Episode 48

The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, by Paula Gunn Allen

Published on: 7th September, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be reading The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, by Paula Gunn Allen, written in 1986. My reading partner is the amazing Sherrie Crawford, whom listeners will remember from way back at the beginning of the podcast on our episodes on Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy! Welcome back, and thank you so much for being here, Sherrie!! 

Sherrie: Hi Amy, thanks for having me! (or whatever you want to say) :)

Amy: And can I start by sharing something really quick? I was recently talking with a friend about the feeling of discovering that women had come before us and made huge intellectual and psychological contributions that we didn’t even know about and therefore weren’t able to benefit from… and she said “it’s like that part in the movie ‘Moana’ - Moana has been drawn to the sea for her whole life, not really knowing why, but she feels like it’s her power and her destiny… but she’s all alone in that calling. Then she goes into that cave and sees the ships of her ancestors and she’s like “WHAT??? Why didn’t anyone tell me we are literally descended from voyagers??”  I think that analogy is powerful for all women as we become educated about our intellectual foremothers, but I thought of you specifically, Sherrie. Because in those first episodes, you shared as part of your biography that the side of your family that you thought was “Spanish” was actually both Spanish and Native American, and that had a huge emotional impact on you. And this book shares how so many Native American cultures, before European colonization, were matrifocal, matrilineal cultures that were much more egalitarian than the European cultures that oppressed them. So for me it’s kind of poetic and emotional to call all of these women on the podcast “my foremothers” - they are spiritual foremothers. But for you they are not just your emotional, intellectual foremothers - they are your literal, genetic ancestors. And I kept thinking of Moana singing “We are descended from voyagers” and thinking of you discovering your foremothers. 


  • Grandma Lucero: “We are Spanish people,” and you have the Spanish red hair
  • Your siblings have darker hair, complexions, so they have moved through the world differently than you have - they look more Latino
  • 23 and Me test - not Mexican ancestry, but Pueblo Nation in New Mexico
  • Class at BYU-I: The Spanish conquered and enslaved the Pueblo Nation in New Mexico

It’s interesting to think about how we view maps and borders between countries: New Mexico was Mexico for so long, and before it was Mexico, the borders between nations were different too. I had thought of “Native American” as different from “indigenous Mexican,” but really our current borders have nothing to do with the pre-European-imposed borders. 

Sherrie: Naturally, I struggle with borders, or divisions between lands, schools, teams, families.  My nature wants more inclusion everywhere, and the whole notion of an arbitrary boundary feels false or unnecessary.  I really do love maps though.  Before we sell or own land, it has to belong to someone, but who says who that original someone is?  The whole concept is weird.    

Amy: Ok, so before we get into the book, let’s talk a bit about this author: who she is and why she wrote The Sacred Hoop. 


This biography is taken mostly from a tribute to Paula Gunn Allen on the occasion of her death, on her website, www.paulagunnallen.net.

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.  She was also a founding mother of the contemporary women’s spirituality movement.  Her most recent work, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat (2004, Harper-Collins), received a Pulitzer Prize nomination.  The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986, Beacon), a collection of critical essays, is a cornerstone in the study of American Indian culture and gender.  Her edited anthology Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs (1983, MLA) laid the foundation for the study of Native American literature, and she promoted and popularized the works of other Native American writers through several anthologies, which are listed on our website, [Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1974-1995 (1996, Ballantine); Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970 (1994, Ballantine); and Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989, Ballantine Books), which received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation]  and she also authored multiple books: Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing, Loose Canons (1998, Beacon); As Long as the Rivers Flow: The Stories of Nine Native Americans (with Patricia Clark Smith) (1996, Scholastic Press), and Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook (1992, Beacon Press).


A prolific writer, Allen published six volumes of poetry: Life Is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1962-1995 (1997, West End Press); Skins and Bones (1988, West End Press); Wyrds (1987, Taurean Horn); Shadow Country (1982, University of California Indian Studies Center); A Cannon Between My Knees (1981, Strawberry Press); Blind Lion (1974, Thorp Springs Press).  [and]  America the BeautifulAnd The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, a novel, was published in 1983 (Aunt Lute Books).  Her creative and critical work has been widely anthologized.


