Vikings encounter Native Americans

CLU’s Nordic Spirit Symposium explores first meeting of Europe and North America

Nordic Spirit Symposium

Photo: David Moe
District Six Sons of Norway members attended the symposium “Vikings Reach America: First Contact” at California Lutheran University on Feb. 9 & 10.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

Viking Age Greenland, with its Norse settlers—of Norwegian descent—was a point of embarkation to remote lands and other cultures, east and west.

In a time when the ocean west of Norway was seen as the end of the world, daring voyagers pushed into the unknown, first to Iceland, then to Greenland, and ultimately, to North America—where two migrations came face to face.

Their coming together, briefly and uneasily, was the subject of the recent Nordic Spirit Symposium at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

A unique program tailored to the general audience, the symposium, now in its 19th year, brings scholars and experts together to enlighten a mainstream audience in two days of presentations, entertainment, and discussion.

A larger than usual audience—nearly 200—turned up for the two-day event, which included an opening reception, luncheon, and a formal dinner.

This year’s theme was “Vikings Reach America: First Contact,” referring to the completion of the circle of human migration that began when human ancestors migrated out of Africa some 100,000 years ago, according to Howard K. Rockstad, symposium director.

They eventually separated, Rockstad noted, with some turning left into Europe, others turning right into Asia, moving on to spread across the North American continent.

First contact
They would not meet again until the Vikings crossed that gap and met the people they called “Skrælings” around 1000 CE. That was the occasion of the “First Contact,” theme of the Nordic Spirit’s 2018 installment.

When the Norse first set foot on the rugged shores of northeastern Canada 1,000 years ago, it was onto a landscape that had been inhabited by people for some 8,000 years.

Norwegian Vikings had traveled to Iceland in 875, to the Faroe Islands in 825, and to Lindisfarne in 793, according to Jette Arneborg, senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, speaking to a record audience at the Nordic Spirit Symposium.

It wasn’t long before Norse left the mother colony in Greenland and made their way across uncharted waters to North America.

They settled at what is now L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern coast of Newfoundland, noted Birgitta Wallace, retired archaeologist with Parks Canada. She referred to the butternuts and grapes that were mentioned in the Icelandic Saga, noting the grapevines grew up tree trunks. There has been heated debate as to whether the Vikings actually found grapes, but Wallace seems to confirm that they could well have made wine.

It’s written in the Icelandic Sagas, according to presenter Gisli Sigurdsson of the University of Iceland, who analyzed how the lands west and south of Greenland are described in the 13th century sagas. The sagas tell the Norse found people of a very different kind and culture around 1000 CE in the lands they called Helluland, Markland, and Vinland,

Climatic warming
According to Donald H. Holly of Eastern Illinois University, whose research focuses on the Beothuk American Indians of the island of Newfoundland, the Norse voyagers were certain to have encountered these people. He noted that medieval climatic changes lend to the belief among scholars that the warming weather helped the Norse explorers. But it would have been disaster for the Dorset Indians of the area, because nd the seals departed for colder climes.

Bernard Francis, a Mi’kmaq Indian author and linguist, brought the story of his people up to the current era, noting that he only recently found out he was part Norwegian. Francis sang and played guitar, and intoned a Mi’kmaq blessing.

Jesse Byock of UCLA, an archaeologist who spends much of his time with Viking digs in Iceland, spoke on the language of the Icelandic Sagas—Old Norse. These texts are a key source of social-historical and legal information about northern European medieval culture. They are also the major source of mythical and heroic lore, containing crucial information about the Norse gods. Byock, author of two volumes on Viking Language, spoke about the ancient tongue at the symposium dinner, where tables were decorated with mounted photos of runestones and a scattering of small rune marks.

Jaan Calderon of Los Angeles presented a whirlwind survey of who the Vikings really were, as contrasted to popularly held images and accounts that lean heavily on their reputed brutality. There was more to being a Viking, noted Calderon, the director of a Viking reenactment group, the Ravens of Odin.

The Nordic Spirit Symposium is sponsored by Cal Lutheran and the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation. The Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation and the Norway House Foundation in San Francisco provided grants.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.