Islendingadagurinn 125

viking ship

Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Celebration, The Icelandic Festival, The Gimli Pickerel Party

There’s Christmas. There’s Easter. There’s Thanksgiving. However, none of those days, for those of us who grew up in Gimli, Manitoba, are as important as the first weekend in August. That’s when the holiday with the unpronounceable name, Islendingadagurinn happens. Part of the charm of this celebration has been its wickedly long Icelandic name. An Icelandic Celebration, an Icelandic Festival, a Gimli Pickerel Party don’t have the same cachet. I mean, how do you beat answering the question what are you doing on the long weekend with “I’m going to Islendingadagurinn.”?

This year is going to be the 125th anniversary of Islendingadagurinn. My great grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my father went to Islendingadagurinn and I went to Islendingadagurinn. Not calling this celebration Islendingadagurinn is like sawing the horns off the Viking statue that stands on guard over Gimli. His helmet may not be authentic because of the horns but so what, no real Vikings landed on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875. Our ancestors did. They were sheep farmers, fishermen, indentured servants, people driven out of Iceland by weather, politics and poverty. However, a statue of a sheep farmer doesn’t have the same impact as a Viking with a horned helmet. If the Viking had any sense of branding they’d have put horns on their helmets.

Gimli, when I grew up there in the 1940s and 1950s, was Icelandic to the core. Yes, there were other ethnic groups represented: Ukrainian, German, Polish, Aboriginal, Scots, English, Irish, the odd Dane but the town was Icelandic. They dominated the local politics. They dominated the business community. They were the social elite. Even small Manitoba towns have social elites. Icelandic was spoken in stores, in church, in homes. The Viking with horns hadn’t been built yet. He wasn’t yet needed to remind us of who we were.

In the 40s, Islendingadagurinn was mostly a family affair. It was mostly about those local people who had moved away, coming back to touch base with coffee and kleiner and vinarterta. And mom and dad and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins. People of Icelandic descent are big on family relationships. They can drink four pots of coffee while discussing how they’re all related to everyone else at the kitchen table.

Islendingadagurinn grew. People used to come down on the train, then cars became more available and people drove from near and far. Like from Winnipeg and Brandon and even Edmonton and Calgary. They came from other small communities in Manitoba’s Interlake. The parade which, at first, was some cars decorated with colored ribbon and signs announcing local politicians as passengers added the Shriners. The Shriners brought color, music, entertainment, turned the parade into a spectacle worthy of a city instead of a small Manitoba town. That, in turn, attracted bigger and better floats. The parade now is an event not to be missed.

As more people came to share in the Icelandic experience, more events needed to be created for them. The visitors were no longer just relatives enjoying a visit and a beer. There were the usual races, the speeches by the Fjallkona (the queen of the mountain), by distinguished visitors from Iceland but when people pour into town by the thousands, you’ve got to find something for them to do. That meant beer gardens, fish filleting competitions, knocking each other off poles over the water in the harbour, making sand castles, hosting a Viking village (I love the Viking village), creating a heritage display and sale at the local park, having pancake breakfasts, supplying Icelandic dainties. It all takes hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers work all year long to put on a four day festival. If they get any reward at all, it might be having lunch en mass with some Icelandic dignitary.

Along with the volunteers, local businesses pony up money to pay for musical concerts. They often pony up a lot of money because the concerts are by top notch professionals.

It’s ironic, in a way, that the year of Islendingadagurinn’s 125 anniversary, there is a problem with financing. I guess there’s always been a problem because there’s no way of charging all those thousands of people who come to have an Icelandic experience. Here, on Vancouver Island, we have the Saanichton Fair. It’s a knockout agricultural fair. However, it takes place in the country on fenced in grounds. You pay at the gate for the day or for the weekend. No one minds. We all line up and push our money through the ticket seller’s window and get our hand stamped. We all know that events have to be financed.

To me, although I left Gimli in 1957 to go to university and have lived away ever since, coming back in the summers, Islendingadagurinn is Gimli. It’s Gimli’s heart. It’s Gimli’s identity. But it is more than that, otherwise, it would just be a small town festival. It’s at the heart of the Icelandic North American community. It’s a public expression of who we are.

