A Revelation

Using a crosscut saw

Using a crosscut saw

I had a revelation last Sunday. Nope, didn’t see Elvis in the Laundromat. Instead, I saw kids at Ruckle Park Farm Day. I saw, in two hours, what we need to do to pass on our heritage to our kids and grandkids.

When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I constantly heard the refrain, “We’ve got to do something to get our kids involved in their Icelandic heritage.” It is not a new refrain. In 1960, when I was a university student, I sat in meetings discussing the same topic. That was 53 years ago.

For me, over the years, that Icelandic heritage has been most apparent at Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival, in Gimli, Manitoba.

Although there have long been foot races at the Gimli community park and, in later years, a family sand castle event on the beach, and the Monday parade, there isn’t much to connect children to their Icelandic heritage.

Part of the problem is that no one has ever defined our Icelandic heritage.

Viking heritage 764-1066

Icelandic heritage 1067-1890

North American Icelandic heritage 1870 to the present

Which is it that we celebrate?

Is it just a Viking heritage? Has so little of value been accomplished in Iceland since 1066 that there is no heritage worth celebrating from that time on? If we are really only going to want to transfer on to our children and grandchildren knowledge of Viking culture, then we need to do more than buy them a plastic sword and helmet. The Vikings had a culture with many historic accomplishments beyond their being pirates.

However, it seems to me, that there are a host of cultural facts and accomplishments from 1066 to the time when our great grandparents came to New Iceland that are worth celebrating and passing on.
I think there are a lot of cultural facts and accomplishments to celebrate from the time our people left Iceland and came to Canada.

At Ruckle Park Farm Day I saw children actively involved in crafts and historic tasks. I thought, we could do similar things. Not just at Islendingadagurinn but at the Arborg Historic Village and the Icelandic Riverton Heritage project.

Learning to spin.

Learning to spin.

What did I see that made me so enthused? Well, first of all, I saw adults showing children how to card wool, how to tease it, how to spin it. Over the centuries, Icelandic wool and the products made from it provided a barter currency that allowed our ancestors to obtain the goods they needed to survive. It also provided them with clothes in a hostile climate. These skills I saw being passed on were critical for Iceland’s survival. Surely, we, too, could celebrate this aspect of our ancestors’ culture by having displays and demonstrations and opportunities for young people to try out the various aspects of preparing and spinning wool.

Learning to weave.

Learning to weave.

I also saw a young girl being shown how to weave. Our ancestors clothed themselves in a coarse cloth called wadmal. It was warm, hardy, valuable, so valuable that it was used in place of currency. Value of something such as a horse, or even a farm, could be determined by the ells of wadmal it was worth. I think these skills are worth demonstrating and teaching. I think the critical role they played is worth teaching.

I saw logs had been set up ready for sawing with a two man cross cut saw. Cross cut saws were of major importance in the clearing of land and the harvesting of timber in BC. I saw kids cutting logs. I saw parents cutting logs with their kids. When the Icelandic settlers first came to Winnipeg, wood was still being used to heat buildings. Vast amounts of it were cut and shipped to the city. Icelandic men went from door to door offering to cut wood. It was even called the cordwood economy. Surely, this is worth demonstrating, teaching about, providing an opportunity to see what it was like to saw cordwood, although the saws used would likely have been the bucksaw or the Swede saw.

There were displays of equipment with people to explain what tools were called and how they were used. How many people nowadays know what a shake maker looks like? Or how to use it? Or a butter churn? Shake makers weren’t used in Iceland but Icelanders operated on a butter economy. Butter, like wadmal, was used as a currency.

There were blacksmiths at work. At one time, every Icelandic farm had a blacksmith. There were all those horses that had to have shoes. There were all those metal items that had to be made by hand. In New Iceland, the situation was similar but because people settled in villages and towns, there was a blacksmith for each town. These blacksmiths were critical for the function of daily life.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

Every farm in Iceland had a blacksmith. Every village in Canada.

There were no displays of fishing equipment or its use since Ruckle Park Farm is just that, a farm producing fruit, grain, vegetables and meat. However, fishing was critical to survival in Iceland.

Fishing also was critical to survival in New Iceland. Yet, there is little evidence of our involving our young people in our ability as fisher folk, either in Iceland or New Iceland. There is the Gimli museum, of course, and it does an excellent job but that’s not the same as getting kids involved outdoors in historic tasks. We could set up displays of fishing nets, etc. with an opportunity for kids to try tying on a cork or crimping a lead. That is, if anyone remembers how.

We have a heritage we can be proud of. Our ancestors, both in Iceland and Canada, survived under the most difficult of circumstances. How they did that is a big part of our heritage.

It is obvious that the Riverton Heritage project might be the best place to provide a day devoted to our New Iceland ancestors. It’s in the country, there’s a farm, there’s space for demonstrations, Icelandic sheep and horses could more easily be displayed, but some of these possibilities and others, should also be explored in Gimli and Arborg. Each, Arborg, Gimli, Riverton, is and should remain distinct.

I think what I observed on Salt Spring Island was the importance of having historic activities in which young people can participate, not just observe. Historic activities that are explained.

If we don’t do something, a generation from now, our Icelandic Canadian heritage will be summed up by a kid with a plastic helmet with horns and a plastic sword eating a kleiner. Maybe that’s too optimistic. Maybe the kleiner will be gone and he’ll be eating a TimBit.

Of course, it is easy to say this. Each demonstration, each display, requires a lot of work and, in some cases, money. Volunteers are often already stretched to the limit. However, time is running out. We still have a chance, maybe the last chance, to affect our ethnic future.

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