Thursday, September 25, 2014

Native, Norse, Other: Embodied Difference and Forms of First Contact


[Hey everyone, Inhuman Nature (punctum books, 2014) is now in print! Read JEFFREY's posting and download the book. Even better, make a donation.]

[An unknown artist's interpretation of an encounter between the Norse and indigenous inhabitants of North America. The “Vikings” depicted here wear nice pointy hats and the Native Americans wear feather headdresses. Image found at this website for “Vikings age combat” enthusiasts.]

This blog posting (continuing a thread on the postmedieval legacy of the “Vikings”) explores the consequences of intercultural contact in the medieval North Atlantic—or rather, divergent cultural memories of encounters between the seafaring Norse and indigenous peoples of what we now call North America. The most famous accounts of these interactions survive in the Vinland sagas written down in Old Norse (or Old Icelandic, depending on who you ask): the Groenlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders) and Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red). KARL’s first posting on whiteness and the afterlife of “Vikings” notes the archaeological discovery of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows (now a National Historic Site of Canada) in Newfoundland, and his second posting demonstrates how fantasies of originary claims to America (and, at its worst, notions of white supremacy) depend upon or otherwise exploit knowledge of early Norse migration into the Western Hemisphere.[1]

In his blog posts, KARL has been thinking about “heritage” and the weird warping of time that underlies competing claims to it (that’s not his wording; he puts it much better than I do!). I’d like to visit this weird legacy of the “Vikings” too but consider things through a different set of vantage points. What follows here is an adapted version of a paper I presented at a session on Postcolonial Disability in the Middle Ages at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo in May 2014 (org. by Justin L. Barker, Dana Roders, and Gina M. Hurley; the other presenters were Molly Lewis and Karen Bruce Wallace; Tory Vandeventer Pearman was the respondent.) In that presentation, I wanted to think about two things (given the aims of the session): 1. how the “medieval matter of Vinland” takes different forms in the cultural memory of later Euro-Americans vs. storytelling traditions of Native (indigenous) people; 2. how disability theory might enrich discussions of “first contact” across these reception histories.

Weird bodies

How does exactly might thinking about disability shift our understanding of cultural memories of Native/Norse contact? The descriptions of unusual or alien bodies in the sagas are one starting point. There has been much ink spilled by historians and literary scholars about how the Vinland sagas stage the very moment of first contact between the Norse and the so-called skraelingar (or “Skraelings”). The term skraeling is notoriously “slippery” as a term; in the context of the Vinland sagas it refers loosely/indiscriminately to disparate peoples who might now be identified as ancestors of the present-day Inuit peoples of Greenland and indigenous peoples of North America.[2] (Details of the Norse encounters with native peoples differ slightly across these sagas, but in both accounts a string of encounters—some curious, some hostile—generate communication failures and at times result in violence.)

In the surviving saga texts, physical descriptions of the non-Norse reveal a discomforting racializing discourse (it’s not at all surprising to me—according to Wikipedia at least—that First Nations people in Canada find the term “Skraeling” offensive). The so-called “Skraelings” in the sagas are deemed quite unattractive in appearance by Western standards. In the Groenlendinga saga, one settler Karlsefni assumes “einn maðr var mikill ok vaenn í lið Skraelinga” [one man much taller and more handsome than the other “Skraelings”] (263) must be their leader, suggesting that most others are deemed short and unattractive.[3] Eiríks saga rauða describes the natives as “svartir men ok illiligir” [dark men and ugly] (227) with “ilit hár” [bad hair] and broad cheeks. Moreover, an apparently unprovoked attack by a one-footed creature [einfoeting] who kills a Norseman with an arrow then runs away signals the perceived barbarism of the “Skraelings” (231-2). Here, external signs of physical difference register a profound sense of ethnic and cultural alterity. An Orientalist and proto-colonialist reading would suggest that these Western narratives seek to convey a culture’s radical Otherness by strategically deploying tropes of embodied difference.

