Embrace Our Heritage Part 5


The stories in What The Bear Said are set in one or more of these three worlds. “Sigga’s Prayer”, takes place in the first world of Iceland and ends as she is leaving for Amerika. The title story of the book, “What The Bear Said”, takes place in New Iceland. “Sidewalk of Gold” begins in Iceland and ends in New Iceland. These are stories about the transition between the old world and the new world and how people joined both past and present to create these new lives. These are stories of emigration and immigration.
The Iceland of our ancestors was a harsh place. Poverty in the 1800s was endemic. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was poor, so poor that people left their home countries in vast numbers.
We can embrace our heritage by embracing facts, by embracing numbers but that is not where memories lie. When we say let us embrace our heritage, we usually mean let us embrace our families, our ancestors, our people. Our people with all their quirks and virtues and faults. Just like us and our relatives today with our virtues and faults.
 The Great Geysir

In 1874, Bayard Taylor, a famous American journalist went to Iceland to report on the visit of King Christian IX. Bayard and his companions went to the geysers at the same time as the king and his entourage.
Bayard writes, “Soon afterward there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup”. Croup is caused by a viral infection and results in a barking cough and a narrowing of the airways. It interferes with a child’s ability to breathe. The child would have been struggling to breathe. “They had carried the child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre (farm) near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (the guide) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur (the other guide) in the another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.”
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,–in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.”
“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda?” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlsson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed.”
There is everything in this account. The diseases that afflict Iceland, the lack of medical care, the stoicism of the people, the great difficulty of travel, the pride in the distant heritage and the belief that there was once a golden age.
Surely, all this is worth embracing. Reading Taylor”s various accounts of Iceland in 1874, I want to reach through time and embrace the people he describes. Taylor says “Within an hour I had seen tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge”.

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.


