Deadly Colonialist Fables

What dueling origin myths from the 19th century tell us about ourselves


In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery, by Annette Kolodny, Duke University Press, 448 pages, $27.95

In the earliest years of the second millennium, Norsemen sailed from Greenland to North America in several waves. They explored the fertile coastline and some of its inland rivers, harvested lumber and grapes, and built camps. They also met, traded with, killed, were killed by, and on the whole failed spectacularly to communicate with Native Americans. We don't know the specific identity of the native population(s) with whom the explorers made contact or the exact location of the Norse landings and settlement—including the place they named Vinland, which likely was somewhere in present-day Canada and not the United States. But one thing is certain: Christopher Columbus "discovered" nothing when he came ashore in the so-called New World, except that he was lost. 

In her thought-provoking new study, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery, literary critic Annette Kolodny looks beyond Christopher Columbus and 1492 to wrestle with the question of the earliest immigrants to North America and what they found. Her search leads her to "contact texts"—including medieval Iceland's The Greenlanders' Saga and Eirik the Red's Saga as well as folklore and related evidence from members of the Wabanaki Confederacy (Eastern Algonquian-speaking Native Americans located in Canada and northern New England)—for what they tell us about Norse contact with Native America half a millennium prior to the Columbian encounter. 

If Kolodny's work did nothing but set the Norse and native texts into conversation with each other, summarize the previous scholarship on them, and confirm what now is accepted and what remains in question, it would be an achievement for which historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists, as well as her fellow literary critics, should thank her. But that is barely the tip of the book's all-too-chilling iceberg.

Kolodny's primary undertaking is tracing the way in which the idea of a "Viking past" in the United States has informed U.S. politics and policies. The result is a nuanced, compelling, and frankly disturbing case study of how the national origin stories we tell ourselves can inspire and then justify the worst impulses of human nature, often assisted by the coercive arm of the state. 

Consider the ideological cage match between the isolation and contact stories for Native America. On one side, politicians, public intellectuals, and even educators argued that the impressive artifacts of native history, from copper work to pictographs to large-scale earthen mounds, could not have been the product of American Indian ingenuity. Proponents of this idea asserted that non-native peoples (take your choice, from the ancient Phoenicians to the early Irish) had settled in North America in the long-forgotten past, produced all relics that spoke of any sophistication or culture, and then were overrun by the "barbarian" American Indians. Those who used such rhetoric argued that the removal (and sometimes even extermination) of native peoples represented a just comeuppance, the righting of a historical injustice. 

William Gilmore Simms summed this view up well in his 1845 textbook The History of South Carolina From its First European Discovery to its Erection Into a Republic, which baldly asserted that "according to tradition and old chronicles of the Northmen, the region [of the Carolinas] was occupied by a race, or races, of white men, to whom…we are to ascribe the tumuli, earthworks, and numerous remains of fortified places in which the whole country abounds, rather than to the nomadic red men." The same author in an earlier essay ("The Discoveries of the Northmen," 1841) called upon his literary brethren to write "a most romantic tale" about how the red men invaded the land of the whites "in howling thousands" until those early Anglo heroes "fought to the last, and perished to a man!" in what later would become the American South.

President Andrew Jackson, the chief architect of Indian Removal, justified what would become state-sponsored ethnic cleansing with an appeal to just such an origin myth, telling Congress in 1830 that in "the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the west, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared, to make room for the existing savage tribes." It was time, he urged, to "make room" for civilization once again. 

On the other side, another national origin story prevailed in the 19th century, a myth based on the assumption that Native Americans had been isolated for thousands of years on the continent, wholly without the benefit of interaction with "civilized" humanity until the commencement of Anglo-European colonization. To use the phrasing of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in the first of his five-volume Historical and Statistical Information, Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851), American Indians represented "a branch of the human race whose history is lost in the early and wild mutations of men." 

The contemporary product of such "early and wild mutations" was an inferior and backward race, so these thinkers claimed, a race which certainly faced extinction, as it couldn't be expected to compete or cope with its betters. This narrative therefore became a weapon in the arsenal of those who proposed the military subjugation of native populations, the forced removal of native nations, and the establishment of paternalistic control over native peoples on "humanitarian grounds"—that is, for the American Indians' own good. Hence the Indian Wars of the Great Plains and the Reservation Period.

Rigorous scholars in the 19th century recognized both stories as fictions. Already careful research linked current native populations to earlier artifacts and achievements, and already perceptive readers knew the Norse were in North America hundreds of years before Columbus. But the truth, Kolodny reveals, was no match for political expediency. She documents the repetition of this pattern time and again, noting dryly  that in this typically ugly 19th-century brawl, no matter which national origin myth was winning at any given time, "the Indians lost out."

Kolodny also considers the not-so-friendly competition at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which celebrated the quadricentenary of Christopher Columbus' voyage of exploration. Reproductions of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria vied for attention with a reproduction of a Norse ship, the Viking, which sailed from Norway to Chicago as a hulking, three-dimensional reminder that Leif Eiriksson had beaten Columbus to American shores. This rivalry was far less about the facts of history than about contemporary clashes regarding immigration policy and the politically charged question of which population (Italian Americans? Norwegian Americans? Catholics? Protestants?) had claim to being the "natural" sons and daughters of the United States. 

Kolodny ultimately gleans four key lessons from her research. First, she notes that certain "invincible beliefs" manage to survive, even thrive, despite definitive scientific evidence to the contrary. Even though the engraved "Kensington Stone," which was supposedly "discovered" by a Swedish immigrant on his farm in Minnesota in 1898 has been proven to be a 19th-century creation and not an artifact from a medieval Norse expedition, adherents continue to this day to use it as proof that the Vinland described in Nordic sagas was located in what became the United States, not Canada. Nationalism, not rationalism, is the motivation for such assertions.

For her second lesson, Kolodny notes—rather naively, and without her otherwise characteristic attention to evidence—that while U.S. immigration policy continues to be fraught with racial and ethnic tensions, the "multiethnic, multicultural, and interracial" makeup of the nation today means that the national debate "can no longer insist upon any single defining origin story that begins in Europe." At the popular level, at least, the success of various politicos, radio pundits, and televised talking heads suggests there are many who still clamor for and utilize just such a story to defend excluding others from this land of immigrants. 

Kolodny's third lesson is that the Vinland sagas are "prophecy texts" whose stories do not "shade over into narratives of conquest and colonialism," but whose depictions of trade turning to treachery set the stage for what would follow. For her fourth and final lesson, she underscores how the fascination with a literal or metaphorical Viking heritage remains firmly seated within American culture, even to the point of being exported to space through the Viking mission to Mars.

The great achievement of In Search of First Contact is not the unveiling of new and surprising revelations about what exactly happened 2,000 years ago but rather the insightful tracing of how stories about that encounter have flourished in the American imagination for 200 years. They have inspired great art and lamentable rhetoric, painstaking research and unquestioning faith. 

"In ways we in the United States do not always recognize," Kolodny writes, "how we shape and reshape our stories about discovery and first contact reveal[s] how we are simultaneously shaping and unshaping our understanding of who we are as Americans." This evolving understanding continues to have lasting, even life-and-death consequences.