Letter From Washington

Norse by Norsewest

To hell with Christopher Columbus–and all other Easterners.

Earlier this summer, an out-of-town friend and I were taking in the Ballard Seafood Festival, an annual celebration of music, troll dolls, and pickled herring in the Seattle neighborhood that serves as Scandinavia’s unofficial outpost.

Ballard, annexed by Seattle many years ago, maintains its culture and loyalties without much consideration for national or civic boundaries. Its residents, solid and conservative in look and outlook, are often referred to as “square heads,” which suggests a stolid stupidity many associate with the Swedes, but all Scandinavian flags fly here. The kindly King Harald V of Norway visits every year or so to ensure that Ballard remains within the realm. The children grow strong by enduring the pain and suffering of having to eat lutefisk, the kind of dish that offers a challenge to the character, much like haggis for the Scots. Lutefisk is cod that is treated with lye and is transformed, in the process, into a gelatinous, fishy, white mass that, I imagine, is not unlike sperm whale … sperm. When I was growing up, we had to eat it every Christmas eve. “No lutefisk–no gifts” was, no doubt, a Lutheran law.

As we strolled the festival, I mentioned to my friend that a statue of Leif Ericson stands guard at nearby Shilshole Bay. He gave me a sideways look. “Leif Ericson!” he sneered. “Did he ever come here?”

The question and the tone turned me snarky. Why the hell do I have to justify Leif Ericson? Did Christopher Columbus ever sleep in Columbus, Ohio? Did he ever reach the Columbia River or British Columbia? America and the Pacific Northwest are monuments to people who never came here, Amerigo Vespucci for one. Washington state is named for George. Mount Rainier is named for Peter Rainier, a British admiral and enemy of the United States who never sailed these waters. And the Strait of Juan de Fuca is named for a Greek navigator who likely never existed at all. And my friend questions Leif Ericson?

Seattle’s ship traffic passes under the statue’s gaze. Undoubtedly, it brings good luck to local seafarers, many of them named Thor, Einer, or Ole. But it is also a great symbol. When this bold figure of Ericson was unveiled in the 1960s, and later used in a U.S. postage-stamp design, it stood for the righting of one of history’s great wrongs. Only Seattle had the guts to tell the truth, and to cut that truth in stone, by paying tribute to the real European “discoverer” of America and the people who explored and settled Vinland half a millennium before the Italian pretender acting for Spain.

My friend, sad to say, had revealed himself with his inquiry as a Vinland doubter, a man who has not read The Sagas, a man still waiting for more proof than contemporary maps, detailed written accounts, and carbon-dated archaeological evidence. In short, a typical American.

I am feeling less snarky and more cocky these days, however, because the answer to my friend’s question might actually be closer to a “yes” than I ever expected. Ericson might not have slept here, but his Norse ancestors might have, you betcha. A recent discovery along the banks of the Columbia River may provide key scientific evidence that proves it.

But before we get to the science, let me introduce a pet theory of mine: that there was an ancient link between the Northwest Indians and the Norsemen.

Consider the parallels. The Northwest Coast Indian tribes forayed south from their villages in the north along the Alaska and British Columbia coast and lived off the sea and plunder. They raided in canoes not unlike Viking ships. They were also fishermen and whalers, as many are today. In fact, the Olympic Peninsula’s Makah Indians have asked for permission to join the Norwegians in resuming whale hunts, an ancient custom the Scandinavians never gave up despite international pressures. Northwest Coast tribes like the Tlingit took heads and slaves, as did the Vikings. And they have a rich mythology with characters and themes not unlike those found in the Norse myths: Where Raven brought daylight to the Indian world, he also whispered words of advice into the ears of the supreme god, Odin. At the very least, the Indians were kindred spirits with the Scandinavian warriors of yore.

But the links may also be genetic or, at the very least, the result of ancient ancestral contact. Last July, a couple of locals found a skeleton along the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash. Carbon-dating traced the remains of Kennewick Man to between 7265 and 7535 B.C. The bones proved to be those of a male who was tall for his time (5 feet 9 inches). He was also a tough guy–a spear point was found lodged in his pelvis along with evidence of other warrior wounds. He survived these, and lived to be about 50. Oh yes, it also appears, according to experts who have carefully examined the skeleton, that he was Caucasian.

No horned helmet was found, but the discovery is complicating–perhaps overturning–theories about the settlement of North America. Did the ancestors of the Indians really come from Asia over the Aleutian land bridge? Or did they arrive after an earlier migration or settlement of Indo-Europeans from Central Asia, or early Europeans? Could Kennewick Man have come by a route similar to Ericson’s, say via skin boats or over an ice mass connecting North America, Greenland, and Norway? Oregon State University anthropologist Rob Bonnichsen thinks the latter is a possibility, which would explain why some ancient American tools are more similar to European ones than to Asian ones.

Not surprisingly, an Indian tribe, the Umatilla, has already demanded that the bones be reburied as if they were ancient native relics, and federal law backs them up. They argue that scientists are merely desecrating the dead. But the Smithsonian calls Kennewick Man a “national treasure,” and anthropologists want to conduct DNA tests, which might offer clues to his origin. Some Indians already resent suggestions they are descended from ancient Asians–such contentions fly in the face of their creation myths. Imagine how they’d feel if tests revealed their ancient ancestors were white men. Worse, imagine how Ken Burns would feel.

I suggest a test to resolve the matter. Check to see if Kennewick Man’s skull is slightly squared around the edges, suggestive of a cube. Look for evidence of a crew cut and a fish-reliant diet. If such evidence is present, return Kennewick Man to his rightful tribal reservation. In Ballard.