Our Icelandic North American Heritage: food

 Icelandic Canadian perogis with high bush cranberry jelly
Our Icelandic food heritage is greatly different from our Icelandic North American food heritage. How could it not be?
Ingredients in Iceland were severely limited. With one crop, grass, with meat and milk as staples, with fish that had to be preserved by drying, with no grain except what could be imported and that was nearly always rye, with even the hay crop failing sometimes because of cold summers, Icelandic women had few resources. Throw in a lack of fuel and, as a result of that, no stoves or ovens, and what Icelandic women did create bordered on the miraculous.
In the beginning, New Iceland was a food disaster. Nets too big, a lake that froze over, no cows for milk, land overgrown by thick bush, no experience hunting.
But that didn’t last long. With aboriginal help, hunting was learned, fishing under the ice was learned. Ground was cleared, root crops were planted. Grain was planted. Cows were obtained. There was lots of wood for stoves.
Right from the beginning, New Iceland wasn’t exclusively Icelandic. There were non-Icelanders already settled there. The most obvious were the local aboriginal people. There were Scots and Orkney men. They could not be expelled and the boundaries of New Iceland could not be hermetically sealed.
The first Icelandic settlers arrived in 1875, followed by the big group in 1876. In 1887 in the origins of the population were 835, Icelandic, 31 Scottish, 7 English, 1 French, 12 Scottish Metis, 1 Swedish and 1 Danish. In 1897 this dominance of Icelandic settlers would end. Icelandic immigration had fallen off and many Icelandic  settlers, attracted by better land and greater opportunities elsewhere, left New Iceland. The government opened up the area to anyone. Immediately, the first Ukrainian settlers arrived and settled in the Foley and Willow Creek districts. These were followed by Poles, Ukrainians and Germans.
The first Ukrainians to settle in the New Iceland area had come a long and difficult way. Emigrants who left the village of Kopychentsi, traveled by train to Lviv. From there to Antwerp. Then to Liverpool and, after a two week crossing of the Atlantic, to Halifax, then by immigrant train to East Selkirk. From there to Gimli. Their arrival made them part of our New Iceland heritage. By the time I was born in the late 1930s, while Gimli still had an Icelandic character with Icelandic being spoken in many homes, my school mates were from all the groups mentioned and many students, like me, had one parent who wasn’t Icelandic.
My Gimli food was the smorgasbord of a new land. My meals were made of rabbit, venison, beaver tail, moose, pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked sunfish, smoked Goldeye. I ate Ukrainian, German, Polish food. My mother cooked, not on a hearth in a stone floor but on a wood stove with an oven and every year someone brought cords of wood to stack in the back yard and, then, someone else came and sawed it and split it. Once I was big enough, it was my job to throw the wood into the basement. I took it for granted that we had a basement,  that our house was made of wood, the roof shingled, instead of being made of layers of rock and turf.
Cookbooks reveal society and one of my mother’s locally made cookbooks reveals our culinary heritage. It’s made up of Mrs. T. E. Thorsteinson’s Apple Pie with crumb topping, Mrs. H. G. Hunter’s Pumpkin Pie (pumpkin was a new world food unknown in Europe), Mrs. S. Eyjolfsson,s Tomato mince meat, Marshmallow Delight by Mrs. E. Montague, Mrs. Vopni’s Green Pepper salad, and there is Strawberry Jam, Apricot Preserve, Cranberry Jelly. Mrs. A. Sigurdsson from Foam Lake, Sask makes Nine Day Cucumber Pickle while Mrs. F. Lindal makes Seven Day Sweet Mixed Pickles.  
There are 128 pages. Only two pages of Icelandic Dishes.  Flatbruað, Kæfa, Skyr, Mysuostur, Pönnukökur, Rúllupylsa, Fiskibollur, Lifrarpylsa, Sago Soup. Enough has changed that Mrs. B. Pell, of Leslie, Sask. felt it necessary to explain that Mysuostur is an Icelandic whey cheese.
The women nearly all have Icelandic names and those who don´t, I expect, are Icelandic but have married non-Icelanders. They’re cooking with items they could not have dreamed of having in Iceland. Lots and lots of wheat flour, canned pineapple, chicken, peppers, corn, spaghetti, apples, pears, oranges.
In our house, we ate no dried cod, no singed sheep heads, no rotted shark, no Icelandic moss, no ram’s testicles. We only ate barley in vegetable soup.
My food heritage was made of occasional Icelandic food, blood sausage, skyr, ponnokokur, vinarterta, kleinar but equally often, of perogis (although we often ate them with high bush cranberry jelly instead of sour cream), hollopchi, borscht, kubysa, poppyseed cake. It was made up of freshwater fish. Of wild game. It was made up of fruit pies (Saskatoon pie, Saskatoon pie, If I don’t get some I think I’m going to die), a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, of white bread, of green grapes and apples and oranges and, in season, plums and pears and peaches. My fondest food memories are of beef stew and dumplings, of lemon pie, of shepherd’s pie and my grandmother’s unmatchable baking powder biscuits with homemade strawberry jam.
We weren’t rich. My father was a commercial fisherman and, in the off season, a barber. But we weren’t poor, either. My Canadian food heritage has been a cornucopia from which spill out things like maple syrup, clover honey, crab apples, high bush cranberry, stuffed whitefish, morels, moss berry tarts. It includes short breads and making toffee on winter evenings, popcorn, hot chocolate after skating. Weiners roasted over an open fire, relish, mustard. Hamburgers with the works. Rolled sandwiches with Velveeta cheese and a pickle in the centre.
My food heritage, at just one level, was Canadian because the ingredients were mostly sourced in Canada. It was Canadian because it was the result of a multi-cultural mix even before the community itself had become multi-cultural, when all the contributors to my mother’s cookbook still had nearly all Icelandic names.
We tend not to think about our Icelandic Canadian food heritage but the smorgasbord of food we ate (Sam Toy’s Chinese food in the Gimli Cafe; the food we shared at Ukrainian weddings; the English, Irish and Scot’s foods we ate at the neighbours; the aboriginal foods (bannock, wild rice, blueberries) on our table are all part of that Icelandic North American heritage.  

Going Viking Maybe?