There’s a general tendency to dismiss the one-footed creature as an outlandish fantasy, but I would like to more carefully consider the cultural work that this figure performs. A more generous reading of the text might put the one-footed creature in the broader context of Old Norse literary works. The fact that this creature is one-footed doesn’t necessarily come with negative connotations; the one-footed creature is actually swift and adroit, much like the praiseworthy wooden-legged warriors in other sagas (for instance, Önundr tréfótur Ófeigsson [Önundr Tree-foot] in ch. 4 of Grettirs saga). From a Native perspective, this episode might suggest something else entirely: the one-footed indigene is not at all primitive or deficient but instead deeply informed by local cultural knowledge, more carefully adapted to the environment than the Norse settlers.


Another way to approach these scenes of contact is their discussion of the sensory experience of encounter. Concurrent sense modalities (such as sound, touch, and motion) add depth to these narratives of cross-cultural contact, revealing forms of inter-perception that are activated in lieu of speech. The Groenlendiga saga flatly states that “hvárigir skilðu annars mál” [neither understood the others’ speech] (262), and Eiríks saga rauða goes further to transmit a sequence of semiotic performances: waving poles (by the natives) and presenting white shields (by the Norse) to signal peaceful trade (228). (Later the Norse bear red shields to show aggression.) Such performative encounters do not inherently privilege one cultural group over another. All parties involved adapt to one another via embodied gestures and prosthetic objects, and these newly configured environmental circumstances effectively disorient both groups.[4]

This eruption of embodied difference and adaptive communication in the moment of first contact is not incidental if these texts are viewed through the generic conventions of travel writing. From the inexplicable appearance and disappearance of the one-footed creature to an improvised communication through disjointed signs and gestures, these narratives convey the profoundly disorienting cultural and phenomenological experience of alien environment. In an astute reading of the Vinland sagas, E.A. Williamsen observes that “[a]ll travel narratives are inherently narratives of difference,” and that all travel writing must disorient precisely by constructing a vivid sense of environmental otherness (454).[5]

Attending to the negotiation of physical difference can not only shape our understanding of the narrative but also our appreciation for the text’s literary form. In Aesthetic Nervousness, postcolonial literary critic Ato Quayson maintains that disability “short circuit[s]” or disrupts available “protocols of representation” in literary works, and an encounter with alterity (cultural and embodied) can create a crisis that provokes shifts the norms of literary form (15).[6] The very inability of the text to fully represent the complexity of these encounters with alterity suggests the transformative power of diverse forms of alien embodiment.

While Quayson’s paradigm is compelling, I would resist reading these texts merely as symptomatic of some Norse “crisis in representation.” I suggest that nuanced strategies of inter-cultural adaptation also transpire here—and they do so even if these texts seem to filter all these encounters through a Norse perspective. In a presentation at the most recent Modern Language Association Convention (Chicago, January 2014), Christopher Baswell advocates “deformalist” modes of analysis that attend to “deformity” not as a deviation from perceived norms but rather as an opening up of alternate modes of representation and systems of interpretation.[7] In this sense, the disruptive force of the one-legged creature works in tandem with the text’s disorienting literary form. After the fleeting encounter with the one-footed creature is narrated in third-person prose, the text returns to the episode again but in first-person plural verse addressed to Karlsefni (read this passage in the original language at ch. 12, or in modern English at ch. 14).

The mixed form is a feature of many Norse sagas, but in this particular passage a jarringly disjointed narrative orientation results. The recursive transmission of the “same” moment in third-person prose and then first-person verse creates a narrative that moves beyond a single unitary timeline to a multifaceted perspective on the action. Oscillating between minimalist prose and highly structured verse, this saga’s twinned account of contact between the Norse and a one-footed creature suggests a dual ethics of encounter, a mode that alternates between different subject positions in the story. Rather offering a single perspective or unitary point of orientation, it models a mixed form of beholding.