Allen 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. She taught at Ft. 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.  In 1999, she retired from the University of California, Los Angeles as a professor of English, Creative Writing, and American Indian Studies.


Allen received many awards, including postdoctoral fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation-National Research Council, the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies from the Modern Language Association, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, the Susan Koppelman Award from the Popular and American Culture Associations, the Native American Prize for Literature, and most recently a Lannan Foundation Fellowship.


She passed away at her home in Ft. Bragg, California, on May 29, 2008, after a prolonged illness at the age of 68.  Family and friends surrounded her at the time of her passing. She is survived by a daughter, Lauralee Brown (Roland Hannes), a son, Suleiman Allen (Millisa Russell), two granddaughters, two sisters, and one brother.  Two sons, Fuad Ali Allen and Eugene John Brown, preceded her in death. 



I also think this summary from Wikipedia is helpful as we start:

Based on her own experiences and her study of Native American cultures, Paula Gunn Allen wrote The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986). 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 the 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.

The American Indian Movement ("AIM") has itself been criticized by feminists as being sexist. In spite of this, 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 Studies and Women's Studies programs.



So with that background established, let’s get into the book! We’ll take turns sharing chapters that spoke to us, and I’ll start with the introduction.


Introduction: Talks about three main themes:

First, connection to nature:

When I was small, my mother often told me that animals, insects, 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. (1)


I am especially fortunate because the wind and the sky, the trees and the rocks, and the sticks and the stars are usually in a teaching mood; so when I need an answer to some dilemma, I can generally get one. For which I must say thank you to them all. (7)

I just re-read the letters of Sarah Grimke in 1838, where she was writing a rebuttal to a minister who was telling his congregations not to listen to women who had the audacity to speak in public on political topics. He wrote a letter that said in all caps, “if you have a question, you must go to your PASTOR, not to a woman.” That quote provides such a contrast between the two world-views! 

Second: Women’s involvement in many traditional Native American cultures

Before I read this one, I’ll remind us of some of the word definitions that we talked about at the beginning of the podcast. 

There were and are gynocracies - that is, woman-centered tribal societies in which matrilocality, matrifocality, matrilinearity, maternal control of household goods and resources, and female deities of the magnitude of the Christian God were and are present and active features of traditional tribal life. (3-4)


Traditional tribal lifestyles are more often gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal. These features make understanding tribal cultures essential to all responsible activists who seek life-affirming social change that can result in a real decrease in human and planetary destruction and in a real increase in quality of life for all inhabitants of planet earth. (2)

This takes us back to the very first episode, The Chalice and the Blade, where we talked about ancient “partnership cultures,” which were overrun by “dominator” cultures. Riane Eisler’s subtitle of The Chalice and the Blade is “Our Past: Our Future.” Perhaps The Sacred Hoop can be seen as the “Western Hemisphere” version of a very similar story. 

And as a matter 

Tribal gynocracies prominently feature even distribution of goods among all members of the society on the grounds that First Mother enjoined cooperation and sharing on all her children. (3)


Third, the impact of European colonizers on Native American cultures

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. (3) 


Western studies of American Indian tribal systems are erroneous at base because they view tribalism from the cultural bias of patriarchy and thus either discount, degrade, or conceal gynocratic features or recontextualize those features so that they will appear patriarchal. (4)


Grandmother of the Sun: Ritual Gynocracy in Native America

“At the center of all is Woman, and no thing is sacred without her blessing, her thinking.”

“To assign to this great being the position of ‘fertility goddess’ is exceedingly demeaning; it trivializes the tribes and it trivializes the power of woman. Woman bears, that is true. She also destroys. That is true. She also wars, and hexes and mends and breaks. She creates the power of the seeds, and she plants them.” 

“To address a person as ‘mother’ is to pay the highest ritual respect.”

