‘To foster future generations of Native feminist leaders’AcademicFaculty and Staff
Paula Gunn Allen (1939–2008) was a groundbreaking Indigenous scholar, writer, feminist and UCLA professor of English and American Indian studies (see sidebar). This year, the professorial Paula Gunn Allen Chair was established in the UCLA Department of Gender Studies to honor her legacy.
Its inaugural holder is anthropologist Shannon Speed, who has directed UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center since 2016, holds appointments in the UCLA College’s departments of American Indian studies, anthropology and gender studies, and currently serves as one of two special advisors to the chancellor on Native American and Indigenous affairs.
“I am grateful to the department of gender studies and its chair, Sherene Razack, for understanding why the creation of this chair in Paula’s name mattered, and for doing the work to see it through to becoming a reality,” said Speed, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. “In this role, I hope to bring increased attention to the ongoing crisis of violence against Indigenous women and also to foster future generations of Native feminist leaders.”
In an interview, Speed shared more about the importance of this honorary chair, how Allen inspired her own personal and professional journey, and why now is a great time to be a Native Bruin.
What does it mean to you to hold the Paula Gunn Allen Chair in Gender Studies?
It is hard to express how proud I am. We all hold multiple, intersecting identities, but if I had to choose a word or two to define myself, they would be “Native feminist.” Paula called herself that and embodied it through her work. Holding a chair in her name reminds me of the responsibility we bear as Native feminists to enact our values through our scholarship, through our relations and for future generations.
How did Paula Gunn Allen’s work affect you personally and professionally?
Paula’s work was tremendously influential for me at a very formative time. As an undergraduate at San Francisco State, I was struggling — as perhaps all young adults do — to understand myself and my experience in relation to the world. As a survivor of gender violence, I read feminist work voraciously, seeking to understand gender oppression, and very much defined myself as a feminist. As a Native person far from their tribal community, I read Native American studies equally voraciously and was often struck by its masculinist bent. Indeed, it was a time when prominent Native American women from the Red Power movement were rejecting feminism as Western and asserting that they were American Indian first, prioritizing the struggle for sovereignty over the demands of gender equality. Then there was Paula and “The Sacred Hoop.” Here was a Native scholar who called herself a feminist, and who brilliantly showed the colonial nature of gender bias in writings about (and even by) Native Americans.
What is the focus of your current research?
I am working on a book on law and the reconstruction of sovereignty in the Chickasaw Nation. I am tremendously proud of what our nation has achieved in the last 50 years, and I am profoundly honored to have been entrusted with telling at least part of that story. While in all of our scholarship we endeavor to “get it right,” in this project that imperative is deeply personal for me. I feel a profound sense of gratitude that life has led me to a place where I could be involved in telling this part of my people’s story.
What changes have you seen take place at UCLA for Native Bruins during your time here?
I have only been at UCLA for eight years, but I think we have come a very long way in that time on changing the campus climate for Native students, staff and faculty. The Native American and Pacific Islander Bruins Rising Initiative advanced by Chancellor Block has resulted in the creation of a Living Learning Community for Indigenous students on the Hill, as well as student resource centers for both Native American and Pacific Islander students, and will result in staff and faculty hires in the coming years. Together with the UC Native American Opportunity Plan and the departmentalization of American Indian studies, it is a great time to be a Native Bruin!
What is your hope for the impact you will ultimately make as a scholar, educator and leader?
I hope to have helped bring more Native faculty, staff and students to UCLA. I hope to have helped the campus community and the world better understand Native experience, particularly that of Indigenous women. I hope to have impacted young minds, as my young mind was impacted when I was a student by scholars such as Paula Gunn Allen. I feel that in the end, what is important is not what you did as a scholar at UCLA, but rather how many lives you positively affected.