’s Love Medicine quartet and its place within the context of Western literature. I am as impressed with her accomplishments as a representative of the direction studies in American literature will take in the next thirty years as I am with the impressive body of work, literary and critical, that have been published and re-issued over the preceding thirty.

Professor Karen Wallace’s prefatory comments:

It is a pleasure to accept this medal on behalf of Dr. Gunn Allen. I am so proud of her and grateful to the American Literature division for recognizing Dr. Gunn Allen’s contributions to the discipline of English in general, to American literature in particular. Dr. Gunn Allen has become a close friend, but it is because of her mentoring, support and encouragement that I now, too, have a career in literary studies. Of all the qualities that she embodies, it is her generosity of spirit that most impresses me. She does all she can for her colleagues and her friends, rarely making a distinction between the two. She is a formidable scholar and artist and I’m honored to share her acceptance speech with you.

Professor Allen’s Acceptance Speech

The contemporary phase of American Indian literary studies began a bit over thirty years ago when the Pulitzer committee awarded Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday its prize for literature for his first novel, House Made of Dawn . Up until then, we were history. Or folklore. And while those days are barely past–or one hopes they are past–I remember not so long ago looking for a copy of Love Medicine at a bookstore in a trendy coastal town in northern California. I located it, along with some other novels and contemporary poetry by American Indian writers, on the Anthropology shelf. Indeed, it seems like only yesterday when the MLA American Indian Discussion Section was attended by literary folk arguing about whether there were any real Indians anymore. At my first session, in 1975 or ’76, one querent after another had an opinion about Native customs and beliefs because, as they would begin, “I know an Indian and he told me . . .”

That session, as I recall, featured Michael Dorris, anthropology, Randall Ackerman, I think he was in ethnopoetics, and myself, graduate student in American Studies. I think the only truly critical paper I had yet heard was one given by Elizabeth Cook Lynn at a somewhat earlier Four C’s conference on Percussive Verse and James Welch’s poetry. This was around 1974, I think, and it was my first trip to New York City. I was overwhelmed–not only by the convention, which was crush enough, but by the great megalopolis. Just the sight from my hotel window of bright yellow streets that moved and honked endlessly day and night was enough to frighten this girl from a mountain village. On top of that, those writhing, bellowing streets would regularly begin to buck and rumble underfoot. The subway, I was assured, but that was hardly reassuring. At the time I thought San Francisco, where I was then living, was terrifyingly huge. Imagine my reaction to Manhattan. The good part was that after three days in Gotham, San Francisco seemed like a small town. I also got to hang out with some great people, and put my foot one more beginning step down the long road of my career and of the rise and flow of American Indian Literary Studies.

I must say, it’s been a truly amazing adventure, a wild west version of Ms.Toad’s Wild Ride. Along the way, the Modern Language Association was providing a vehicle, gas, and a number of intrepid companions, so that by now our discipline is a recognized one, and it is that recognition we are honoring on this occasion.

I am moved and energized that the American Literature branch of literary studies, by way of its Hubbell Medal, has bestowed its recognition on me, as a visible representative of all of our efforts as poets, writers, and scholars. That it has recognized our efforts to move the voice of Native America into the mainstream of American Literary studies, and in that recognition, found us successful. When we began, there was little in print, and even less critical attention given our poetry, prose, drama, and traditional literatures. Now, some thirty years after the publication of House Made of Dawn we are gifted by an almost but not quite embarrassment of riches. I expect, given the work of my generation of writers and scholars, and the even more focused and wide ranging works of the newer players on our ancient and thoroughly modern stage, that we will enjoy such a wealth of poetry, fiction, drama, and film that, were we to recognize it potlach style, the bonfire would be a towering inferno.

So with my grateful and very honored thanks to the Hubbell Medal committee, the American Literature contingent of the Modern Language Association, the Committee on the Literatures and Languages of the Americas, on which I served and which has served our discipline so well, let us enter the new century of American Literary Studies with renewed commitment to developing critical strategies that further illuminate the multitudinous voices of American letters. In a century the Hubbell Telescope will have brought back megatons of pictures and information from the physical universe, and the writers of the Americas, central among them the first American storytellers, haatali and bards, will have retrieved megatons of information about the inner universe of human consciousness. Da-WAH-eh, and dew-ai-SCHATS.

Paula Gunn Allen (Shimanna)