I write from half a continent away at a time when the Gimli park is deep in snow, the temperature hovers around -35, the choice of Gimli as a place to create New Iceland, is highly questionable, but the snow will melt, the air will warm, summer will come.

Many of us will travel great distances to participate in Islendingadagurinn, even though it may be called something else. For those of us raised in Gimli, the celebration will always be Islendingadagurinn. The Icelandic flags and the Fjallkona in her robes representing the Icelandic landscape will always be with us.

It has taken tremendous dedication and hard work to preserve this celebration of our history and culture for 125 years. I hope that those who have taken on the task today find a way to finance Islendingadagurinn for another 125.

The Persimmon Tree

persimmon
Interesting idea, culture.

We defend it, promote it, sometimes have riots over it, pass laws about, even go to war over it.

Our culture is, of course, superior to everyone else’s. Even though, in truth, most ethnic groups that have been in Canada any length of time usually know very little about the culture of the country they came from, often don’t speak the language except for a few pet words, know no more of their history than what they see in movies or see in travel brochures. That’s not to criticize anyone. It’s a normal process to become like the culture of the country in which you live. The past is past. And memories of the past are often not even accurate.

When I lived in Southern Missouri for four years, I lived in a world that had little connection to Gimli, Manitoba or Winnipeg or even Manitoba. It was for me and my family an exotic place filled with both pleasures and dangers.

There was no vinarterta but there were pecan pies. The pecans were grown locally and the pie makers usually shelled their own nuts.Pecans and pecan trees and pecan tree rustling were a big part of local lore.

We had watermelon picnics. Big watermelons. Huge watermelons. One cent a pound if I remember correctly. We stopped one afternoon at a zinc lined tank that held water, ice and watermelons and bought a watermelon that was sixty pounds. In Manitoba, my mother bought pieces of watermelon and divided it up amongst us. With sixty pounds of watermelon and four people there was no need to skimp and since the temperature was over a hundred and the humidity so high it felt like we were breathing water and sweat ran down our legs into our sandals, when we got home we dug right in. We knew it would be sweet because the farmer in overalls and a wide brimmed hat had a little device he had plunged into the watermelon and taken out a plug so we could taste it. No chance of getting a watermelon that tasted like a cucumber.

We were invited to parties where we all took turns cranking the handle to make home-made ice cream to eat with a variety of home baked cakes.

We arrived one hot, humid evening, having pulled a trailer all the way from Winnipeg. It took us three days and two nights and we were so tired we just threw blankets on the floor of our rented house and fell asleep.

We woke to the sound of a Manitoba blizzard racing through the hydro wires and the knocking of a lady neighbour with a apple pie she had made for us. Turned out there was no wind, it was as hot and humid as ever, with the heavy sweet smell of Rose of Sharon that grew as a hedge along the back lane. The intense humming were cicadas, millions of them in the grass, in the trees, hard bodied insects, the males of which were “singing” to attract a mate.

Mrs. Berry, she who brought us a pie, gave me a piece of local culture, immediately. She said that the caragana hedge that ran along the sidewalk needed to be cleaned out. The house had been empty for a number of months and paper and plastic and leaves had been caught at ground level. I’ll do that as soon as I can, I said and she replied, not with your hands, which was exactly what I would have done. Use a rake or a long stick. Rattle snakes like to lie in places like that. She also added that when we got up in the morning, I was to check that there were no snakes on the patio before I let the children out onto it. And to keep the screen door shut. Otherwise, we might have an unwelcome visitor. Snake lore. Sort of like knowing not to leave food on the picnic table at the fish camp on Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, you might have a large, black unwelcome visitor. Lake Winnipeg bear lore.

We’d had to find Missouri on a map. We didn’t know anything about its history. Had to learn from the locals that it had been a border state in the civil war, that the city had been burned to the ground by union soldiers enraged by bushwhackers ambushing some of their compatriots. We had to learn that every family in town knew what side their great grandparents had supported, South or North.

We had to learn that even though it was the 1970s, this was a sundowner city. What’s that? I asked. “Blacks are okay in city limits during the day. Not after sundown,“ I was told. I was shocked but then I thought about how native people in Manitoba have often been treated.

There were small things. The most popular drink was Cherry Coke. I’d never heard of it. And I couldn’t ask for potato chips if I wanted French fries.