“The rains come only to peaceful people.” 

“Among the Pueblo of the American Southwest are two notable traditional offices: That of the cacique, who was charged with maintaining internal harmony, and that of the hotchin or “war captain” whose office was concerned with mediating between the tribe and outsiders.” “This dyadic structure, which emphasizes complementarity.”


When Women Throw Down Bundles: How Native American nations were subjugated (and again, this is the story told from the point of view of a Native American, and a woman. When do we ever hear of the conflict from that perspective? Never!!

The Iroquois story is currently one of the best chronicles of the overthrow of the gynocracy. Material about the status of women in [many nations] are lacking. Any original documentation that exists is buried under the flood of readily available, published material written from the colonizer’s patriarchal perspective, almost all of which is based on the white man’s belief in universal male dominance. Male dominance may have characterized a number of tribes, but it was by no means as universal as colonialist propaganda has led us to believe. (32)

...Under the old laws, the Iroquois were a mother-centered, mother-right people whose political organization was based on the central authority of the Matrons, the mothers of the Longhouses (clans). 

....At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Americans declared the Iroquois living on the American side of the United States-Canadian border defeated. Pressed from all sides, their fields burned and salted, their daily life disrupted, and the traditional power of the matrons under assault from the missionaries who flocked to Iroquois country to “civilize” them, the recently powerful Iroquois became a subject, captive people. ...The Longhouse declined in importance, and eventually iroquois women were firmly under the thumb of Christian patriarchy. (33)

Gunn then talks about the Algonquin people, who were described by the conquering Europeans as only having male chiefs, but she says that this is because that’s what they expected to see - they assumed universal male leadership so they ignored tons of evidence that there were also female chiefs and what is translated as the title of “Empress.” In addition, every person’s name that the Europeans didn’t know or understand, they recorded as male, and as a commoner in society. Gunn says:

“This falsifies the record of a people who are not able to set it straight; it reinforces patriarchal socialization among all Americans, who are thus led to believe that there have never been any alternative structures.” (36)

She offers another example of women’s power:

Cherokee women had the power to decide the fate of captives, decisions that were made by vote of the Women’s Council and relayed to the district at large by the War Woman or Pretty Woman. The decisions had to be made by female clan heads because a captive who was to live would be adopted into one of the families whose affairs were directed by the clan-mothers. The clan mothers also had the right to wage war, and...Indian women were famous warriors and powerful voices in the councils.  (36)


By the time the Removal Act was under consideration by Congress in the early 1800s, many of these British-educated men and men with little Cherokee blood wielded considerable power over the Nation’s policies.

In the ensuing struggle women endured rape and murder, but they had no voice in the future direction of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee were by this time highly stratified, though they had been much less so before this period, and many were Christianized. The male leadership bought and sold not only black men and women but also men and women of neighboring tribes, the women of the leadership retreated to Bible classes, sewing circles, and petticoats that rivaled those worn by their white sisters. 

Then Allen describes how the Cherokee women married white ministers, and their culture completely disappeared. (37)

“The last ‘Beloved Woman’ [those are the warriors who take part in the great councils] resigned her office in 1817, sending her...vote on important questions to the Cherokee Council, and ‘thus renounced her high office of Beloved Woman, in favor of written constitutional law.” (38)

The next part talks about the process of transforming the Native American societies to European societies, and again, I couldn’t believe how similar this was both to the Chalice and the Blade, with the dominator societies coming in and obliterating the partnership societies, and also, Sherrie, how similar it was to the process that we discussed in Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy! Remember how we talked about the goddess-worshipping cultures of the Middle East, and how other groups came in and cut down their shrines and killed everyone, including the women and children? And then they replaced their female deities with male deities? Here is what Paula Allen describes in the Americas during the past few hundred years:

Effecting the social transformation from egalitarian, gynocentric systems to hierarchical, patriarchal systems requires meeting four objectives. 

