Saturday, August 31, 2013

Of ice and polar bears, or, teaching Multicultural America through sagas

How much does a polar bear weigh?
Enough to break the ice.

This has nothing to do whatsoever with the rest of the post.
Well, except for breaking ice. And Iceland.
I swear I am more coherent in class.

As of now, I have been teaching the undergraduate course titles Cultural Pluralism in the USA for an entire week. Most of my class are freshmen. As a storyteller, I am accustomed to working with teenagers; they are my favorite audience ever. I have discovered that freshmen are not all the different from teenagers.
What is different, however, is the fact that I am the teacher this time, not the super cool mysterious storyteller who visits the class to bring magic into everyday life. It took me some time to come to terms with that. And then I decided that storytelling shall happen, teacher or not.

Next week, we are going to start discussing the history of various ethnicities and cultural groups in the USA, against the backdrop of the history of immigration. With that in mind, I started the introductions with the topic of communication between cultures, languages, and the general issue of (mis)understanding each other over cultural barriers. That led me to remember a story that I have done some research on during my studies in Archaeology, when I was taking Icelandic saga classes for extra credit. The random piece of story and memory soon evolved into a lesson plan.
The story in question is the Saga of the Greenlanders. It has everything to do with multicultural America: it is our first source of European settlers and Native Americans meeting, trading and fighting; it also names the first known European child born on American soil (his name is Snorri). It has a scene that is especially dear to my heart in which Gudridr, the daughter-in-law of Erik the Red, meets an Indian woman, and they attempt to communicate (while their husbands are killing each other outside the house). It names instances of Vikings and Indians negotiating their cultural differences (pretty badly, which results in us not counting the settling of America from 1000 AD). It is also an important source on the life of women in the Viking era.
Yeah, I told the story in class, from Gudridr's perspective, who is a fascinating character by herself. It's definitely a keeper. And yeah, it is part of a longer epic...

To go with the storytelling experience, I also found an article written about the "My name is Gudridr" scene that discusses the possibility that the other woman (never named) was Indian. I assigned the article, told the story, and planned a discussion session about what all this one short tale tells us about cultures, communication, understanding, and the history of America.

Last but not least, it also broke the ice. Vikings tend to do so.