Although it sounds like stereotyping, there were dogs, coons, guns and mules. And coal towns where miners and their families lived until strip mining ripped out all the coal and left great gaping gashes in the land. Then, with no work, people moved and since most of the buildings were made of brick, the buildings sat in the Missouri heat until at least one town we regularly visited was bought by a single person who turned it into a furniture shopping mecca.

In the Icelandic Canadian community of Manitoba, poverty and the role of the fishing industry, the large American companies who exploited the fishermen, are all part of our culture. In Missouri it was the companies who came to strip away the coal, then leave wreckage behind.

There were, we found, talented musical instrument makers, local musicians and just as we often read and write about Riverton and the various groups who began there, there was local music.

There were revival meeting, especially in the spring. Hellfire and damnation preachers scaring the not-so-wicked into repenting and becoming reborn—at least for a few weeks.

There were the slow drawls and women in the local stores calling me “Honey”. There were wild persimmon trees. That’s what caused me to write this reminiscence. In Manitoba we searched out wild plums, raspberries, wild strawberries whose smell was the sweetest smell of summer, saskatoons and chokecherries.
persimmon tree Japan

In Missouri in the fall heat we saw trees covered in fruit that looked like small yellow tomatoes and when we asked were told these were persimmon trees. We did not know what to do with them so we left them on the trees. I regret not having asked because persimmons are eaten raw, are also cooked and used in baking. They are part of the local cooking and history and culture.

Today, these many years later, I ate a persimmon I’d bought at the local Chinese store. It was sweet, delicious and it made me think about my four years in a culture I loved but barely got to know. I canoed on one of the Ozark rivers, I taught for free in the basement of a bar in Kansas City, Mo., I saw a water moccasin on the road, I ate more pecan pie than is good for anyone’s blood sugar, I learned to shoot a pistol (badly) and I traveled through the night to a barn in the middle of nowhere to eat the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Most of these are small things. They are only connected by place. But that is the way culture is. It is a way of life much of which is governed by the landscape, by local resources, by history. It contains with it the good and the bad created by time and circumstance. The locals live it from the day they are born and they know a thousand thousand things. Those of us who come to it later never fully know the complexities of local culture but we can still be intrigued, interested, and do our best to understand.

On Losing Icelandic

alphabet

There were good reasons for our immigrant great grandparents and grandparents not wanting their children to learn Icelandic.

All you have to do is read some books about how immigrants were treated. The stories are disheartening. The racism, tribalism, and prejudice was overwhelming. Comments about immigrants in the newspapers are shocking.

Icelanders, when they first came to Canada, were not considered equal to people from the UK. Icelanders were not “white”. It took a long time for people of Icelandic background to gain social status, to be accepted by Anglo society. A Northern Irish accent got my Irish grandfather a job at Eaton’s but until Signy Hildur Stefansson married David Eaton, an Icelandic accent wouldn’t. When Signy married into what was considered Canada’s royal family it suddenly raised the social status of the Icelandic community.

Icelanders came to Canada, in the most part, to flee from poor treatment, from poverty, from natural disasters. They were so poor that they required government assistance to move internally. No one is impressed by poverty. No one wants to associate with poverty or marry poverty. No one wants to hire poverty unless it is to exploit it.

The Icelanders, like all immigrants, had to fight to be accepted and make a place for themselves and their children. By the time David Eaton married Signy, Icelanders had adapted to Canadian society, had established themselves in education, law and business.

The Icelanders adapted in a number of ways. They gathered together in groups. They formed organizations. They supported each other through the worst of the transition period. They changed their names, made them more English sounding. My great great uncle changed his last name from Gottskalksson to Olson. Good move. They learned English.

They emulated how the English dressed. They learned English manners. They learned English law. Most of them, like the immigrant groups who followed them, did not teach their children their native language. They understood that having an accent meant that you were not one of “us”, that is, the ruling class, you were “other”. And “other” is always treated with suspicion, denied a place with the majority. If you have an accent, you are one of those others.

They were, like all immigrants, caught in two worlds. They needed their immigrant world to provide help and protection. A group is always stronger than an individual. However, to prosper, they needed to become part of the bigger world, the world of the dominant social and economic class.

