Paula Gunn Allen, a retired UCLA professor of English and American Indian studies and one of the foremost voices in Native American literature, died May 29 at her home in Fort Bragg, Calif., following a prolonged illness. She was 68.
A prolific writer and editor, Allen was widely recognized as a leading scholar of Native American and American literature whose work was influential in advancing the field of Native American studies and promoting and popularizing the works of Native American writers.
She was the editor of the seminal 1983 anthology "Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs," which helped lay the foundation for the study of Native American literature, and the author of "The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions," a collection of critical essays published in 1986 that is today regarded as a cornerstone in the study of American Indian culture and gender. Her most recent work, "Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat" (2004), told the story of the beloved Indian woman from a Native American perspective.
"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."
When Allen was awarded the prestigious Hubbell Medal from the Modern Language Association for lifetime achievement in American literary studies in 1999, the citation read: "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."
Allen published six volumes of poetry, including "Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1962–1995" (1997) and "Skins and Bones" (1988). Her latest book of poetry, "America the Beautiful" is forthcoming from West End Press.
Born Paula Marie Francis in 1939, Allen grew up on the Cubero Land Grant in New Mexico, the daughter of Elias Lee Francis, a former lieutenant governor of New Mexico, and Ethel Francis. Both her father's Lebanese background and her mother's Laguna Pueblo–Mtis–Scots heritage shaped her critical and creative vision.
Allen received a bachelor's degree in English in 1966 and a master's in creative writing in 1968, both from the University of Oregon. She earned her doctorate in American studies in 1976 from the University of New Mexico. Allen taught at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, the College of San Mateo, San Diego State University, San Francisco State University and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, prior to joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where she became a professor of Native American and ethnic studies.
She taught at UCLA from 1990 to 1999.
Allen was a mentor to various doctoral students now teaching American Indian and women's studies, English, and other disciplines across the country. Thomas Wortham, former chair of the UCLA English department, recalled the impact she had on the university.
"When Paula arrived at UCLA she was sublimely misfitted to be a professor in this particular department of English, and it was for this reason I came to value her, first as her colleague, then later as her 'boss,'" he said. "She grounded us (or was it that she sky-ed us), at least those of us who could reach down (or up) in our imaginations."
"The learned life for Paula was never something abstract, but always personal, spiritual," Wortham said.
Allen received many awards, including postdoctoral fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Research Council, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship.
Allen is survived by her children, Lauralee Brown and Suleiman Allen; two granddaughters; two sisters; and one brother. Two sons, Fuad Ali Allen and Eugene John Brown, preceded her in death.
Funeral services were held June 2 in Fort Bragg. A memorial service in Northern California is tentatively scheduled for mid-July. Updated information will be posted at www.paulagunnallen.net. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to a scholarship fund they are establishing in Allen's honor: Institute for Indigenous Knowledges, 1536 W. 25th St. #120, San Pedro, CA 90732.