Bill Fitzhugh on Norse - Inuit exchange

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The Vinland sagas contain brief descriptions of Helluland and Markland, and many longer descriptions of interaction with a native people whom they called skraelings. These stories are important because they tell of "first contact" between westward-spreading Europeans and the eastern branch of humanity that had spread around the globe from the opposite direction. Though the sagas are the first written descriptions of Native Americans, it is rather difficult to match the descriptions in the sagas with known Native American peoples because the Norse described them with a single term. Nevertheless, the sagas paint a believable portrait of the complex interplay between the Vikings and the skraelings.

The name skraeling seems to mean scared or scruffy one, and is perhaps related to the verb meaning 'to glide'. Though its exact meaning is unclear, it was certainly a derogatory term. Still, the saga description of, "short people with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads..large eyes and broad cheeks" could be any number of Native American groups.

Inuit Tribe
Micmaq Tribe

Some scholars have attempted to use the saga descriptions of the skraelings to determine where Vikings explored and settled in Markland and Vinland. There are some tantalizing descriptions of objects used in daily life by the skraelings; wooden troughs filled with grain, cups of marrow mixed with blood, descriptions of skin boats, flailing staves (paddles?), and bull-roarers and stone axes. Based on post-Columbian ethnographic descriptions of Native Americans, some of these observations fit more closely with what we know of Inuit (Eskimo) culture, whereas others seem more akin to Woodland Indian cultures. Although suggestive, such evidence is not sufficient to determine which Native groups Vikings met on the Vinland voyages or where they met them.

The sagas are perhaps more helpful in reconstructing the relationship that existed between the Vikings and the Norse. The sagas suggest that the Vikings sought peaceful relationships with the skraelings through trade. Karlsefni and his crew traded milk and cloth for fur from the skraelings they met, while forbidding the trade of weapons. But the more memorable saga descriptions of the skraelings are from the battles and killings.
RealAudio Listen to the story of Freydis and the Skraelings (RealAudio).

But the Norse were not always victors, nor was the campaign so organized. In one episode, Thorfin Karlsefni killed a group of skraelings simply because he thought they might be "outlaws." The most famous Markland skirmish resulted in the death of Leif's brother Thorvald. Withdrawing an arrow from his gut he proclaimed with aplomb, "Fat paunch that was. We've found a land of fine resources, though we'll hardly enjoy much of them...".
RealAudio Listen to the story of Thorvald (RealAudio).