Tag Archives: Leif Erikson

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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