Embrace Our Heritage Part 3


The theme of the Brandon INL annual conference was “Embrace Your Heritage”.
I’d tried to do that some time ago by writing a book of folk tales set in Iceland and New Iceland. What The Bear Said has fourteen stories. Some take place in Iceland. Some take place in New Iceland in Canada. However, I realized that the characters both human and other wise, lived in a third world, a world that only they could experience. I called that the In Between World. That was the world experienced by people who lived in both Iceland and Canada.
Only these people ever could live in this In Between World. Those who stayed in Iceland would remain in their known world. Those born in Canada would remain in their known world. My great great grandparents and my great grandparents, however, would live out their lives in this In Between World.  
Dividing these worlds up made me realize that much of what I once thought of as my Icelandic heritage is actually my Canadian, Manitoba, Gimli heritage. If, when I was young, someone had asked me about my Icelandic background, I’d have talked about pickerel fillets, Lutheran Sunday school, smoked Goldeye, hockey, fishing on Lake Winnipeg, Islindingadagurinn, Tergesen’s general store, Bjarnason’s dry goods and grocery store and, of course, Icelandic food.
When I was young, people still spoke Icelandic over the coffee table. You heard it in the stores. But not in our house. My mother was Irish. Not in my grandfather’s house. After his wife Icelandic wife died, he married a woman who was German and Polish. You also heard Ukrainian in the schools and on the playground. My favorite English dialect was called Bungi, a mixture of Cree, Scots, and Orkney. It was the most mellifluous language I’ve ever heard. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, me—four generations in Canada and the disintegration and integration was well under way.
However, Gimli, the original centre of New Iceland, having a lot of residents of Icelandic background made it feel, when I was a kid, as if hockey had something to do with being Icelandic. The hockey players had names like Sveinson, Bjarnason, Kristjanson, Valgardson, Magnusson. 
The truth is that in small towns all over Canada populated by widely different ethnic groups, hockey was being played. Hockey was a Gimli experience, a Manitoba experience, a Canadian experience. The fact that many of us had Icelandic backgrounds was incidental. Kids of an Icelandic background got to play Canadian hockey but so did Polish, Ukrainian, German, English, Scots, Irish kids.
I knew the world of New Iceland because I grew up in it. Yet, even here, there was a whole background that I didn’t know, partly because most of the material the early settlers recorded was written in Icelandic and by my generation, the fourth generation, the language was lost to most of us. The truth is that the hockey team that won the first Olympic gold medal, the Falcons, made up of Icelandic players, had to fight to be allowed to compete.
To me, the other world, the world of Iceland just before and during the period of emigration was a complete mystery. This was the world in which my great great grandparents and great grandparents were born and lived.
My research has shown that nearly everything I’d been told about Iceland when I was growing up turned out to be wrong. Not because anyone lied but because Iceland was a long distance from Gimli, Manitoba both in miles and time. In many cases people simply misunderstood what they had heard.  Iceland had an early parliament, for example, but it was not a democracy, it was not representation by population, ordinary people didn’t get to vote. Nor were women fierce independent warriors. Most of them were hired help on farms and lived lives of dreadful drudgery and deprivation.
Discovering that my great great grandparents weren’t dashing Vikings but indentured farm laborers living in an agrarian society that had great difficulty feedings itself meant if I were going to embrace my real heritage, I needed to learn as much about Iceland in the 1800s as possible.
Great grandpa, it turned out wasn’t a Viking raider. He was a farm laborer. He didn’t come to Canada to pillage but for the opportunity of having his own farm and dairy business. Kirk Douglas would never have been interested in playing him in a Hollywood movie.

Icelandic National League convention

The Kaffi Tima choir welcomes the multitude.
Embrace your heritage. That was the rallying cry of the 93rd Icelandic National League convention.
I drove for three days from Victoria, BC to Brandon, Manitoba. To embrace his heritage, Henry Bjornsson drove from Seattle. Claire Eckley was late coming from Minneapolis because she was caught in a storm. Joan Cadham Eyolfsson and friends came from Foam Lake. The gathering of the clan was taking place.
In Brandon, Harold and Norma Jonasson, along with Bob Isleifson and the club volunteers, were taking care of the last details, preparing for over 170 attendees.
Over a year in the making, the convention was coming together.

