Paula Gunn Allen. Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing, Loose Canons. Beacon Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-8070-4641-8. 262 pp.
Donovan Cleckley, Tulane University
Paula Gunn Allen’s book, Off the Reservation, continues themes previously explored in her 1986 book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Although seemingly more autobiographical in nature, more so than in The Sacred Hoop, this collection of essays marks yet another of Gunn Allen’s valuable contributions to cultural studies. What seems of value to comprehending this text, as it relates to her other works, is the interwovenness of the themes of creation, emergence, and migration, themes characteristic of Keres Pueblo lore. Toward the beginning, Gunn Allen defines for us what she means by “off the reservation.” According to her, this expression “designates someone who doesn’t conform to the limits and boundaries of officialdom, who is unpredictable and thus uncontrollable,” those “seen as threats to the power structure”: “mavericks, renegades, queers” (6). Such a person, if described in this way, does precisely as Gunn Allen herself does in crossing many borders, busting many boundaries, and loosening many canons.
Consisting of nineteen separated, although simultaneously intersecting, pieces of writing, Off the Reservation, as a text, appears organized into three main sections: “Haggles/gynosophies,” “Wyrds/orthographies,” and “La Frontera/na[rra]tivities.” While distinct, the sections commune, bringing into vision the value of both difference and similarity. As Gunn Allen writes: “For our future good depends as much on our recognizing our vast differences as on recognizing our powerful similarities” (8). Although, as seems sensible for our sake, we shall not be concerned with the specifics of each of the nineteen works, we will be considering specific themes that give her book its quality of being that which is precisely neither this nor that. For Gunn Allen, the composition of the text, as a voice composed of many voices, becomes harmonious in how each part holds its meaning distinctly in relation to the other parts of the whole.
Beginning with “Notes Toward a Human Revolution,” Gunn Allen calls for the abandonment of “the essential paradigm of Domination/Submission in all of its forms” (18). This social structure of domination and submission, she argues, must be overthrown through undoing our own fetishism of property, literacy, and separatism. Gunn Allen brings our attention to the necessity for communion and cooperation against the American Individual Ethic that emphasizes the superiority of the individual and the inferiority of the community. Likewise, in “The Savages in the Mirror,” she writes that “America needs a way to understand how society and community can function harmoniously” (33). She adds that the self can be more than self-referential and isolated, which is profoundly limiting; rather, the self can establish its meaning in relation to others woven together within the community. Then, loneliness becomes a lie.
Continuing the previous themes, in “American Indian Mysticism,” Gunn Allen discusses how spirituality and mysticism among Indigenous people are, in a vital sense, communitarian. Everyone in the community feels a sense of duty to the other members in that community, without an emphasis on individuals rising as superior over others (47). “Haggles” carries these ideas, in that Gunn Allen emphasizes, once again, relationality as essential to true human community. Referencing “the sacred hoop,” “the order of the Grandmother Gods,” she adds that “whatever something is at a given moment in relationship to everything else makes it what it is” (63). Contrary to the Abrahamic tradition, one’s meaning neither exists as predetermined, before the fact of life, nor does one’s meaning exist by egoism. Indeed, how one exists in relation to others, one’s communion within the whole as a part in the whole, gives the meaning of life to the self.
What becomes apparent, at least in my reading of Gunn Allen’s work, is how her feminist ethics neither persecutes natural human differences as unnatural nor colonizes Nature herself; in fact, at every turn, she criticizes the dissociation between society and community, body and mind. In “Father God and Rape Culture,” she defends “the fact of difference,” notably that “women and men are fundamentally, essentially, and eternally not the same” (74). She makes this assertion against the prevailing “anti-essentialism” that, ironically, in essentially seeing difference as oppressive, undermines human revolution precisely through the monstrousness of monolithism. An emphasis upon oneness and unity, over difference and multiplicity, can harm more than help, destroying the possibility of difference in a misguided ideology of monotony. Indeed, far from being radical, it can be instrumental in perpetuating paradigms of Domination/Submission, the subjection of womankind to mankind. Paired with the previous essay, and the related ones within the section, in “The Woman I Love Is a Planet; The Planet I Love Is a Tree,” Gunn Allen writes about the importance of recognizing the aliveness of our Grandmother Earth. Although we are not her, we are “integral expressions of her thought and being,” as our bodies are precious in our connection to the planet (120). She argues that we, as human beings, must see ourselves as mutually interconnected, not perpetually isolated, in relation to all life blooming around us.
Moving from “Haggles” to “Wyrds,” we see the subject change to Gunn Allen’s criticism of the literary tradition, particularly her emphasis on what she envisions as a “literary participatory democracy” (“Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?” 147). Her essay “Thus Spake Pocahontas” discusses the positionality of women of color in a literary tradition in which they find themselves treated as marginal, or alienated, rather than as simply human. Subversion, Gunn Allen says, might be a byproduct of writing from the margins, but it cannot be the endgame, even as it can be a step toward transformation toward critical consciousness. She writes of advice that her mother gave her when she faced injustice, adding that “the way to liberation from oppression and injustice is to focus on one’s own interest, creativity, concerns, and community” (175). Insofar as we exclusively concern ourselves with how others use their voices, we forget to use our own, to engage in self-determination against others who seek domination over us.
Where Gunn Allen begins Off the Reservation with a call for how valuing our vast differences proves as essential as valuing our powerful similarities, she ends the text, in “La Frontera,” with an affirmation of the interconnectedness of all the different parts of herself. “My life is the pause. The space between. The not this, not that, not the other,” she writes. “The place that the other go around. Or around about. It’s more a Möbius strip than a line” (188). Her life is that frontier of the self, that in-between-ness, relative to all other pieces that form the being of herself, related to all other interlocking lives around her being. Sharing more of her mother’s advice, Gunn Allen adds: “It is simply recognizing that one’s self is inviolate; the private soul is private, not public. It’s neither commodity nor consumable” (“Going Home, December 1992” 225). And this reflection, in its simplicity, marks the rejection of possessiveness and proprietorship not only over the land around us but also the lives about us. As with Gunn Allen’s Sacred Hoop, Off the Reservation presents communitarian reality as central to a human revolution, a world where the paradigm of Domination/Submission ceases to strangle all human life. Sameness does not seem necessary, even desirable, for wholeness, when differences come together and our meaning, as human beings, occurs within the context of our communion together.