INLReads: Background notes for Wendigo

Something I’ve always appreciated about people of Icelandic background’s is their ability to laugh at themselves. Sharp witted poetry that deflates egos and reveals less than stellar behaviours have a long history. Vanity and foolishness have always been frequent targets.
Story telling about community absurdities and individual idiosyncrasies are not exclusive to Icelandic society or culture. However, in my experience, such anecdotes, usually verbal, seem exceptionally common.
When the settlers came to New Iceland, they were a homogeneous group. Until they got onto ships to go to England or Scotland, many people had never met someone who was not Icelandic. The port cities in the UK were a great shock. Letters written about the experience are well known. The large horses, the stone buildings, the travel by train, everything, everything was foreign.
Quebec City must have been as strange to people who had spent their lives on isolated farms as some crazed fantasy. Always travelling, trusting to the agents you weren’t sure could be trusted, and sometimes were untrustworthy, by ship to England or Scotland, by train to the  next port, by ship to Amerika, by more ships along the Great Lakes, up rivers, into endless wilderness. With people dying on the way, dying on ships, dying in ports, dying on ships travelling westward, dying on rivers, on barges, on wilderness beaches, in lonely cabins.
In Iceland there were the trolls, the huldafolk, the ghosts, the witches and here, in the wilderness were the people they’d been warned about, the Indians, and with them came stories of Wendigo. There were violent, dangerous gods in the forests that were already terrifying, life threatening.
And Wendigo. Who was Wendigo? He was more than one. They roamed the forest. They were humanlike dogs, evil, practicing cannibalism. If a person ate human flesh, he became a Wendigo. They knew no limits but were driven by gluttony, greed and excess. As part of the transformation caused by eating human flesh, they grew in size and, like a troll, became large.
It is not hard to imagine in those early dark winters, huddled in crowded cabins, ill fed, hungry, surrounded by freezing temperatures, howling storms, people believing in Wendigo. A new country, new terrors. Even in a place called New Iceland, the integration has begun. Guttumor Guttormsson says in one of his essays that it was a joyous day when he got his first moccasins to replace his Icelandic shoes. Terror and comfort from a new culture.
The story, though, is not about Wendigo tearing anyone to shreds and eating him. It’s about the foolishness of the community in squabbling over petty issues instead of working together. The early religious conflicts come to mind but there were other conflicts as well. Perhaps the amount of community conflict that existed was because in Iceland people lived on isolated farms instead of in villages. Each farm was its own community. As one farm owner in Iceland said, “I’m Emperor here.”, comparing himself to Napoleon. If farm owners were self-important little Napoleans, it’s no wonder that they were notorious for being in constant conflict. Visitors to Iceland commented on the amount of conflict between and among the farmers.  Perhaps, it had to do with conditions further back in time with a society that could charge, arrest, convict but had no way of enforcing a sentence. That was left to whoever had reason to enforce it. Gunnar is not executed by a government executioner but is brought down by a vigilante posse.
When I went to university, I did not know the difference between a discussion and an argument. What I had experienced was argument. When people had different opinions, I was used to hearing adults arguing and the arguing often, especially if fueled by alcohol, turned to shouting and shouting to violence. Instead of reasoned discussion there was opinion, opinion often based on no facts. Instead of a sharing of opinion and information, there were entrenched positions which, if challenged, made the person with a different opinion, the enemy.  It took some time before I realized the difference and that people could, with good reason, hold opinions different from mine and that, if I knew my subject matter, I might get them to modify their positions and vice versa. I learned that I didn’t have to be “right” all the time and that there was nothing sacred about my opinions. I also learned that I could work with people who had many different opinions than me: religious, political, social. In a larger way, this was the same struggle that the community in a multi-ethnic society  was having to learn.
This story has as a protagonist a young boy who is, in a dishonest and cowardly fashion, chosen by the men in the community to seek out Wendigo, to steal his cache of furs, furs that the community hopes will relieve them of their poverty. The choice of a young boy allows for his naiveté, for his bravery, for his innocence, for his being able to honestly report on what it is that he has learned. Innocence often reveals foolishness.
It is a child who says the Emperor has no clothes.
The community, in spite of its poverty, retains its pretensions, its vanities and its petty conflicts. The sheep farmers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, stubbornly don’t move to a better, drier place to raise sheep but build rafts. The settlers away from the village are filled with fears and transfer them onto an imaginary villain. Through all these adult fears and weaknesses, the young boy has to search until he reaches an understanding of the community.
The protagonist, Jon Litla (Little Jon), doesn’t find Wendigo or his furs but he does find truth.   (“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children”)
 

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.