At conventions, food matters and the free breakfasts that had been arranged were outstanding. I was fed ham and cheese omelets, vegetable omelets, light breakfasts of peach yogurt with fruit. The coffee was good enough to please even Icelanders, the world‘s coffee connoisseurs.

There were coffee breaks with pönnukökur, rullupylsa, vinarterta. The skyr with cream and sugar was outstanding.
Entertainment is always important. The Kaffi Tima choir warmed up the crowd at the meet and greet. Entertainment is a way for a club to show off young talent and the young talent on show wowed the crowd, none more so than  Ari Jakobson who styles himself as a crooner.  Heather Jonasson presented a magical program on the flute. The three national anthems were sung by Heather Jordan, accompanied by Theresa Thordarson. That’s easy to say, national anthems sung by…, just try singing, Oh, Canada, The Star Spangled Banner and Ó Guð vors lands one after the other. And do it well.
Awards are always a big part of conventions. They´re the once a year opportunity for the Icelandic North American community to honour people who have worked for years as volunteers. I was pleased to see my friend Gunthora receive the Laurence Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Gunthora (fourth from the left) receiving her award.

There are the lectures and speeches, of course. They provide the backbone, the justification for all this music and eating and talking and hugging and even kissing. Icelanders are notorious kissers.

The presentation that had me rapt was Ryan Eyford´s “It Seems So Far Away to Iceland: The Correspondence of the Taylor Sisters, 1880-1930.” Everyone knows about John Taylor, the minister that led the Icelanders from Kinmount to the promised land of New Iceland. He had three daughters. Susie married a Lutheran minister, Haldor Briem, and moved to Iceland. She never returned to Canada. Ryan is working with the letters from her correspondence with her sisters.

Alana Odegard gave a talk on her seven years in Iceland. She went through the things about Iceland she misses, and to much laughter, the oddities of Icelandic society. She never adjusted to svið. She discovered that Icelanders don´t believe in planning too far in advance. Everyone dresses well. She misses the ocean, the language, Icelandic candy and the swimming pools.
There was relief to hear that the Snorri program is fully booked. Nelson is continuing with his massive Silent Flashes project. Logberg-Heimskringla is doing well. Harley Jonasson laid out the ambitious Riverton Heritage project. Johann Sigurdson and David Collette are organizing the Fara Heim Expedition. They’re taking a sailboat around the northern seas searching for evidence of Viking landings. If anyone would like to join them, they can do so by paying a passenger’s fee. Peter Bjornson and Tammy Axelson reported on the Gimli Heritage museum and Peter is promoting a new project of collecting rocks in Iceland and Canada, shipping them to the opposite country and building cairns with them.
The heavyweights of the conference were Donald K. Johnson and Ambassador Þórður Ægir Óskarsson. Don, as he has so many times before, contributed financially to the conference. He explained the current financial situation in Iceland and spoke about the possibility of Iceland adopting the Canadian dollar. This was Þórður Ægir Óskarsson’s first INL convention. He has a good sense of humour. Given the financial situation of Iceland and Europe, the effort needed to deal with our many desires and demands, he will need it.
The last day there was a highly successful bus tour to Bru and Grund.
As for me, I drove a long way, it cost quite a bit, six nights in hotels, gas, meals.  But I got to see a lot of friends, had a chance to make many more friends, caught up on community news, heard a lot of interesting talks, saw places I hadn’t seen before. I even gave a talk in which I got to expound on life in 19th C. Iceland, one of my favorite topics, and the major subject of my blog site, wdvalgardsonkaffihus. The convention flattered me by choosing my book of Lake Winnipeg folk tales, What The Bear Said, for their online reading club. Pretty hard to beat that.
Next year the INL convention is in Seattle. It’ll be a shorter drive from Victoria. A longer hike from Nova Scotia or Ottawa. It’ll be worth the trip. I’m sure of that. I’ll see you there.