Foremothers, Forerunners: A Review of ‘The Sacred Hoop’

“A landmark collection which may prove as important to American Indian women as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex has been for Western non-tribal women.”
New Directions for Women

Paula Gunn Allen. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press, 1992. ISBN: 0-8070-4617-5. 311 pp. 

Donovan Cleckley, Tulane University 

Originally published in 1986, Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop provides a brilliantly detailed exploration into female-centered social systems among Indigenous people. I consider this text one of critical importance to women’s studies. Allen’s work shares with us a greater, more nuanced understanding of the matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal nature of many Indigenous communities. As a girl, Allen learned about her Indigenous heritage from her mother, who came from the Laguna Pueblo community located in west-central New Mexico, close to Albuquerque. A professor who earned her PhD at the University of New Mexico, Allen draws from not only anthropological and sociological sources but also her personal background as a woman of Indigenous lineage educated in gynocratic rituals and traditions.  

The Sacred Hoop contradicts patriarchal, westernized retellings about Indigenous societies and cultures by arguing that, instead of being mostly patriarchal, Indigenous communities were, as Allen posits, mostly traditionally female-centered. Aside from the purpose of Allen’s book being to represent gynocracy as central to Indigenous communities, this work holds significance to any scholars interested in a deeper account of sex roles, gendered relations, and cultural practices within Indigenous communities. In its emphasis upon female-centered rituals and traditions, Allen’s Sacred Hoop coincides with themes explored in her 1983 novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows and her 1998 collection of essays Off the Reservation as well as in her poetry.  

At the beginning of Allen’s book, in the section of the text named “The Ways of Our Grandmothers,” she emphasizes the centrality of the mother within Indigenous traditions in North America. She argues that “there is reason to believe that many American Indian tribes thought that the primary potency in the universe was female” (26). These communities rooted their rituals and traditions in this gynocratic thinking. However, Allen does not universalize all communities as either “matriarchal” or “patriarchal.” “Male dominance,” Allen writes, perhaps characterized some communities, but it was by no means as pervasive “as colonialist propaganda has led us to believe” (32). Indeed, she argues that the colonial gaze contributes to the false assumption of perpetual patriarchies among colonized peoples. In addition, although distinct communities see women in different ways, pertaining to their relations and roles, “they never portray women as mindless, helpless, simple, or oppressed” (44). Women, Allen writes, see various images of themselves, a collection of humanizing portrayals, which do not exclusively represent the female sex as primarily an object of male desire. 

While the first section of Allen’s book provides readers with a critical understanding of gynocracy as central to Indigenous rituals and traditions, the section named “The Word Warriors” involves studies of traditional and contemporary Indigenous literature. Allen critiques the representations of Indigenous people through a biased, westernized perspective. She writes that portrayals of the Indigenous subject as a “primitive, Earth-loving guru” and as a “cosmic victim” derive from a “white consciousness” (77-78). Such representations, whether seen as conservative or liberal in nature, further colonize the colonized, both physiologically and psychologically, since colonization also impacts one’s sense of self. Allen provides her own novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, as being exemplary of how “women’s rituals are traditionally centered on continuance,” forming a web of lives woven together (98). This continuity, an interconnectedness, corresponds with her discussions elsewhere in this section. “Belonging,” Allen writes, “is a basic assumption for traditional Indians,” with “estrangement” seen as “abnormal” (127). Indigenous communities emphasize wholeness, the coming together of the self with others in the community, as opposed to people living as dismembered parts. 

Toward the end of Allen’s book, after her critical discussions of texts written by and about Indigenous writers, she explicitly turns her attention toward the lives of Indigenous women. This section involves writings that pertain to her increasing social and political consciousness in relation to the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly her lesbian feminist politics. Here, as with other places in the book, Allen addresses “image casting” and “image control,” which propagate images of Indigenous people such that they appear as one-dimensional objects of shock or scorn, rather than multidimensional human beings (192). “The colonizers’ revisions of our lives, values, and histories have devastated us at the most critical level of all⁠—that of our own minds, our own sense of who we are,” Allen writes (193). Colonization, as we see, wholly impacts the physical and the mental, in the drive toward alienation and annihilation. 

Further, she provides more evidence supporting her argument for the way in which patriarchy took the rightful place of gynocracy. She adds that, although women in contemporary Indigenous societies occupy traditional caregiving and nurturing roles, usually as “helpmates” to men, “they no longer enjoy the unquestioned positions of power, respect, and decision making on local and international levels that were not so long ago their accustomed functions” (202). This point appears even more developed in the chapter, “Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism,” in which she shows us the interconnectedness between the early women’s movement and the Indigenous women with whom white women associated. Of course, as Allen writes, “little is made of these encounters in official histories of colonial America” (216). Such an acknowledgment of these connections would destabilize the racial borders strategically used, under patriarchy, to keep white women separated from Indigenous women. 

As we see from Allen’s writing, The Sacred Hoop can lead to expanding feminist critical consciousness, illuminating the vital role of Indigenous, woman-centered, traditional cultural practices in the foremothering of feminist politics. From Allen’s discussions of lore and myth, her critiques of patriarchal westernized representations of Indigenous culture, and her research into gynocratic cultural practices, she shares with us a rich, critical text with broader applications regarding how we see our relations to the present, the past, and the future. Allen’s Sacred Hoop would be of great intellectual value to any woman, as it would be an experience of consciousness raising as she returns, perhaps for the first time, to the primacy of the mother.

Categories Women’s Studies and Feminist Theory
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