Her early education was at mission schools; she went on to earn several advanced degrees including a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in 1976.
Allen was a pioneer of Native American literary scholarship. With the publication of her book, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986), she helped define the canon of Native American literature.
Allen was also a prolific writer of poems, fiction and essays publishing 17 books during her lifetime. She received several awards for her work including the American Book Award, and the Hubbell Medal.
Twice married and twice divorced, Allen identified herself as a lesbian at one point, but later said she was a "serial bisexual."
She died in 2008 of lung cancer. She was 68.
"I have noticed that as soon as you have soldiers the story is called history. Before their arrival it is called myth, folktale, legend, fairy tale, oral poetry, ethnography. After the soldiers arrive, it is called history." Paula Gunn Allen