Talking Vikings at the Minnesota History Center

Last night I had the privilege of speaking at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul Minnesota. It is the home of the Minnesota Historical Society. While I was researching for my book Myths of the Rune Stone Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, I spent many days here reading newspaper microfilm and scores of other historical documents. The event had been scheduled to take place in a smaller seminar room, but they had to move it to the main auditorium because of the crowd (167 in attendance!) I think that Mike Mullen’s recent article in the Minneapolis City Pages generated a lot of interest. Many thanks to Danielle Dart, coordinator of public programs for lifelong learners, for making this event possible. You can listen to the podcast above.

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Although I have given numerous presentations on the book since its release last October, I made a special effort to locate the Kensington Rune Stone story in the long history of the American obsession with pre-Columbian Vikings in North America. Although we didn’t have credible evidence of a Norse presence in North America until the discovery of Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows archaeological site in 1960, some white Americans went to great lengths to prove Vikings reached as far south as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and even as far west as Minnesota. They used this American “pre-history” to address anxieties related to the nation’s growing racial diversity and the troubled way that white Americans came to terms with living on land once occupied by someone else. The Kensington Rune Stone must be understood within this context. Additionally, my talk addressed the question of the artifact’s authenticity and the status of science literacy in American culture today. Information on Mike Scholtz’s documentary film Lost Conquest can be found here. CORRECTION: I mistakenly described Tom Trow as a geologist. He is actually an archaeologist. A link to his article debunking Holand’s rune stone theory can be found here.

I also include a short video below. A young woman posed a question about myths. She joked that her grandmother was very excited about her coming to see my presentation until she heard the title. She asked about how people cope when they learn that their myths are proven to be false. Here’s my answer…

Minnesota’s Favorite Myth

City Pages article April 2016Welcome to the the website for Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. Mike Mullen of the Minneapolis City Pages just published an article today titled  “Why the Kensington Runestone is Minnesota’s Favorite Myth.”  The article comes out just in time to promote my next speaking event at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul on Tuesday, April 19 at 7:00 pm. The event is open and free to the public. Visit the Facebook Event page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/990162487725703/

Feel free to browse this website for many resources, articles, podcasts, and videos related to the book. You can also visit my author website at https://davidkrueger.org/.

 

Possible New Viking Site in North America

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Swedish American farmer Olof Ohman believed that the stone found in his Minnesota farm field in 1898 is proof that Norse explorers had visited the region in 1362. Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

New satellite evidence suggests that Vikings may have reached another location in  Newfoundland. This one is 300 miles south and west from the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement discovered in the 1960s. There will be a PBS Nova special “Vikings Unearthed” appearing online Monday, April 4 at 3:30 pm EDT and Wednesday,  April 6.

As my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America shows, there has been a long history of the American fascination that Vikings traveled to North America prior to Columbus. There are multiple racial, religious, and cultural reasons that fuel this fascination, even when the evidence is thin. Some Viking enthusiasts think they even reached what is now Minnesota. Although most of the evidence to support this is deeply suspect (i.e. the Kensington Rune Stone), this new evidence suggests that Vikings may have traveled at least a little bit further west than we had previously thought.

Why Myths Matter to Americans

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From left to right: Nate Wright, Katie Oxx, Dave Krueger, Jim McIntire, and Jon Pahl.

For an author, it is always gratifying when someone reads your book carefully and takes the time to prepare a thoughtful response. Last week, Myths of the Rune Stone, was featured in a forum dedicated to the theme of American myths. Two historians, a sociologist, and a theologian delivered outstanding presentations on the relevance of the book for reflecting on important dimensions of U.S. history, religion, and culture.

The “Why Myths Matter” forum is the second in a two-year series of forums dedicated to the theme of American myths. It was held on February 24, 2016 at the Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia PA. Click hereto view information on the entire series. Speakers are listed below along with a guide to navigate the podcast. You can fast forward using the the arrow keys on your keyboard. I hope you enjoy it!

1:00 – Welcome and short reflection by Rev. Robin Hynicka – Jeremiah 10

6:18 – Speaker introductions and overview of the book Myths of the Rune Stone – author David M. Krueger

24:50 – Dr. Jon Paul – Lutheran Theological Seminary – What about the role of fantasy and playfulness in the rune stone story? References to novelists Ole Rolvaag and Louise Erdrich.

33:00 – Dr. Nathan Wright – Bryn Mawr College – Despite the dangers of myth to exclude and dominate, they are necessary for societies to function. References to Durkheim, Bellah, and other sociologists.

45:50 – Dr. Katie Oxx – St. Joseph’s University – The ways that Catholics negotiate American identity. A comparison of the “Pope stone” and the “rune stone.” References to “new materialism.” How do material artifacts act on us?