  • The first is accomplished when the primacy of female as creator is displaced and replaced by male-gendered creators. 
  • The second objective is achieved when tribal governing institutions and the philosophies that are their foundation are destroyed, as they were among the Iroquois and the Cherokee. She goes on to say that Democracy by coercion is hardly democracy, in any language, and to some Indians recognizing that fact, the threat of extinction is preferable to the ignominy of enslavement in their own land.
  • The third objective is accomplished when the people are pushed off their lands, deprived of their economic livelihood, and forced to curtail or end altogether pursuits on which their ritual system, philosophy, and subsistence depend. Now dependent on white institutions for survival, tribal systems can ill afford gynocracy when patriarchy - that is, survival - requires male dominance. (42)
  • The fourth objective requires that the clan structure be replaced. … the women clan heads are replaced by elected male officials and the psychic net that is formed and maintained by the nature of non authoritarian gynocentricity grounded in respect for diversity of gods and people is thoroughly rent. (42)


Where I Come From Is Like This 

A modern American Indian woman’s experience

“The tribes see women variously, but they do not question the power of femininity. Sometimes they see women as fearful, sometimes peaceful, sometimes omnipotent and omniscient, but they never portray women as mindless, helpless, simple, or oppressed.”

“My mother told me stories all the time… in all of those stories she told me who I was, who I was supposed to be, whom I came from, and who would follow me. In this way she taught me the meaning of the words she said, that all life is a circle and everything has a place within it.”

“Menstruation was a normal occurrence…” “Menstrual taboos were about power, not about sin or filth.” 

It goes on to describe women in their differing stages of fertility as each individually essential to sacred ritual. “Each ritual depends on a certain balance of power, and the positions of women within the phases of womanhood are used by tribal people to empower certain rites.”

Bicultural bind leads to acting out. “We act in these destructive ways because we suffer from the societal conflicts caused by having to identify with two hopelessly opposed cultural definitions of women.”


How the West Was Really Won

I want to share two main points from this chapter: 

  1. Along with the devaluation of women comes the devaluation of traditional spiritual leaders, female and male, and largely because of their ritual power and status, the devaluation of lesbian and gay tribal members as leaders, shamans, healers, or ritual participants. 

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 [if you count homosexual men as women and lesbians as men, which they did] - 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. 

In considering gender-based roles, we must remember that while the roles themselves were fixed in most archaic american cultures, with divisions of ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work,’ the individuals fit into these roles on the basis of proclivity, inclination, and temperament. Thus men who in contemporary European and American societies are designated gay or homosexual were gender-designated among many tribes as ‘women’ in terms of their roles; women who in contemporary societies are designated as lesbians were designated as men in tribal cultures. 

Allen talks about people having kind of a “vibe” - if you had a female “vibe” then you were designated a female, and if you had a male “vibe,” you were designated a male, and you could live that way your whole life! Doing the things that felt most natural to you, without stigmatization. 

The Yuma had a tradition of gender designation based on dreams; a female who dreamed of weapons became a male for all practical purpose. … the Cocopah… gender-role designation was based on the choice of companions and play objects of a young person. In such systems a girl who chose to play with boys or with boys’ objects such as a bow and arrow became a male functionary. 

The Navajo… considered lesbians an asset, and The Mohave… thought that from the inception of the world homosexuals were a natural and necessary part of society. (197)

Recently, Russell Means of the American Indian Movement - a man not always noted for his liberal attitudes toward women and other devalued individuals - said, in defense of homosexuals and their anciently valued place among the people: “The Indian looked upon these unique individuals as something special the Great Mystery created to teach us. These people had something special to tell us. And the Oglala Sioux holy man John (Fire) Lame Deer said, “To us a man is what nature, or his dreams, make him. We accept him for what he wants to be. That’s up to him… There are good men among the winktes and they have been given certain powers.” 

