Embrace your heritage (1)


For two years, I was the editor of the bi-weekly newspaper called Lögberg-Heimskringla. It’s the oldest continually published ethnic paper in Canada. Once published in Icelandic, it is now published in English.
The paper represents in a very clear way, the progress of integration and adaptation. It was begun out of a need for Icelandic immigrants to have Canadian laws, customs explained to them in Icelandic. It provided guidance in everything in a country where everything was unfamiliar. It provided news of Iceland, Europe and beyond. It gave people who did not speak or read English a way of staying connected to their own immigrant community.
It had, in its early days, those specific functions ethnic immigrant papers have. That is, it helped people adapt. It provided advice on everything from how to grow potatoes to who to vote for. Gradually, though, the immigrant community in the area called New Iceland and in Winnipeg, began to dissipate. Members moved to other parts of the province, to other parts of the country, to the United States. More people learned to function in English. A new generation being born in Canada, even if bilingual, had English as its primary language.
The two papers, Lögberg (Lutheran and conservative) and Heimskingla (Unitarian and liberal) had followed a tradition established in Iceland where papers were  highly partisan and often reflected the extreme views of the person who started them or who edited them. The papers attacked each other. For some the conflict was entertaining. For others, it was divisive and hurtful and they withdrew their support.
The readership, as people moved away, learned English, integrated, married people of non-Icelandic background, fell. After a time, the community could not afford two papers. There weren’t enough advertisers or subscribers. Peace was established and the papers were joined.
Two of the normal forces in immigrant communities were at work. There was less need for information in Icelandic and growing integration (doing business, interacting socially) meant greater identification with the English speaking community. 
The paper, to its credit, adapted. Initially, both papers and then the combined paper, were in Icelandic. Gradually, recognition that many people of Icelandic descent born in Canada were not learning Icelandic but still wanted a paper meant that the paper started to publish some material in English.
Today the paper is published in English and with a few scattered Icelandic words and an occasional Icelandic lesson.
The paper has given up its ethnic immigrant role. No one needs to read in Icelandic how to plant onions or apply for a job. Or how to vote. Now, the paper‘s role is to celebrate the past, to help keep the wide spread communities linked, and recognize the Icelandic community‘s contribution to both Canada and the United States. It also works to keep the link between Iceland and the community alive and to provide news in English about Iceland.
The paper still plays an important role maintaining our community‘s identity. Canada is a polyglot of national groups, of languages, of cultures. We have chosen to be a multi-cultural society. That means that within the Canadian context, each group that wants to maintain its links to its pre-immigrant past needs to actively support its history, its culture, and its language. To remain cohesive and connected it needs an umbrella organization like the Icelandic National League and a publication like Lögberg-Heimskringla.
You cannot embrace your heritage unless you know about it and, to know about it, you need both organizations (clubs, the INL) and a newspaper or news magazine.  
(This series will be based on my presentation at the INL convention in Brandon, Manitoba)

