These days the only time Vikings and Indians (spoken of in slurs) are mentioned in the same breath is during the Monday Night Football pre-game show. Yet these two groups and the mythologized contact between them was once a cornerstone of American identity. Annette Kolodny’s magnum opus, In Search of First Contact, is a fascinating and often times brilliant look at the tales and theories , sometimes resembling tall tales themselves, surrounding the Vikings and the Native people they found and called Skraelings (the first Anglo-slur against Natives meaning “wretches who screech”).
Where exactly these Vikings landed and who exactly they were calling dirty names is and remains a contentious issue. Everyone wants to imagine that theirs is the settlement once graced by great Scandinavian adventurers. New Englanders have been especially vehement in their claim to the Vikings, men they imagine as freedom fighting self-starters. But for many years, the supposed site of Viking exploration and brief colonization was L’Anse Aux Meadows, now a fishing village on the coast of Northeastern Newfoundland.
However, Kolodny, who in a rare show of rigorous scholarship actually worked in conjunction with Native peoples, conjectures the viking settlement was actually much further south in Nova Scotia or possibly Maine. In the end, the record is inconclusive and Kolodny chooses to focus on what the Viking colony “became for Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century, that is a geographical site that was transfigured into an imagined landscape for the projection of dreams.”
This makes much more sense as Kolodny is not an archeologist or even a historian. She is instead a literary critic with expansive curiosity and an understanding (so often lacking in discussions of literature) of the sociopolitical repercussion of the stories we tell and re-tell. This wide-angle view of literature is how Icelandic stories from the year 1000 ended up on her American literature syllabus. She argues that some of the earliest contact stories of North America are The Greenlander Saga and Erik’s Saga, known collectively as the Vinland sagas, Vinland being the name of the brief Viking settlement on North American shores.
Both sagas tell the story of Erik the Red and his descendents who were the first Norsemen to settle Greenland. Erik’s son Leif is the first of these new Greenlanders to set foot on lands even further West. After Leif’s initial and lucrative season in Vinland, his brother Thorvald also sets sail for the new land. It is Thorvald who first encounters the indigenous people, and proceeds to kill all nine (who Kolodny postulates to be Algonquian people of either the M’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy or Penobscot tribes) immediately without provocation. Bad idea, Thorvald. The Indians come back in greater numbers soon after and kill him.
While later expeditions would have some luck trading cloth for pelts with the tribes, the relationship eventually devolved into conflict. Sensing such battles would outweigh the timber and other resources the Norsemen had cultivated in Vinland, they went home to Greenland never to return. I have grossly reduced the substance of these sagas, which Kolodny interprets and explains in much greater detail, touching upon the special role of women and supernatural elements in the text which were fascinating. Having never before been even remotely interested in medieval Icelandic literature, I found Kolodny a persuasive guide not only to their cultural and historical interest but their artistry as well.
But as interesting as these feats of imagination were, much more pressing for the purposes of this review are the imaginative theories that followed from them. The Vinland sagas were to become the starting point for a whole, complex web of ideas about America’s past and future, and the fate of the Indian was inextricably linked to these ideas.
In the 1800s Americans became hungry for a sense of history, craving an antiquity they found by playing Indian and memorializing the Viking. Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish philolgist who never stepped foot in America, started the Viking craze with his 429-page tome on Norse landfalls in Massachusets, Antiquitates Americanae, published in 1837.
It was not long before the American people seized on this sense of an ancient Norse ancestor and took pride in being the descendents of such a strong, colonizing stock. But of course, American identity is and never has been stable. As the country developed from rebellious colony to expansionist empire, so too changed the role of the Indian and the Viking in American history. Soon it was not enough just to have the sense of history, they needed a sense of total ownership.
In Search of First Contact dedicates a considerable section to the racist notions many American scholar began injecting in their work: foremost among these that Europeans had settled this land long ago and were the rightful, Christian predecessors to the Americans. To corroborate these theories, the giant mounds of the South Eastern Indian tribes, carved and smelted artifacts of artistry and the rock inscriptions of Algonquian peoples in the North became ascribed to the Norse. It was obvious to Americans that they could not acknowledge any sense of history or culture to the people they needed to justify killing and displacing.
Two divergent but similarly harmful theories arose. If you were of a more charitable ilk, the Indians were an ignorant people who had existed on the continent without culture or religion and they were no match to the descendents of the Norse who had returned to fufill the past mission of a prosperous Christian nation. If you were of the blood-thirsty (often slave-holding) class, Indians were very much the Skraelings who had driven off a superior European race who had planted the seeds of a grand civilization on untamed land.
It is no coincidence that concurrent with the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma, southern writer William Simm was writing about “an earlier even more horrific aggression” namely the expulsion of the noble Norsemen by the savage Redmen. With the pretense of defense and vindication, the now victimized white southerners were in the moral right.
In Search of First Contact illustrates an important lesson: even fields as supposedly objective as history are never not political. In this case, the somewhat innocent-seeming desire for a rich national past became a weapon with which to kill and dislocate Native bodies deemed either unfit or unjust residents of a land rightfully belonging to Europeans.
Stay tuned, in the next post, I will discuss Native narratives of first contact. Thanks for reading!
Book I Talked About:
In Search of First Contact, by Annette Kolodny. Duke University Press, 2012.