Mixed beholding

This phrase “mixed form of beholding” (which I use in the context of cultural inter-perception) is a nod to disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who describes an ethics of transformative “beholding” that can emerge through encounters across embodied difference. In their book examining disability in early modern England and in contemporary theory, Alison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood observe that a kind of “generous” beholding can transpire across historically distant cultures.[8] 

[An interactive map of the Americas entitled “Stories of Encounter” invites the visitor to touch locations to read narratives about contact between Native peoples and Europeans. The earliest site indicated on this map is GREENLAND (around AD 1000); touching the image brings up an Inuit story recalling early contact with Norsemen.” Photo taken at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC, January 20, 2014.]

In this spirit of a generous beholding of cultural vantage points, it’s possible to read different reception histories of the medieval past in tandem even if cultural conventions of narrative and notions of temporality do not readily align (or to use a related optical metaphor, “don’t see eye to eye”). In her important 2012 book on “Viking” legacies in North America, Annette Kolodny notes that Western and Native American modes of storytelling assume very different attitudes toward time when relating events of the past. As Kolodny and others have observed (and as KARL’s postings suggests), Anglophone (white) Americans and others of European descent have often sought in medieval sagas some kind of evidence for originary claims to the continent (with the Norse sagas asserted as one European claim to North America pre-dating Columbus). According to Kolodny, Native perspectives and indigenous post-contact oral traditions emphasize many waves of encounter over time and do not so much invest in establishing which group came “first.” These storytelling traditions tend to relate the varied effects of disruptive forces upon present social conditions and the continuity of indigenous cultural life.[9]

[In my office a few weeks ago. One of my undergraduate classes spent a session discussing Joseph Bruchac’s The Ice Hearts (1979) after we had read and discussed the Vinland Sagas (trans. Keneva Kunz, 2008).]

Kolodny’s book made me interested in pursuing avenues for Native-oriented counter-readings of the “Skraelings” and more complex renderings of worldviews only sketchily imagined in sparse Norse narratives. Joseph Bruchac is an indigenous writer who embraces his Abenaki heritage, and in The Ice Hearts (1979) he revises the Vinland sagas into a new “parable” that conforms to storytelling practices of his Native ancestors.[10] When we discussed this story recently in one of undergraduate classes, we considered how Bruchac inverts conventions of literary captivity narratives: his tale features a Native narrator (rather than white settler), and the story reworks the terms by which a person is considered civilized or fully human. Strange “Ice-hearts” with “sky-colored eyes” invade a peaceful Native village (3)—one is named “Eric” and another refers to the villagers as “Sgah-lay-leens,” a pointed Abenaki transliteration of the Norse word “Skraelings” (7). While initial interactions with the Norse result in violence, an “Ice-heart” boy learns valuable healing practices from the Native community and assumes the role of the Native doctor who was decapitated by his fellow “Ice-hearts.” By the end of the tale, two children with “eyes the color of the sky” (8) are adopted as full members of the native community. In this new captivity narrative, physical impairment facilitates social transformation and new kinds of inter-perception across embodied difference. It creates a world where knowledge from both cultures has value and race itself is not a barrier to cultural acceptance.

["Odin" (2008). Sculpture by Abraham Anghik Ruben; image found here.]

One of the most striking takes on these medieval traditions enacts a concretized form of cultural melding—and it too does so through a story that puts disability at the center of transformative experience. Abraham Anghik Ruben is an artist of Inuit and Norse descent who counts among his ancestors an Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefannson, a man of Icelandic ancestry, and his Inuit wife Paniabuluk. Ruben’s work adopts a mixed form through the medium of sculpture: techniques of Inuit craft work together with Norse and Celtic influences, and the motifs throughout his work meld aspects of Viking and Native lore. In Ruben’s own account of his creative process, a chronic illness (recovery from cancer) generated new, fuller mindfulness of his own cultural identity, and he began to embrace the dual Inuit-Norse aspects of his own heritage while reading many of the medieval Vinland sagas.[11] In his ongoing creative process, new cross-cultural convergences began to emerge in his art: seafaring imagery (boats and waves), shamanic practices, and the importance of women in performing such rituals.