54:00 – Rev. Jim McIntire – Havertown UMC – Myth fills a gap in public discourse. Conspiracy theorists like Scott Wolter profit handsomely from propagating myths.  Reflections Joseph Campbell’s book on myths.

1:10:50 – Audience Response

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Forum: Why Myths Matter to Americans

Myth Matter flyerWhy do people believe myths that have been disproven by science? What is the difference between history and myth? Why have Americans fought over stories about who was here first? What does Viking enthusiasm have to do with white supremacy? This event is a conversation with author David M. Krueger about his book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America.  Responding speakers include historian Jon Pahl, historian Katie Oxx, sociologist Nathan Wright, and Jim McIntire, a pastor and activist.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2016
7:00 — 8:30 PM
ARCH STREET UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
55 NORTH BROAD STREET
PHILADELPHIA, PA

Whether or not you’ve read the book, all are welcome to attend and participate in the conversation. Copies will be available for sale at the event and can be signed by the author.

Using Myths of the Rune Stone in the Classroom

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Your students will be mesmerized as they ponder the myriad cultural meanings of this controversial American artifact.

It’s not too late to add another book to your spring syllabus!  Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America is a multi-disciplinary text and would make a useful addition to courses in U.S history, sociology, religious studies, American studies, and Native American studies. The book is intended to appeal to both undergraduate and graduate students. It is a highly readable, slim volume at 159 pages, but it contains an additional 34 pages of notes for those looking to dig deeper. Lecture notes, discussions questions, and other resources will soon be available on this website. Below are some suggestions for how to use the book in the classroom. Intersecting themes in the book include:

  • Myths: how they are created, adapted, propagated over time; mythic genre i.e. Christian nation, origin, blood sacrifice, homemaking, and more.
  • History: collective memory, popular challenges to dominant historiography, the quest for Europeans in pre-Columbian America
  • Sociology: how social groups use martyrdom narratives, scapegoat theory, identity formation
  • Religion: theories of religion via Bourdieu, Durkheim, Girard, Tweed, Eliade, Pahl, and others; sacred spaces and landscapes, local adaptations of American civil religion, Catholic American identity
  • Native Americans and Race: white appropriations of Native Americans, the construction of whiteness, the ongoing cultural impact of Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862
  • Ethnicity: Scandinavian American identity, immigrant religion/history
  • Region: Midwestern/small town identities and regional tensions
  • Science: Anti-intellectualism, psuedoarchaeology, pseudo-history; why belief persists when science contradicts

How the book is organized…

Myths of the Runestone coverThe book is organized thematically and individual chapters could be useful if assigned on their own. Below is a guide to the themes and time periods unique to each chapter.

Introduction: A Holy Mission to Minnesota

  • Opens with a dramatic civic pageant held in 1962, illustrates the high point of Kensington Rune Stone belief.
  • Outlines a theoretical frame looking at the rune stone story

1. Westward from Vinland: An Immigrant Saga by Hjalmar Holand

  • Illuminates what Viking discovery narratives meant for immigrants from Sweden and Norway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Shows how Hjalmar Holand used the rune stone to further his ethnic aims

2. Knutson’s Last Stand: Fabricating the First White Martyrs of the American West 

  • Links the creation and interpretation of the runic inscription to the Dakota War of 1862.
  • Illustrates how Minnesotans used the rune stone story as a way to scapegoat Native Americans and justify the white conquest of the American frontier

3. In Defense of Main Street: The Kensington Rune Stone as a Midwestern Plymouth Rock

  • Shows hows Minnesotans used the rune stone to restore the cultural prestige of rural and small town life
  • Illustrates how the rune stone emerged as a sacred civic artifact starting in the 1920s

4. Our Lady of the Runestone and America’s Baptism with Catholic Blood

  • Demonstrates how Catholic leaders used the Scandinavian artifact to both fashion a Catholic American identity and proselytize Lutherans

5. Immortal Rock: Cold War Religion, Centennials, and the Return of the Skrælings

  • Dramatizes how Minnesotans defended the rune stone as a symbol of the Christian faith.
  • Places the rune stone narrative in the context of Cold War religion and the fear of secularization.

Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of American Viking Myths

Connect With the Author!

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I’m the guy without the historically-inaccurate Viking horns.

I live in Philadelphia but I can speak to your classroom via Skype or other video technologies. This past October, I spoke to a graduate history seminar at St. Cloud Sate University and also at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Minnesota. In April 2016, I’ll be speaking at the Minnesota Historical Society and I am available to for lectures and discussions groups in Minnesota. Please be in touch!

 

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.