Annette Kolodny recently spoke about the genesis of her new volume, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Duke University Press Books, 2012) with Indian Country Today Media Network. To write it, the renowned literary critic and College of Humanities Professor Emerita of American literature and culture at the University of Arizona dissected two medieval Icelandic sagas to get the true story of the so-called discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. See our review here.
Among all the stories in your book is the intriguing one about how this book came about.
After 12 years of work on this book I am feeling really good because it is done and out. But it has been more than 12 years because somehow or other this has been a life work, really, in terms of my intellectual development even though I didn’t know it at the time I started at the University of Oslo in Norway in 1961.
You quote Vine Deloria extensively in the first chapter, including his saying, “Unless and until we [Indians] are in some way connected with world history as early peoples…we will never be accorded full humanity.” How much of an influence did Deloria have on your path?
It was a joy to have him as a colleague [at the University of Arizona]. I thought he was the most influential scholar of all of those working on Native American studies. I wrote the book for a general audience because, like Vine, I wanted this history of Native American experience on the continent to be known outside of merely academic circles—that was Vine’s motivation for how he wrote and to whom he was writing, and I tried to follow that model.
What surprised you most of all in your research?
Two things. One was the fact that the North American continent, especially that whole northeastern area from the Canadian Maritimes down through New England, had probably been visited by Europeans long before Columbus. That [information] seems to have dropped out of the historical record. People seem to have forgotten there were fisheries on the banks of Newfoundland at the beginning of the 15th century, before Columbus. It isn’t true that the whole first contact story begins with Columbus. We had contact before that, and that is not part of general knowledge.
The second thing that surprised me was that you can find evidence of these much earlier contacts in Native American stories but no one has thought to look at Native American stories as having real history within them. Some are still in the oral tradition. But even those that have been written down are treated as lore, as legend, as everything but history because those of us who live in a print culture have trouble believing there could be real information passed on over hundreds and hundreds of years through oral transmission. But at least until the 19th century, Native Americans still practiced their traditional storytelling as a way of keeping alive their most ancient history.
There seem to be parallels
between the belief in prophetic dreams or states of mind within both Norse and Native American traditions.
The Icelanders and Greenlanders were not Christianized until 1000. Since Vinland was explored in 1000, that tells you that Leif Erikson grew up under the pre-Christian belief systems. They weren’t all that different from those of the Native peoples. The technology they had was not that different, and they were an oral culture. They did have a rudimentary writing system called runes, but the Natives had their own pictographic systems. So in many ways those cultures had great similarities. But they were so foreign to one another there was no way they could make reasonable contact.
What would you like this book to do?
I would like it, of course, to become a big bestseller! I would like Americans and Canadians, both Native and non-Native, to read it and rediscover their own history—that there were connections between their peoples that go back at least to the year 1000 and that those stories circulated in the ports of Europeans for some time. We have no evidence to prove one way or another whether Columbus heard these stories. But it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t aware somehow that the Norse had been to this wonderful land across the ocean.
And what should readers learn?
I really hope that Native American people embrace the importance of their own contact stories because those stories, for the most part, have been ignored in the literary canon of Native American literature or they have been looked at by anthropologists or historians rarely. But their incredible literary merit and their historicity are aspects of those stories that have been overlooked, and I hope that Native American peoples embrace the stories in the book and are proud to have those stories shared widely outside their own communities.