Monday, July 30, 2012

Skraeling History 101

Iceland, Greenland, and North America

L'Anse Aux Meadows today
Norse settlers journeyed all over the North Atlantic, raiding, conquering or settling the lands they found there, from Scotland to the Orkneys and Faroes.  Their largest settlement was in Iceland, which does not seem to have been inhabited (aside from maybe some Irish monks) before the Norse colonization.

By the 980s, most of the good land in Iceland already had been claimed and the really violent bits of the Viking Age were winding down. Enter Eirik the Red, son of a Norwegian chieftain, who moved to Iceland with his family.  The grown-up Eirik got into some trouble in Iceland and was exiled for murder.  Rather than go elsewhere in the Norse world, he outfitted an expedition and sailed west, looking for new lands. Eirik landed in Greenland, explored the coasts, then returned to Iceland to recruit settlers.  As a result, two small colonies were established in the south-western fjords of Greenland where the terrain wasn't that different than Iceland.

From the Greenland colonies, Eirik's family made a few more trips exploring.  His son, Leif, supposedly was the first to find the coast of North America. Members of the family established a kind of base camp, from which they explored "Vinland" (probably named after wild grapes or berries.)  The Norse soon encountered the inhabitants.  The sagas call the inhabitants of the region "Skraelings," a word which probably means something like "barbarian" or "ruffian" or even "skin-wearer."  After some conflicts with the "Skraelings," the Norse left and there's no record of them ever returning.

The Greenland colony lasted a bit longer, until around the 1400s.  The climate worsened during the little Ice Age, farming became more difficult, and eventually the population left, died, or was absorbed into the local Inuit (Eskimo) population.

Two Icelandic sagas, the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, recount the Norse voyages to North America. Like all the Norse sagas, they were written long after the events had taken place and contained elements of pure storytelling. For a long time, scholars were unsure whether "Vinland" was North America, whether the Norse had really gone there, and, if so, where they had landed.  Then, in 1960, a Norwegian enthusiast and explorer couple, the Ingstads, identified a Norse find at L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland.  You can go there today, and the site has been reconstructed. 

So why isn't North America today the United States of Vinland?  Why did the Norse go to North America, and then (basically) have no effect whatsoever on the historical development of the Americas?

Centuries of European colonization have accustomed us to see the domination and advance of Europeans as inevitable.  But there are any number of reasons why the Norse failed to roll over the Vinland with their advanced technology and blinding lack of melanin. First, there were a lot of Native Americans, they lived there, and they were not especially mismatched technologically against the Norse.  Second, the Greenland colony was marginal venture, at best, and just getting started.  The Norse were hardly a conquering army -- they were farmers exploring. Lastly, it's danged hard to make a colony in a new land, with new plants, animals, weather, and climate.  I live near Jamestown, the first really successful English colony in North America, and it almost failed a half-dozen times with much greater resources and better technology. So it's not really surprising (except in the mind of rabid Scandinavians nationalists) that the Norse didn't get very far in Vinland.

Skraelings 1.  Vikings 0.

Who were the "Skraelings"?

"Skraeling" wasn't a name which the Native Americans called themselves or would have even recognized.
So, who exactly were they?  Can we look at a map, see where the Norse went, see who lived there, and identify the Skraelings as a particular Native American tribe?  Not with any great certainty, but we can make some guesses.

I do not exist.
There are several difficulties in play here. Most of our knowledge of the pre-Colombian depends on archaeology.  Until around 1000 CE, along most of upper East Coast we are in the period sometimes called the Late Woodland, for which (of course) we have archaeological remains.  But archaeology can only identify complexes of material culture -- how people make tools, build houses, bury their dead, decorate pottery, and so forth.  It cannot tell us what language the people who made these things spoke, to what ethnic group they belonged, or to what political entities they subscribed.  Not until contact with Europeans five hundred years later can we ascribe names to tribal groups.  Even then the records are pretty biased and spotty.  Attempts to retroactively connect Viking-Age material culture to later tribes are thus problematic.

The solid-seeming records in the sagas aren't terribly helpful either.  The medieval Norse did not hesitate to populate the far-reaches of their world with all kinds of beings -- trolls, giants, monstrosities, and exotic invented foreign peoples.  The saga authors may have drawn on these fantasies when describing the Skraelings -- indeed, in Eirik the Red's Saga the characters leave the Skraelings behind and encounter a monopod!  Yes, like in Narnia.

Demasaduit, one of the last Beothuck (1819)
Still, we can at least make a composite picture of the major divisions of Native Americans along the East Coast of Canada and New England based on archaeology and post-contact ethnography.  The arctic regions and Greenland contained two Paleo-Eskimo cultures.  The Dorset culture was older and gradually giving way to the Thule culture.  The Thule culture seems to be ancestral to the modern Inuit (Eskimos). 

South of the Dorset and Thule, along the coast of modern-day Labrador, Newfoundland, and along the St. Lawrence, there are two major ethno-linguistic groupings of woodland peoples.  The Algonquian tribes are distributed from the mid-Atlantic all the way up to Labrador.  Around the Hudson and upper St. Lawrence rivers, there is a territorial bubble of Iroquoian speakers.  (The Iroquoian League dates to sometime after the Viking Period but before European contact.)  Historically, the Algonquian peoples and the Iroquoian ones were often at bloody odds -- a situation exacerbated by European rivalries -- but who knows how true that was earlier. In historical times, several Algonquian peoples inhabited our target area: the Beothuck peoples of Newfoundland, the Innu (Montagnais and Naskapi ) peoples of Labrador, and maybe the Mic'mac peoples from Nova Scotia.  It all depends on how far south the Norse went and who they happened to bump into.

So How do I Paint my Little Metal Men?

So, the question any wargamer will ask: what did the "Skraelings" look like and how should I paint them?  The answer: any way you damn well feel like. The Skraelings probably wore animal-skin garments and had stone or wooden weapons -- but as to what color they made things, what designs they used, or anything else -- who knows?  Most soft stuff like leather or wood rots away and isn't preserved.  Perhaps they painted their skin and belongings red, like the later Beothuck. You could base designs on historical tribes, of course, but the distance between contact and the Skraeling Age is 500 years -- roughly the same as that between Martin Luther and George W. Bush. So for good or ill, your Skraelings will be mostly a product of your imagination, not history.

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