“x̣est sx̣lx̣alt p esyáʔ. lemlmtš Suzanne u Nick. Tarren łu i skwest. ci séliš u tl’ sinyelum. čnes npiyelsi x̣wl yetłx̣wasqt.”
Dr. Tarren Andrews, postdoctoral associate at Yale University, began her lecture on Friday, November 4, with opening remarks in Salish–the language spoken by the Salish tribes, whom she calls home and family. The address greets everyone and thanks Dr. Suzanne Yeager (Professor of English) and Dr. Nicholas Paul (Director of Medieval Studies) and closes with a final sentence that translates to “I am happy to be here today.”
Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies had the great privilege of hosting Dr. Andrews for her lecture “Monstrous Property, or, Who Gets to Write an Epic Poem?” which focused on unpacking the relationships among epic poetry, the extinct languages used in epics such as Beowulf, and how modern day Indigenous poets work with and around the colonizing nature of epic poetry.
Dr. Tarren Andrews received her PhD in English from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and holds graduate certificates in Native American and Indigenous Studies; Culture, Language, and Social Practice; and College Teaching. Her academic interests include applying Indigenous studies to early medieval texts in order to bring to light the native narratives that are masked by colonial rewritings and repurposing, and the preservation of languages and their applications within both the medieval and modern day world. Her soon-to-be-released book discusses the comparisons and contrasts between medieval legal and literary artifacts and modern documents and stories from Turtle Island in the North Atlantic. She was also featured in the recently published Beowulf By All, a community translation of Beowulf to which she contributed the first twelve lines of the poem’s translation, citing the Flathead Indian Reservation as her co-author in order to honor her connections to her people, their land, and their language. She is currently a postdoctoral associate at Yale’s Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, and will join the same program as an Assistant Professor on July 1, 2023.
Prior to her lecture, Dr. Andrews met with graduate students on Tuesday, November 1, in Dr. Yeager’s course ENGL 5111: Race, Religion, and Monstrosity, where she discussed the works of medieval scholars such as Haruko Momma and J. R. R. Tolkien. In juxtaposition with the Indigeneity of Beowulf clouded by the story’s Christian and Old English manipulations, Dr. Andrews also had the class read Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, a modern day epic about an Indigenous protagonist named Teebs, which focuses on navigating life as both a queer man and a Native American in the 21st century.
A central theme in Dr. Andrews’ class and lecture was how a people’s language impacts storytelling. At the lecture, she played a video of her t̓úpyeʔ (great-grandfather) Louis Adams, a Bitterroot Salish elder, telling a story at St. Mary’s Mission in 2014.
She explained how storytelling is vital to Indigenous cultures not just within the Americas but internationally as well. As she related, when she reads a poem like Beowulf, she hears it in the voice of her t̓úpyeʔ, an example of her own connections to a medieval text, and suggestive of how others might use voice in order to think about Indigenous writing. She noted how Seamus Heaney, grappling with his identity as an Irishman translating an Old English epic, looked to his own family’s storytelling patterns, even describing them as “Native American” in nature.
“They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives.” (Seamus Heaney, Introduction to Beowulf, xxvii)
Dr. Andrews recognized this connection between two marginalized groups–and the connections between the Irish and Native Americans in more modern history–however she also reminded her audience that Beowulf is a poem dedicated to whiteness and masculinity. To connect that poem with marginalized and colonized peoples is problematic, regardless of intent, and she went on to discuss how other scholars of Old English–namely Tolkien and Momma–helped to address the problematic nature of Beowulf’s whiteness and Beowulf’s Old English usage over Anglo-Saxon or Old Norse.
Dr. Andrews traced how, following 19th- and 20th-century advances in Old English philology, and new cultural capital gained from studying Old English texts, scholarship around Beowulf explored how that story could have been a tale of collective identity for Scandinavians–a great epic depicting a glorious and beautiful fight against foreign power and religious invasion. The premier Beowulf translator before Heaney, Tolkien dedicated much of his life to analyzing Beowulf and claimed that other scholars had fallen short of seeing the story for what it truly was due to their fascination with its political context. Dr. Andrews underscored Tolkien’s own background as a white South African man obsessed with being considered English and in honoring English history.
But how does the indigeneity in Beowulf connect to poets like Tommy Pico, a modern day, Native American poet? For her lesson with Dr. Yeager’s class, Dr. Andrews assigned a PBS interview with Pico to introduce us to the poet and to hear how he discusses his version of epic poetry. In the interview, Pico discusses how his identity as a queer, Indigenous man in the fast-moving, colonially influenced New York City means he cannot bring himself to write a poem about nature, though he ends up doing so anyway:
I can’t write a nature poem
Bc it’s fodder for the noble savage
Narrative. I wd slap a tree across the face,
I say to my audience (Tommy Pico (Teebs), Nature Poem, 4)
When thinking about the connections between Native American peoples and their land, and in particular, the emphasis white narratives place on identifying them closely with nature, Teebs finds it hard to reconcile his ancestor’s relations with the earth while he lives in one of the most fast paced urban cities in the world, and while he is dealing with accepting his own identity within a colonial landscape:
I wd say how far I am from my mountains, tell you why I carry
Kumeyaay basket designs on my body, or how freakishly routine it is to
Hear someone died
But I don’t want to be an identity or a belief or a feedbag. I wanna b
me. I want to open my arms like winning a foot race and keep my
Stories to myself, I tell my audience. (Tommy Pico (Teebs), Nature Poem, 30).
Dr. Andrews connected Pico’s format for Nature Poem with the Beowulf poet’s stylistic choices. Both epics center around triumph and defeat with a hero encountering three obstacles. Both poems rely heavily on alliteration. And, finally, both poems strive to be seen as individual narratives, not only as juxtapositions or conjunctions with foreign narratives. Dr. Andrews commented on this visibility by saying “We can think of Beowulf when we think of Nature Poem and we can think of Nature Poem when we read Beowulf. We can challenge ourselves to make new kinds of spaces for these authors and poets to have their own poets. Being Indigenous is not given a definition beyond in relation to being colonized–we can change that.”
During the Q&A portion of her lecture, an audience member asked about the concept of claiming epic poetry and if that is something that we must do. Her response was that claiming a poem needs “to jive with whatever ethical practice you need.” She also added that, with new definitions of community being brought to light in her studies on Beowulf, we still cannot simply rewrite the text to fit this new narrative. She said, in closing, that instead
“We should more capaciously claim things in a way that does not foreclose other people claiming it as well.”