Ruben’s sculptures not only foreground how aspects of Norse and Inuit cultures overlap, but can lend also shape new understandings of the diversity of belief systems within the original Norse sagas. Indeed, the Greenland sagas attest to the coexistence of indigenous (pagan) and Christian beliefs within Norse society. Eiríks saga rauða (ch. 4) transmits the most well-known and extensive description of a shamanic seiðr, a ritual performed by a prophetess (völva) that bears resemblance to those practiced by Saami and indigenous Siberian peoples or people somehow marked as “other” throughout Norse texts.[12] KARL offers a forceful critique of how white supremacists exploit the fantasy of a “pure” “white” “Viking” diaspora to justify conquest and stake originary claims to (North) America. Ruben’s mixed-form work reconceives an Arctic that is not “pure” but traversed by peoples whose lives and cultural practices converge.

Some thoughts…

In thinking about a convergence or “generous” mutual beholding of perspectives, I don’t mean to promote a kind of feel-good, “no-fault historiography” where all kinds of cultural differences are respected, peoples commingle, and everyone ignores the actual effects that later European settlement had on indigenous peoples. I think what I’m trying to do (here and in my classes) is to wrap my head around this idea of keeping concurrent senses of time “at play” when considering the past—even if (or especially if) those temporalities don’t ever line up with one another, or only do so erratically.

KARL’s postings have revealed to me the forces of distortion and weird/freaky/odd/queer warping of time that underlie fantasies of the past, and I’d agree with his point that we need a “renewed attention to the desire to heal the sense of displacement.” Rather than thinking in terms of a queer asynchrony or fluid “queer time,” I’m moving more toward a disjointed “crip time,” a notion of temporality that emphasizes time’s flexible pacing, contraction, and expansion (this sense of “crip time” comes from Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip [Indiana UP, 2013], at 27; on the “strange temporality” of diagnosis/prognosis time, see 37). For my part, I’m not so much interested if any (historical, archaeological, verifiable) moment of “first contact” can ever be fully recovered. I’m much more eager to “find ways into” a dizzying nonalignment of perspectives and to entertain flexible notions of heritage that are mobile, emergent, pliable, and messy.

[1] On the dating of the manuscripts and relevant archaeology, see for instance Agnes A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (eds.), The Viking Age: A Reader (U Toronto P, 2010), ch. 11; Agnes A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, The Vikings and Their Age (U Toronto P, 2013), 32; see also map on page i.
[3] Quotations and translations follow Williamsen (footnote 6).
[4] Side note: for a very interesting study that combines ethnography and historical contact linguistics (with particular focus on sign languages used by Native communities in the US), see Jeffrey Davis, Hand Talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations (Cambridge UP, 2010).
[5] E.A. Williamsen, “Boundaries of Difference in the Vínland Sagas,” Scandinavian Studies 77, 4 (Winter 2005): 451-78.
[6] Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation (Columbia UP, 2007).
[7] Christopher Baswell, “Deformity.” Session: “Middle English Keywords,” MLA Convention, Chicago, January 2014.
[8] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford UP, 2009), esp. 194. Alison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood, “Ethical Staring: Disabling the English Renaissance.” In Hobgood and Wood (eds.), Recovering Disability in Early Modern England (Ohio State UP, 2013).
[9] Annette Kolodny, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Duke UP, 2012).
[10] Joseph Bruchac, The Ice-Hearts (Cold Mountain Press, 1979).
[11] For Ruben’s artist statements and (auto)biography, see and
[12] See for instance, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (Athelone P, 2002), 117-121 and 127-131.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I've been ruminating on this post since I first read it -- actually since I heard you present it at Kzoo. It touches so deftly on so many issues that obsess me, and thinks through some works that have long been important to me but that I've never written about. Kolodny especially is a theorist I find of great use in mapping out what mapping identity onto land means, especially at the moment of encounter.

I hope to have more to say later, but for the time being will simply convey my thanks for posting this.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks so much Jeffrey: I'll be curious to know what you think about this at some point!