Tag Archives: In Search of First Contact

Re-Discovering Discovery Stories


It has been quite some time between part one and two of my review of Annette Kolodny’s great work, In Search of First Contact. I could cite any number of excuses for the long delay but nobody much cares anyway. I have been urged to complete part two by the coming of Columbus Day and all the discussion this national holiday generates around the “discovery” of America by a man many consider a criminal and promoter of genocide. While these are all valid discussions, I would like to focus more on Native stories of contact, while first covering those who in the 19th century ardently attacked Columbus as worthy of the title “discoverer.”

You may have been wondering during part one where all this talk of the Vikings leaves the great American hero (and despised villain of the Natives). The argument over whether it is the Norseman or the Italian that Americans should pay tribute for their stolen land strikes at the heart of what Kolodny calls the “Anglo-American anxiety of discovery.” Because not long after being very insecure about their own immigrant status (from whence the need for Viking-American ancestors came), Americans soon became very angry that there were other, newer immigrants, namely Italians. It is not a coincidence that many of the most ardent advocates for honoring America’s Norse ancestry, were vehemently anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and hence, anti-Italian.

The push to honor Vikings over Columbus did gain traction in many places, leading to a number of statues memorializing Leif Erikson’s voyage.

One of the most vocal amongst those looking to throw off the crown of Columbus was the scholar Marie Brown. The name of her first book, The Icelandic Discoverers of America, or, Honor to whom Honor is Due, is a neat summary of her beliefs on the Lief Erikson vs. Christopher Columbus question. Brown was primarily concerned with feminist issues and had turned against the Catholic church for what she perceived as a conspiracy against women. She saw in the Norsemen a model of democratic freedom wherein women were both powerful and equal to men. To Brown, Columbus’s trip to America was part of the long-term plan of the church to enslave the world, most of all women (strangely, she fails to acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants who were literally made slaves).

Herein lies the plasticity of the Viking in America. He could be at one time symbol of America’s original religious mission or a progressive freedom fighter rebelling against the church’s constraints.

Brown’s ideas are interesting if not a little simplistic. Her conception of women’s role in Norse culture was informed more by her desire to see feminism than an actual presence. However, her attack on Spanish exploration as the means to conquest brings out the liberal belief that founding of new nations on “new” land is legitimatized as long as the founding ideals are good ones. This is one of the oldest tenants of American exceptionalism: that America is and always has been a city on the hill, the place of principle amongst a world of savagery and darkness. Brown thought that in honoring the Norse, America could live up to this image and by honoring Columbus, the country aligned itself with the shadowy oppressor of the church.

After spending three-fourths of the book discussing the Euro-American narratives around contact, Kolodny dedicates the last sections of her book to Native perspectives, specifically the Mi’kmaq and Penobscot stories of their first encounters with white men. It is a strong start in an academy that so rarely incorporates Native voices into the issues that have Native peoples at the center. How much have we heard about Columbus, even in all our attacks of him, and how little have we heard about the people he encountered? As Kolodny finds in her own research, much of this silence is attributed to the genocide, which killed not only millions of people but their memories as well, but much of it is also the fault of deaf ears who refuse to listen to Native accounts that de-center and unsettle Western notions of history.

Despite the widespread death and destruction brought on by European settlement, there are still many Native stories containing pieces of the people’s memory. Much like the Icelandic sagas, these stories leave traces of time and place more than exact points. Unfortunately the situation was not helped by missionaries such as the minister Silas Tertius Rand who translated Mi’kmaq stories in the 1860’s but also destroyed the originals in the Native tongue. Thus one of the most oldest written records of Native contact narratives exists only in English and with Rand’s editorializing confusedly intermixed.

In one of the stories Rand heard from Josiah Jeremy, a young girl dreams that a small floating island is approaching the shore with many strange men on it. The next day, a ship arrives with men not unlike the ones in the girl’s dream. A man who in the dream was dressed in rabbit-skins turns out instead to be a priest dressed in white. Kolodny provides a fascinating close reading of the story, explaining not only the importance of Rabbit, as trickster in Mi’kmaq culture but the color white as well, which represents East on the medicine wheel. The young girl’s dream and the appearance of the priest “portray more than just the arrival of previously unknown foreigners” but are also “warning signals of some impending disruption.”

The story as told by Jeremy states this priest arrived in a time “’when there were no other people in this country but Indians’” suggesting that this is the initial contact between the Mi’kmaq and Europeans if not all Indian peoples and Europeans. In trying to puzzle out who exactly these Europeans are, Kolodny attempts to mingle her previous cultural interpretation with historical interpretation. She switches from close reading to digressions on Viking clothing and conjectures about what they would have appeared like to Natives. She is convincing but also perhaps over-anxious to change the story from metaphorical to literal and back again to suit the story she herself wants to tell about Vikings and the Mi’kmaq. To be fair, Kolodny acknowledges how “tantalizing” her own reading is, while freely admitting that Viking, Basque fishermen and French explorers all had similar clothing when seafaring. But, in the end, her most persuasive prose is put behind the Norsemen as those original harbingers of chaos into a pre-contact Mi’kmaq society.

Joseph Nicolar was an elder of the Penobscot Nation who published his work on his people’s history and culture the year before his death.

In the Penobscot stories Kolodny recounts, taken from Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man (1893), again the white man is seen in prophecy before reality. True to the prophecy revealed to Klose-kur-beh by Creator, the arrival of white men coincides with a famine due to strange natural phenomena. The men are said to arrive in a great white swan but they are driven away by an old woman who changes between human and loon form. After this first ominous encounter, many years later men arrive who are different from the first groups of strangers in skin color and hairiness. Kolodny interprets these stories as identifying the different periods of contact, beginning with Northern Europeans earlier on and Southern explorers later.

After relating these initial encounters, Nicolar’s story shifts away from any concern with white men to recountings of the wars between the Algonquians and the Iroquoians. Nicolar closes out his narrative after the “wars among the red people” by relating the tribe’s conversion to Christianity and a brief anecdote serving to confirm Klose-kur-beh’s initial warnings that the European newcomers will try to take all the land for their own comforts. It is telling that initially the white men provide only a suspicious side story while the majority of the tribe’s stories center on the world of “red men.” Even when white men have come to have greater control over Penobscot people, whose land base and livelihood was decimated by encroaching settler, these stories refuse to put white people at the center of their world. Their stories are for them, for preserving the past in order to have a future.

The many theories and tales surrounding first contact certainly make for a intriguing intellectual mystery, both those put forth in these oral histories and those Kolodny puts forth herself. But when the puzzling is over perhaps all we really need to know is what the tprophecies foretold: men came from the East and disrupted the world. Whoever the first were, they certainly weren’t the last. What Kolodny’s comparison of contact narratives most shows is that while Americans are obsessed about how they came to this country, for Indians what really matters is how bad it has been ever since. Americans told and re-told stories of contact to re-shape their image to the needs of their empire; Natives have told these stories to preserve memory and also to preserve an-ever present warning against the “invaders,” wherever they may have come from.

Book I Talked About:

In Search of First Contact, by Annette Kolodny. Duke University Press, 2012.

Also, for all my NYC-based readers, Professor Kolodny will be speaking at Brooklyn College on November 10.

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The Fantastic Plastic Viking and the Indians that Scared Them Away, Part 1


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.

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