Saving Our Heritage: Food

Food, more than any other element of ethnicity, helps define an ethnic group. It helps create and maintain identity.  When we want to celebrate, the first question we ask is what shall we eat? When we want to praise our Icelandic heritage, we most often praise our distinctive, celebratory foods.
When we have a celebration such as a Thorrablot, we often take people of non-Icelandic background with us as guests and say things like, wait until you taste this, try this. We revel in the unique taste of a vinarterta but also in the grossness of hakarl and revel in the telling of how it is made.
Food matters. It matters because the ingredients, the taste, the smell, the feel, all contain memories of the food’s origin.
When we eat dried cod with butter, although we now eat it as an appetizer, not as a staple in our diet, or even as a main course in our celebrations, we are recognizing and appreciating how central it was to our ancestors.
At one time it was possible to grow barley in Iceland but with the beginning of The Little Ice Age, grain would no longer ripen. All grain had to be imported and, with the cost of transportation plus the Danish trade monopoly, grain was expensive. Dried cod took its place. Because there was no fat in the dried fish, it was served with sour butter.
Shepherd, visiting Iceland in 1862, says, “”ling and cod are the most desired sorts (of fish). When caught, they are split open and hung upon lines, or exposed on the shore to the cold winds and the hot sun; this renders t hem perfectly hard, and they keep good for years. In this dried state it is called stock-fish. It is impossible to eat it until it has been well pummeled on a stone anvil, with a sort of sledge-hammer, formed by a round stone with a hole drilled through it for the handle to pass through….Butter and stock-fish form the ordinary Icelandic dinner.”
The hay growing season, and hay was the only crop, was three months long. During that three months, enough food had to be prepared and stored for the nine coming months. Iceland doesn’t get cold enough for freezing to be used to keep meat. Salt was too expensive to use for most things. Ingeniously, our ancestors figured out that climate that never got very hot and seldom very cold for any length of time that they could preserve meat in whey. They had lots of whey because they made a lot of skyr.
Nothing was wasted. Hunger always stalked the land. That meant that every part of an animal was used. We recognize that when we eat rúllupylsa, rolled and spiced sheep flank. We recognize it when we eat hrútspungar, ram´s testicles pickled in whey or when we eat lifrapylsa or slátur.
There is no food in travelers tales of Iceland that is praised more than skyr. Today, we make it from cow´s milk but, in Iceland, it was made from both cow´s and sheep´s milk. Sheep were less expensive to keep, could survive on poorer ground, and provided the bulk of the milk that was used.
In 1882, Coles says at “the farm of Mjófidalr…they set before us some capital skyr, black bread, and coffee.“
Icelandic moss was a major part of the people‘s diets. It was  nutritious and could be used in many different ways, in porridges, puddings, bread or soup. C. W. Sheperd says in his book, The North-West Peninsula of Iceland, 1862, says Part of our supper consisted of Icelandic moss soup. In those parts of the island where this moss is to be found, it is collected and dried. It grows on the low moorlands, and is to be found in great abundance about Ljósaövatn in the north-eastern part of the island. When used as food, it is boiled in milk and served up like soup. It is not unpleasant, being a soft, glutinous substance but its flavour is rather sickly.“
We don‘t see Icelandic moss soup at our Thorrablots or at our dinner tables anymore, nor do we make meals of dried Icelandic seaweed but we do eat rice pudding. Rice was inexpensive and was heavily imported to Iceland.
So, when we eat brunt brauð og rúllupylsa, have kaffe with pönnukökur and kleinur, help ourselves to vinarterta or have a slice or two of hangikjöt, we aren´t just eating, we´re sharing the past.
The immigrants went through a very rapid change in their diets. Women were the keepers of the Icelandic food tradition and they had two important tasks.  One, to keep the memory of the tradition left behind and reinstate it in their new community. Two, to adapt, as quickly as possible to new ingredients and new methods of preparation and preservation.
By creating a colony called New Iceland, that is a new Iceland, just like the old Iceland, but in a different location, the Icelandic immigrant identified themselves as cultural conservatives. The role of women in recreating an Icelandic diet in a new location or at least approximating it, provided some familiarity in an otherwise totally foreign environment.
Those early immigrations of 1874 and 1875 began a process that resulted in both tragedy and triumph. Lives were enveloped in change. The one controllable factor was the ability of the women in the community to provide familiar food or its approximate. That food provided security and comfort but it also contained and exuded memory.
By learning to make and eat many of these traditional Icelandic foods, by sharing them, by passing  them down to our children and our grand children, by explaining what they are and why we make and eat them, we can do a great deal to preserve our heritage.

Saving or heritage: clothes

 Sunna Pam Furstenau. Photo taken by her cousin, Hjálmar Stefán Brynjólfsson. The upphlutur is modern and was sewn by Oddný Kristjaánsdóttir.
One of the most noticeable things in photos taken during and shortly after immigrants arrived in Canada are their clothes. You see crowds on train platforms and you know right away from where these people have come. Icelandic clothes, German clothes, Ukrainian clothes, Mennonite clothes. 
Today, the same is true in the West End of Winnipeg. You see people in clothes from the Middle East and from Africa. You know they’re definitely not Icelandic and that they’re probably recent arrivals.
The most obvious sign of integration and assimilation into Canadian society is the changing of ethnic clothes for whatever the local people wear. Part of that is because people want to fit in. However, the need to wear clothes appropriate to both work and the climate are paramount. 

 Peysufot

Photo from upphlutur.is

Icelanders wore clothes in Iceland that were suitable for unheated houses that were constantly damp. The people also were constantly damp. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses says that he has been wet all his life and it has never done him any harm. Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s frequently mention being soaked through and how difficult it was to get their clothes dried out before they had to put them on the next day.

