Representing the True Believer in Scholarship and Film

Did Viking reach what is now Minnesota prior to the explorations of Christopher Columbus in 1492? We know for certain that Vikings did indeed spend time in North America around the year 1000. An archaeological site unearthed at L’Anse Aux Meadows  in Canada’s province of Newfoundland is proof. However, scores of Midwestern Americans have claimed that Vikings didn’t stop there. They assert that an inscribed artifact known as the Kensington Rune Stone proves that Scandinavians had reached the heart of the continent by 1362.

Although most professional geologists, linguists, and historians have concluded that the runic inscription is most likely a product of the nineteenth century, many Minnesotans have persisted in this belief. The faithful have frequently been portrayed by journalists, scholars, and filmmakers in a pejorative light. In the 1970s, a British TV producer, Brian Branston, spent time in Minnesota researching the popular enthusiasm for the Kensington Rune Stone. Here’s how he described believers in the artifact’s authenticity:

Those who believe it bogus rest their case on the arguments of reputable scholars, particularly linguists and runologists who are practically unanimous in declaring the inscription a hoax. Those who believe in the genuineness of the inscription hold on to their beliefs much as one would hold to a religious faith. You cannot reason with faith.

Is belief in something that contradicts scientific evidence inherently irrational? This is a question that scholars of religion have long debated. Some, like Sigmund Freud, considered religious belief to be the product of neurosis. However, to write off people’s beliefs as nothing more than mental illness obscures more than it reveals. To do so is to miss the opportunity to understand how beliefs function for the persons who hold them. As another scholar, Daniéle Hervieu Léger, has observed, science does not always satisfy “the human need for assurance, which is at the source of the search to make life intelligible and which constantly evokes questions of why.”

Earlier this year, when my book Myths of the Rune Stone was in the final stages of production, I came across a Facebook page associated with a new documentary film called “Lost Conquest.” The film opens with the statement, “One thousand years ago, Vikings visited Minnesota. Or Not. It kind of depends on who you ask.” I was delighted to find out that another Minnesota native, Mike Scholtz, had seriously considered the meaning of the popular enthusiasm for Viking origin myths.

Mike’s film Lost Conquest  highlights several colorful characters offering perspective on the question of whether or not Viking visitors explored what would one day become Minnesota. One Viking researcher clearly relished his role as a non-conformist thinker who questioned mainstream beliefs about American history.  When asked why scholars did not embrace his theory that Vikings visited Minnesota, he declares that they were probably threatened because “That kind of leaves old Columbo [sic] out of the picture!” Another enthusiast who manages a Viking-themed bed and breakfast fires off several hilarious anti-Green Bay Packers jokes before expressing his doubts that the stone’s discover Olof Ohman could have lived a lie for his whole life. Yet another rune stone believer parallels the skepticism toward the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone with the modern skepticism towards Christianity. “Your’re always going to have skeptics…but God has given the human race free will.”

To believers in the Kensington Rune Stone, including the enthusiasts portrayed in Lost Conquest, there has been a lot at stake in the question of whether or not Viking visited Minnesota. Immigrants from Sweden and Norway believed that if their ancestors had visited North America, it would prove that they truly belonged in their new Minnesota home. Civic boosters used the Viking narrative to prove that their region of Minnesota was historically significant and the true “Birthplace of America.” More perniciously, many interpreted the inscription’s story about Vikings found “red with blood and dead” as evidence the Native Americans had always been irredeemably savage and it was, therefore, justified that Dakota people were expelled from the state in the 1860s.

Lost Conquest paints a sympathetic yet critical portrait of contemporary believers in one of Minnesota’s most powerful myths of origin. The film not only sheds light on the genesis and propagation of local folklore, it raises larger questions about the nature of religious belief itself.


 

To find out where Lost Conquest is playing next, click on the Facebook page link in the text above. Lost Conquest makes a fine viewing companion before or after you read Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. Please be in contact if you would like to interview one or both of us.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Representing the True Believer in Scholarship and Film

  1. “Is belief in something that contradicts scientific evidence inherently irrational?”

    David, some of us are saying that the “scientific evidence” is not being evaluated or evaluated correctly by so-called professionals. Academia is failing. What you might be perceiving as scientific evidence might not be scientific evidence. A good example is how Tom Trow, representing science and academics (I guess) has muddied the scientific conversation about these many stoneholes in Minnesota. Years ago, he proudly proclaimed them to be leftovers from blasting and as far as I know has never backed away from this position.

    Your un-Godly acquaintance, blog host Jason Cavalito, picked up on Trow’s abject disinformation about these authentic medieval stoneholes, and he carried the myth of Scandinavian forgetfulness forward to current times…the problem being that both of these gentlemen were and are still wrong. So, I am saying quite clearly that “scientific evidence” can be played with, unfairly. Another unfairness is that the current MN State Archaeologist is hidebound about the French being the first Europeans here. He leaves no room for Scandinavians up here before the French, which is ridiculous. As a Christian, I thank God he is retiring.

    David, please note that the Viking period was over a quarter of a millennium before the Kensington Runestone was authored. When talking about medieval Scandinavians up here in MN, we should be talking about Christianized Scandinavians, not pagans. (Or is Big Ole your Uncle?) 🙂

    Like

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