Allen, Paula Gunn. Introduction and “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches in Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale.” The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon P, 1992. 1-7 (Introduction), 222-244. Print.
In her introduction to the updated version of full-length work, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen explains the premise behind the “Sacred Hoop,” or, as Allen’s grandmother once said, “‘Life is a circle, and everything has a place in it’” (1). Allen uses the analogy of the sacred hoop in order to introduce a discussion to traditional American Indian epistemology and to tell her story of becoming a Native American studies scholar. Allen explains that she transitioned from creative writing to teaching in the then-new NA Studies Program at University of New Mexico in the late seventies, then received her P.h.D in the field, and since that time has taught a range of courses in the field, including history, literature, women’s studies, traditional sciences, spirituality, and philosophy. (To note, Gunn sadly passed in 2008.) The introduction to Allen’s work is extremely helpful, as she delineates seven major themes or truths in NA communities that have influenced her work:
- “Indians and spirits are always found together;”
- “Indians endure” in two senses of the word: survival and longevity;
- The tribal lifestyles of most NA communities, historically, are “never patriarchal” and most often are gynocentric—this is a major point that Gunn wants readers to understand, and is direct in her belief of the benefits to this kind of society, for gynocratic elements “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);
- The genocide of Native Americans “was mostly about patriarchal fear of gynocracy” (3);
- “There is such a thing as American Indian literature,” and we can divide it into traditional literature (ceremonial and popular works) and genre literature (contemporary in nature, as in poetry, short fiction, novel, drama, autobiography, and mixed genre) (3);
- Western perspectives and studies of the NA tribal system 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);
- The sacred ways of the NA peoples are similar to other pacifist cultures on the planet, such as the Tibetan culture and tribal peoples in Southeast Asia (5).
To conclude her introduction, she briefly explains her methodology and an essential point for readers to remember: “my method is somewhat western and somewhat Indian. I draw from each, and in the end I often wind up with a reasonably accurate picture of truth…I would caution readers and students of American Indian life and culture to remember that Indian America does not in any sense function in the same ways or from the same assumptions that western systems do” (7).
In the seminal essay “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale” (222-244), Allen demonstrates what a tribal feminism theory looks like, and how we can apply it to NA materials. To start, Allen explains how she came to synthesize feminist theory and tribal epistemology, noting that while it was an uneasy melding, she believes that “both areas were interdependent and mutually significant to a balanced pedagogy of American Indian studies,” and therefore she explains, “if I am dealing with feminism, I approach it from a strongly tribal posture, and when I am dealing with American Indian literature…I approach it from a strongly feminist one” (222). Allen argues that a feminist approach is absolutely essential to the teaching of NA studies, because “the area has been dominated by paternalistic, male-dominant modes of consciousness since the first writings about American Indians in the fifteenth century. This male bias has seriously skewed our understanding of tribal life and philosophy, distorting it in ways that are sometimes obvious but are most often invisible” (222).
In this essay, Allen presents multiple versions of a traditional Keres of Laguna/Acoma Pueblo Yellow Woman story, “Sh-ah-cock and Miochin, or Battle of the Seasons,” which tells the story of Kochinnenako (Yellow Woman), who is the fulcrum between personified Winter, or Sh-ah-cock, and personified summer, or Miochin. Allen gives the version that was first translated by John Gunn (who is her maternal uncle, but who translates and situates the story in a western narrative structure), and then gives the traditional Keres version (as Allen herself translates it). She then provides three different interpretations of the Yellow Woman story and Kochinnenako’s significance in those stories —a traditional Keres interpretation, a modern feminist interpretation, and a feminist-tribal interpretation—in order to demonstrate the immense divide between all three interpretations.
She points out that a western interpretation of the story assumes that “conflict is basic to human existence” (hence John Gunn’s use of the word battle in translated title), and that a western feminist interpretation assumes that “women are essentially powerless” or constantly undermined (hence the need for feminist theory); the feminist-tribal interpretation does not rest on either of these assumptions, and is therefore radically different (237). A tribal-feminist interpretation of this Yellow Woman story would be based around the knowledge that Kochinnenako, or Yellow Woman, represents ritual agency (for the story is not just a story—it is story that is ritual and sacred), and “it is through her ritual agency that the orderly, harmonious transfer of primacy between the Summer and Winter people is accomplished” (238). Additionally, Allen also asserts the political implications of the narrative structure of John Gunn’s translation of the story, which are extremely problematic. Gunn’s translated narrative uses a typical western structure, with a rise, climax, and resolution, but Allen points out that the true Yellow Woman stories are actually “egalitarian” in structure, and to translate or read them in any other way is a further act of colonization (241).
Ultimately, Allen ends her chapter with a discussion of the significance of tribal narratives and of tribal women’s lives in those narratives; Allen urges readers to understand that the analysis she offers of this Yellow Woman story is not just an attempt to understand Yellow Woman’s place in Keres life, but “is about how a people engage themselves as a people within the spiritual cosmos and in an ordered and proper way that bestows the dignity of each upon all with careful respect, folkish humor, and ceremonial delight…It is about propriety, mutuality, and the dynamics of socioenvironmental change” (244). These elements are the fundamental elements of a tribal-feminist analysis.