The transition took time. My great great grandfather and my great grandfather came from Iceland in 1878. Their native language was Icelandic. My great great grandfather died two years after coming to Canada. His son. Ketill, made a place for himself in the Icelandic community. He was active in social, religious and political activities. He was fluent in Icelandic and English but Icelandic was essential to his business as a dairyman and storekeeper.

His son, my grandfather, born in Canada, spoke Icelandic, needed it for a social life, and for business. As a carpenter and sometime fisherman, he worked for people in the local Icelandic community but he also worked for non-Icelanders. English was becoming more important to survival and prosperity.

My father, in his turn, knew just enough Icelandic to get by. It was useful socially and in business but it wasn’t essential. He had no accent. From him, I learned no Icelandic. The transition to being part of the larger society was complete. In spite of my last name, I was one of “us”. Educated, no accent, English speaking. Dress me up and call me Smith or Jones or Brown and I could pass as the descendent of the British working class.

There are, somewhat surprisingly, families who have retained the Icelandic language. In many cases, they have married within the Icelandic Canadian community or even have married someone from Iceland. We point them out and are proud of them. They carry the flag for all of us. However, they are an anomaly not a majority. Icelandic being spoken in stores and at social occasions even in New Iceland has been replaced by a weekly meeting at Amma’s restaurant in Gimli where people can practice speaking Icelandic and there’s an Icelandic reading class in Arborg. Where Icelandic was a natural language used in every day communication, it has become something that has to be preserved. When something has to be preserved, it has become a museum piece.

In multicultural societies, it is normal for immigrants to change, to fit in. In Canada the language that binds people together is English. It allows communication across cultural and linguistic barriers.

What society faces is no different than what my grandfather faced after his Icelandic wife died and he married a woman who was Polish and German. Her family spoke English, Polish, German and Ukrainian. His family spoke English and Icelandic. Faced with a tower of Babel, he declared that only English would be spoken in his house.

Learning English, learning to speak without an accent, were all part of necessary adaptation. However, as we lose our original language, there is much more than words that we lose.

UNESCO says, “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value system, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrevocable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries.”

The cost of this loss is all around us. The Icelandic immigrants were not only literate but proud of their literature. There was a tradition of literacy and of the writing of both poetry and prose. At one time there were more books in Icelandic published in Manitoba than in Iceland. When I was gathering and preserving Icelandic books, I found books that had been published not just in Winnipeg but in Gimli and Riverton. Writing about their lives and feelings was so important that books were published even in small villages.

Those books reflect the concerns, the beliefs of our people. Unable to read them, we cannot know what moved the authors to express themselves in poetry and prose. We do not just lose the words, we lose the voices and, along with the voices, an understanding of the generations from which we have sprung.

By losing the language, we’ve also lost our connection to Icelandic literature. Good translations are a treasure but they are not the same as reading the sagas in the original or reading Haldor Laxness in the original or reading anything in the original. Words are not simple. They are freighted with meaning. They are culturally embedded. It is impossible to capture all the connotations of words in a translation.
I grieve that loss. I blame no one. What was done was necessary. Survival always comes first. It wasn’t just our grandparents or our parents. It is not like they failed us. We were part of the equation.

Remembering our teenage selves, I ask myself would we have wanted to learn Icelandic? Would these arguments about preserving our heritage mattered enough for us to have made the effort to learn a language that had no daily relevance to us? I doubt it. Elvis ruled. Hollywood ruled. We wanted to be individuals while being just like all of our peers. We wanted to have good jobs, a nice car, have a girlfriend or boyfriend, then a family. We wanted to get ahead. For those things, we needed English.

I wonder, though, when our grandparents and older family members listened to us chattering in English, a language some of them never did learn, if they sometimes wondered if this was what they or their parents had intended as the outcome from that difficult journey across the Atlantic? Because we were unable to talk to them, unable to read what it is they wrote—all those letters, diaries, books of poetry—we lost them as we rushed into the future.

The conflict between those who wanted to adapt as quickly as possible and those who wanted to preserve a New Iceland in Canada went on from the very beginning. It was not only an Icelandic dream. There were New Denmarks, New Finlands, New Swedens, New (name any area from which immigrants came).

Vestiges remain. There are places where fragments of the early society can be seen, mostly in local museums. Languages are promoted in ethnic clubs. There are classes. However, ethnic groups in a multicultural society constantly fragment.

