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.

 

 

Live Interview on 9-23-15 w/Al Malmberg from WCCO Radio

I stayed up really late for this live interview. It was past midnight in Philly! However, it was well worth it. Al was very generous with his time. I had been promised 15 minutes, but he had me stay on for the whole hour. If you listen to start of the second hour of his program, it becomes clearer that Al is sympathetic to the arguments of those who still claim the rune stone is authentic.

Al Malmberg show description: “It’s a show fit for the “Station That Serves A Nation.” WCCO’s Al Malmberg brings late-night listeners fun, engaging and interactive talk with a Minnesota twist, weeknights from 11 p.m.-2 a.m. on NewsRadio 830 WCCO!”

Source: 9-23-15 Al Malmberg: 11 PM Hour

Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Kensington Rune Stone in the New York Times Magazine!

Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published the first of two articles written by famed Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. You can access the article here. Knausgaard gives an account of his North American adventures, which begin in L’Anse aux Meadows at the northeastern tip of Newfoundland. The Canadian locale is the site of the only known Viking settlement in North America and dates to the year 1000. Knausgaard tells us that his New York Times editor asked him to drive from Canada to Minnesota, where he could view the Kensington Rune Stone, an artifact which many believe to be proof that Vikings visited the region in the 14th century. Knausgaard somehow managed to lose his drivers license and was forced to find alternative means to continue his “tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville” sojourn across North America. By the end of this first article, he had made it as far as Detroit.

Among his many observations about American life, Knausgaard writes about the intersection of myth, place, and identity.

“Identity is not something we invest in the landscape, not in the lake or the forest or the mountain. Identity lies rather in our notions about the landscape and in the names we give it, names that are densely layered with meaning. Naming is obviously a way of making the unknown known, of creating a sense of belonging, but the names soon take on a life of their own, embodying history, myths, conceptions and misconceptions — “New York,” I write, and what you are thinking of is not the daily changing of diapers, the stomach upsets or a damp coffee filter that rips so that the grounds spill onto the floor. Seen in that light, it was irrelevant whether the Kensington Runestone was authentic or fake, for what it testified to was the fact that some people wanted it to be seen as authentic, some people wanted the Vikings to have made it to Minnesota and these people were in all probability Scandinavians, who thus would no longer merely be destitute peasants driven to the new country by need but people with a proud past who were directly descended from the very first Europeans in America, who had not simply been content to spend a winter on a spit of land way up in the northeast, but had made their way as far as the Midwest, where almost all Scandinavians ended up, and who wanted in this way to endow themselves with a history, which is one of the many forms that a sense of belonging takes.”

Knausgaard touches on the central theme of my forthcoming book, Myths of the Runestone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. In this book, I tell the story of why so many in the twentieth century wanted to believe the Kensington Rune Stone was authentic despite strong evidence to the contrary. In his first article, Knausgaard assumes that it is merely Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants who have found appeal in the runic artifact discovered in a Minnesota farm field in 1898. Indeed, Swedish and Norwegian Americans were enchanted by the Midwestern Viking saga that emerged in the aftermath of Olof Ohman’s discovery. However, my book shows how the rune stone myth attracted a wide variety of characters including Yankee-born small-town boosters, Catholic bishops and priests, and those looking for a way to commemorate the deaths of white pioneer settlers during Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862. Perhaps Knausgaard will consider more of the complex cultural and religious dimensions of this fascinating part of American folklore. The second installment of Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” will be released March 11.