North America’s First Contact: Norse-Inuit Relations

North America’s First Contact: Norse-Inuit Relations

By Anatolijs Venovcevs

Paper given at the 20th Forward into the Past Conference, held at Wilfrid Laurier University (2010)

Inukshuk in Nunavut - photo by Xander/Wikicommons
Inukshuk in Nunavut – photo by Xander/Wikicommons

Introduction: Before the arrival of the Columbus or the Basque fishmen to the Americas, the Norse made an island-hopping journey from Norway to the Orkneys and Faroe Islands and from there to Iceland. Then, in 982, Erik the Red crossed the North Atlantic with his fourteen ships to become the first European to reach one of the North American islands: Greenland. From their base in Southern Greenland the Norse were able to explore other areas of North America including lands that they termed Stone-Slab Land (Baffin Island) , Markland (Labrador), and Vinland, which most scholar today believe to be Newfoundland.

These discoveries made the Norse the first European explorers of North America. And, like the European explorers five centuries in the future, the Norse encountered and had to contend with the native populations both where they lived and where they exploited the natural resources. While the colony in Vinland only lasted ten years due to its extreme isolation, the marginal yet viable settlements in Greenland persisted for half a millennium where they remained in relative close proximity to the Inuit populations. While the evidence the relations between these two people is sparse, it can be said that, unlike much of European-Native contact to come, the interaction between the Norse and Inuit was sparse, at times hostile, and could have possibly doomed the Greenland colonies to extinction.

What makes the analysis of the Norse and Inuit contact interesting is that the Norse, through five hundred years of Greenland’s history, dealt with two different Inuit groups – the Dorset and the Thule. Hypothetically they could have seen the transition from the Dorset to the Thule where one group shrank in land territory and was gradually replaced by the other. At one time, around 1300, the Norse could have had contact with both groups at the same time where-as before they would only have contact with the Dorset.

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The first group, the Dorset, were the Palaeoeskimo descendents of the Arctic Small Tool tradition that moved east out of Alaska around 4000 BP and occupied all of what is now the Canadian Arctic that stretched south a few places in Newfoundland. This culture was beginning to disappear by the 1100 CE though it continued on in places like Labrador where the last settlement is dated to be only five hundred years old. Unlike the Thule, the Dorset apparently did not use dogs nor hunt whales and thus could not support a large population. Their settlements were limited to one or two houses of eight to ten people and thus could not have posed a threat to the Norse who would have had a numerical and technological advantage over them.

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