What is learned in the long term is what is useful in daily life.

At the university level, language programs in Ukrainian, Russian, the Scandinavian languages, are being closed as programs are being opened in Asian languages. Money flows to where there are opportunities in trade and employment.

For those of us who wish to keep the opportunity open for young people to study Icelandic, to learn about Icelandic history and culture, we have to fund and re-fund, the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba, the Icelandic library, scholarships, research grants. We have got to say, with our dollars, Icelandic matters. What was done was necessary but we are long established in Canadian society now. We don’t have to give up anything more to survive and prosper.

New books from Iceland: Björn G. Björnsson

kirkjur_vidimyrarkirkja_nl

The doorbell rang and when I went to see who was there, I found a package that said, “Iceland Post”. When I opened it, there were four books that I am happily adding to my library. The photographs, text and design for all four books are by Björn G. Björnsson.

The books are Large Turf Houses, Turf Churches, Writer´s Homes, 18th Century Stone Buildings. The books have minimal text but it is helpful in explaining the significance of the pictures. In 18th Century Stone Buildings, there is a quarter page description of VIÐEY HOUSE. It says, in part, “In 1752-5 the Danish authorities built a fine residence on Viðey Island off Reykjavík for Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, known as the Father of Reykjavík. Desgned by Danish court architect Niclai Eigtved, Viðey House was the first stone building in Iceland.“

NES HOUSE is described as “Iceland‘s first Surgeon General was appointed in 1760, and in 1761-7 a residence was built for him at Nes on the Seltjarnarnes headland, and it remains little changed.“

In the book, Writer‘s Homes, there are pictures of Halldór Laxness´s home, GLJÚFRASTEINN.“Halldór Laxness was born in Reykjavík in 1902, and published his first book in 1919…from 1945 his home was at Gljúfrasteinn in Mosfellssveit (now Mosfellsbær).” There are pictures from the Culture House/Old National Library from SNORRSSTOFA, from Jónas Hallgrímsson’s Hraun, Oxnadalur.

The book, Turf Churches, is a delight. It brings together images of churches in a way that allows this viewer to bring together many disparate images seen over the years. Among others is the church Saurbær, Eyjafjörður and the Núpsstaður Chapel. As with all the books, the presenting of these buildings both from various views of the exterior and the interior gives the mood of the buildings. It is easy to imagine those hardy Icelandic families riding up to the Núpsstaður Chapel in the 1700s to worship, visit, gossip, court, chew some snuff and even have a drink or two. Nice details are included in these short descriptions. For examples ‘Hannes Jónsson of Núpsstaður was a renowned mail-carrier in the days before the nearby glacial rivers were bridged; he guided travellers across the perilous rivers on horseback.”

Large Turf Houses will be a favorite of visitors. It will be hard not to buy this book after visiting some of these houses. Icelandic North Americans frequently talk about the turf houses they have visited. They are fascinated in places that help them to see what living conditions were like for their ancestors before the great emigration. Admittedly, this collection of large turf houses is a bit misleading as to actual living conditions. Most of our ancestors didn’t live in places like Glaumbær or Laufás. Þvera, for example, “was built in the latter half of the 19th century. On either side of the entrance are two reception rooms.” However, as I write mostly about foreign visitors to Iceland in the 19th C and these visitors, being wealthy aristocrats or clergy of high social status, they did not stay with poor farmers and fishermen. They stayed with the upper class, the kind of people who lived in these large turf houses. These pictures give a real sense of what life could be like in Iceland if you had good land, some money and good political connections.

As a North American Icelander, if there is such a thing, I’m grateful to Björn, for these books. The exterior and, perhaps, more importantly, the interior shots of the various buildings provide a clear view of what life was like for some Icelanders during the 19th C. According to his biography, Björn has worked as a designer with RÚV national TV. He also has designed sets and costumes for theatre, TV and film. He designs exhibitions for museums and visitor centres. He has made 70 TV programmes on historic buildings and sites and Icelandic cultural heritage.

They are expecting 900,000 visitors in Iceland in 2015. I expect that the visitors to the turf churches, the large turf houses, the writer´s homes, the 18th Century stone buildings, will carry away a large number of these books. If you want to have copies, I´d suggest that when you are next in Iceland, you buy them before the visiting hordes appear.