  1. The second point I want to highlight is Allen’s attribution of violence against women to European misogyny. 

As we articulate a feminine analysis of the effects of colonization, we are more and more able to demonstrate that the colonizer’s image of Indian women has, more than any other factor, led to the high incidence of rape and abuse of Indian women by Indian men. This violent behavior is tacitly approved of by the tribes through the refusal of tribal governments across the country and in urban Indian enclaves to address the issue and provide care, shelter, and relief for the women victims and competent, useful treatment for the offenders. The white and recently Indian image of powerful Indian women as traitors is another chapter in the patriarchal folktale that begins with Eve causing Adam’s fall from grace into divine disgrace.

(More on violence against women on pp 191-192)


Angry Women are Building

Amy: That brings us to the end of our discussion. Sherrie, what would you say is one of your takeaways?

Sherrie: Takeaway

What is a takeaway for you?


Two things. 

  1. So much grief. So much despair, and I do feel a sense of responsibility for the suffering that “my people” inflicted upon the first inhabitants of this land. My girls, Lindsay and Lucy have each developed a deep sensitivity to the ongoing oppression of Native Americans, and I remember going on a walk with Lindsay one time and she just sobbed and said “we live on stolen land.” It weighs on her really heavily, and on Lucy as well, and both of them have helped our family to be more aware and more thoughtful, especially around Thanksgiving time and things like that. If readers are interested in reading more about that, there’s a really important article called “Thanksgiving: A Day of Grief and Gratitude” on the website “Native News Online.” https://nativenewsonline.net/opinion/thanksgiving-a-day-of-grief-and-gratitude?fbclid=IwAR0xcIEQgFTonJSaQcuXPT6TOe3eleGw7TwPSYYu1YqQ9JXqt11zg3bfggU

  1. The power of stories. What if we grew up hearing the story that gay people were unique, special souls that had something to teach us? If that’s different from the story you grew up with about homosexuality, take a second to let that story sink in. What if, instead of an origin story of where humans came from where all the heroes are male and the only woman is the one who brings about the Fall of human beings and then brings about the cursing of all women…. What if you had a story like this?

This is a passage in the chapter “The Ways of Our Grandmothers.”

In the beginning was thought, and her name was Woman. The Mother, the Grandmother, recognized from earliest times into the present among those peoples of the Americas who kept to the eldest traditions. ...To her we owe our lives, and from her comes our ability to endure, regardless of the concerted assaults on our, on Her, being, for the past five hundred years of colonization. She is the Old Woman who tends the fires of life. She is the Old woman Spider who weaves us together in a fabric of interconnection. She is the Eldest God, the one who Remembers and Re-members; and though the history of the past five hundred years has taught us bitterness and helpless rage, we endure into the present, alive, certain of our significance, certain of her centrality, her identity as the Sacred Hoop of Being. (11)

Amy: Sherrie, thank you so much for joining me today. I am so grateful for your perspective!

Sherrie: Thank you, Amy!!

Amy:  Next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be reading the incredibly important document, the “Declaration of the Elimination of Violence Against Women,” issued by the United Nations in 1993. Since its founding the United Nations had concerned itself with the advancement of women's rights, but it had never specifically targeted violence against women until this declaration. This discussion will be raw and will require courage to listen to. But because violence affects so many women worldwide - and always has - it is a critical listen. You can find the speech online on the UN website, so read it and then join us for the discussion of the “Declaration of the Elimination of Violence Against Women,” next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy,

Compost Pile


In contemporary times those who view Indians as hostile savages paint modern Indian people as worthless, alcoholic, and lazy, unwilling to join in the general progressiveness and prosperity that is the main index of the righteousness of the American dream. Allied with the view of the Indian as the hostile savage is the common practice (I should say obsession) of proving that Indians mistreat their women brutally, at every level and in every way - the implication begin that civilized people revere women, and savages, who don’t revere them, deserve extermination. This unstated but compelling rationale for genocide is at the bottom of the academic, political, and popular attempts to paint Native American cultures as patriarchal when they are not. (5) 




Next Episode All Episodes Previous Episode

Listen for free

Show artwork for Breaking Down Patriarchy

About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

Profile picture for Amy Allebest

Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.