C. W. Shephard in 1867 and his companions, trapped for days by a May storm, decide to go out to try to bag some wild fowl. He says, “returning at night, draggled and drenched, to cook our supper in the dark recesses of the kitchen, while we hung up our soaking garments in the vain hope that the smoke from the smouldering fire might dry them.”
There were no roaring log fires, no fireplaces, no chimneys, only holes in the floor where the precious fuel of dwarf willow, peat and dried sheep dung were burned to cook porridge or bake flat bread. Skyr didn’t require cooking. Neither did dried fish. It was pounded with a stone hammer until it could be chewed.
Visitors to Iceland in the 1800s and even before always comment on the clothing that Icelandic women wear. There are often long sections describing women’s clothes. These are frequently accompanied by sketches or paintings. There are fewer descriptions of men’s clothes.
John Coles, in 1882, describes Jón of Vidrkær this way: He wore a dark suit of homespun cloth of homely cut, trousers much patched about  the knees regardless of colour and material, a black felt wideawake, and a knitted comforter round the neck…Though in outward looks he may have passed for a gentleman in reduced circumstances rather out at elbows, he was prompt in action, civil, and obliging. A bargain was soon struck for the hire of his services as guide”
 upphlutur
Photo from upphlutur.is
Jon’s wife, Johanna Katrin, is described as “a fair woman, about 30 years of age, with a pleasing expression of face and bright, healthy complexion. She wore the usual Icelandic cap with silken tassel falling down on one side of her head, and a thick woollen dress, such as is worn by any Scotch wife.”
S. E. Waller arrives in Reykjavik on a Sunday in 1874 and says this, “Just about this time the beauty and fashion of Reykjavik came pouring out of church, and we had ample opportunity for inspecting any peculiarities of dress and appearance. Many of the Iceland ladies wore bonnets and carried parasols of Danish or English manufacture, but the generality had nothing on their heads but the little black woolen cap with the silver ornament and long silk tassel used alike by rich and poor,  in-doors and out. The fashionable colour was black…The men were all dressed in dark clothes, and almost all had round felt hats.”
The appearance of the parasols and bonnets indicate that even in Iceland clothing is changing, being influenced by European fashion in Reykjavik.

Sketch by Jemima Blackburn, from How The ‘Mastiffs’ Went to Iceland, 1878

However, when Trollope comes to Iceland in 1878, he writes with great enthusiasm about “Our other Iceland beauties, Sigridur and Gudrun, were there in the full picturesqueness of their native costume. It was all very unlike the dresses of our own girls, but most unlike no doubt in the head-dress. This consisted of a white hat, with, I think, yellow bands to it, made something in the shape of Minerva’s helmet, with the crest turned forwards. From this depended a light veil covering the shoulders, and hanging down the back, but leaving the face free. Then there was a jaunty jacket, partly open in the centre, with large bright buttons down the front and on the sleeves. The skirt beneath was of some bright colour, projecting forward like an extinguisher, coming even quite down to the ground so as to hide the feet, but with no inclination towards a train. In fact it seemed to be of exactly the same length before and behind. The head-dress, as may be seen in the excellent portrait furnished by our artist, for which Sigridur had that morning sat, is very pretty. The costume as a whole is picturesque and the jacket is becoming.”
As hard as life in Iceland could be, account after account describes the shock of the Icelandic immigrants in Canada when winter set in. Icelanders had never experienced anything like it. Their houses in Iceland were made of layers of rock and turf with walls two to six feet thick. Heat was provided by body heat. Twenty people might sleep in one room. Often, heat came from the sheep and cows that were stabled next to the living quarters. Clothes were made of wool. Wool holds body heat even when wet. However, body heat and wool couldn’t keep anyone warm in forty degrees below zero in a Canadian winter.
Survival required that the Icelanders adapt in every way possible, including their clothes, as quickly as possible. The picturesque quality of the women’s clothes didn’t keep them warm.
Also, many women stayed in the cities, particularly Winnipeg, and took work as domestics. There, they learned English ways of being clean, of dressing in an English way, of how they needed to dress to fit into city society. They had risked hardship and death for opportunity and were determined to make the best of their traveling to a new country.
Living conditions outside of the city were extremely difficult. For the first few years, just as in Iceland, the struggle was to get enough food to survive. But building homes that would hold out the cold and hold in the heat from stoves was also a challenge. Cutting down trees, grubbing out tree roots, tilling the earth, were completely new. There was no farming in Iceland beyond pounding sheep manure to dust and then spreading it on the home field. The frost heaves made scything difficult and everyone worked at the haying but this wasn’t harvesting as it was known in Canada.
Icelandic clothing had to give way to clothing suitable for daily life in a country where the summers were hot, the winters, cold. Icelandic clothes had to be regulated to the closet where they would remain except for special occasions.
Today, women still wear the traditional Icelandic dresses on special occasions such as weddings or formal occasions. They are most seen at Islindingadagurinn , the INL convention or August the Deuce. They are a way of reminding people of the time of immigration, of our heritage. They’re a way of saying, “Remember your mother or amma or lang amma or lang lang amma. Remember our Icelandic heritage.”
Today, we can encourage the wearing of historic Icelandic women’s clothes as a way of reminding ourselves of our identity. It helps arouse curiosity. It gives us a chance to answer questions, to impart a bit of history. It helps set us apart as our ethnic clothes are different from that of others. 
Wearing clothes from the time of immigration pays respect to our ancestors. It says, I remember you. I haven’t forgotten. However, it would be good if at various functions there were displays naming and explaining the different costumes so that along with a sense of the exotic there is an element of education for both ourselves and strangers.
I’m quite sure that Sunna Pam Furstenau has a lot more impact on her audiences because she’s wearing her traditional Icelandic costume.