Guy Maddin made a film called My Winnipeg. Not your Winnipeg, My Winnipeg. Winnipeg from his point of view. None of this, Our Collective Winnipeg, the kind of boring, everybody agrees on Winnipeg and offends no one. Tough on his mom maybe. Might not be great to be one of his sibs since only Guy gets to tell the story. But, it is an eccentric act of genius, because it is his Winnipeg and no one else’s, except, of course, that all of us from Winnipeg, recognize ourselves.
That’s what I was thinking about as I stared out the window today at the relentless rain. Guy Maddin and his point of view and I was thinking about it because I was pondering the question about My Iceland and My Icelandic Canada. My eccentric point of view about my Icelandic heritage. My Icelandic Heritage has a sort of fuzzy edge to it. The fuzzy edge is made up of My Icelandic United States but if I got into that, it really would be a kind of surreal because I don’t really know much about Point Roberts or Boundary Bay or the shenanigans in Chicago.
This is where, on a rainy day, statements like, “I’m a proud Icelander,” lead. Especially when they force me to think about what it is I’m proud about. Once I’ve eaten the vinarterta and the rullupylsa and the plate is empty, what’s left?
I’m not proud of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. I know they looked great as Vikings, although Tony Curtis looked pretty wimpy. Kirk looked more like someone who might strike terror into the hearts of helpless English or Irish villagers who had no way of protecting themselves. Curtis looked more like the kind of guy who’d be filling up a sack with the local abbot’s silver while Kirk, baby, was sticking his sword into an abbot who wouldn’t know what to do with a sword even if he had one.
That’s the problem with Vikings. Viking means pirate. If someone says, let’s go Viking, he means, let’s get a bunch of the guys together and go steal, kill and rape. It’s interesting, in the many lectures I’ve attended over the years, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, when asked by audience members who are doing heavy breathing at the word Vikings, to tell them all about the Vikings, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, describe them as a bunch of young gangsters, criminals, juvenile delinquents. If there’d been motorcycles, they’d have been characters in the movie, The Wild One. Except Marlon Brando just wouldn’t have cut it as a Viking.
There are always some people who want to reach back to when their ancestors were pirates. The conveniently forget that there are about eight hundred years of their ancestors being sheep farmers who couldn’t defend themselves when some Turkish pirates turned up in 1627 and did the killing, raping and enslaving. Tending sheep doesn’t exactly turn out hard bitten commandos.
It’s true that in places in Europe, the Vikings settled down, had kids, planted crops, raised animals, produced beautiful artifacts. There is a whole academic industry that studies and writes about it. There are massive coffee table books showing stuff made by Vikings. There’s also an entire sub culture that creates a romanticized version of Viking life. In fact, not much is really known about Viking culture. It’s mostly deduced from stuff dug out of graves and reading the sagas. That doesn’t stop people from adding in their versions of idealized Viking life. If you can be Sigurd, warrior princess on weekends, it helps make selling shoes or being a barista bearable.
Think about what it must have been like after people had been killed, their houses burned down, and you sailed into the harbour in front of your Icelandic farm (there were no villages). You pull your boat onto the shore and said, proudly, “Hey, babe, look at all the good stuff that I managed to steal.”

The problem is that settling down in these various coastal areas in Europe, having kids, ploughing fields, raising sheep doesn’t produce fierce warriors so when the Barbary pirates appeared and killed, raped and pillaged, there wasn’t much opposition. They cleared out whole villages in Holland, Ireland, England, all along the coat. It was payback time. Bad karma being acted out. Where were Kirk and Tony when they were needed?
It’s fun to put on fake fur and a helmet and wave a sword around at Islindingadagurinn. Especially after an Icelandic beer or two. The Viking village on the hill in Gimli is great. The people who set up the village and populate it go to tremendous lengths to make it authentic. They make chain mail and cook meat on a spit over an open fire. They give demonstration battles. Except they’re rather clean, have good teeth and credit cards. They’re not going to suddenly start slaughtering the spectators. Thank goodness.
I admire the sagas but those were written long after the Viking age was over. I admire the sagas as pieces of literature. They are a major part of world literature. Thank goodness not all those vellum pages were cut up to make patterns for dresses. However, I can’t say that I admire the behaviour of most of the characters in the sagas. I wouldn’t have wanted most of them for neighbours.
So, when I say I’m proud of My Icelandic Heritage, Vikings don’t rank very high. They did when I was a little kid and I and my friends ran around the yard having sword fights but that was a while ago.

I’m Proud but proud of what?

The most significant event during my tenure as editor of Logberg-Heimskringla was a letter to the editor castigating me for my bias and narrow-mindedness, surely a fault we all share, along with the statement, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Being Lutheran, I didn’t mind a touch of the whip. It gets one’s attention. In any case, it’s part of the job of editors to receive letters from all and sundry, letters usually written in upset, anger and even fury. The world is an infuriating place. Injustice abounds. I completely agreed with the letter writer that a worthy history had been neglected, not just by me but the entire community. My only solace was that I had already begun to plan a series that would cover the neglected history. I haven’t forgotten. That will come as I have time to do the necessary research, take the photographs and write the articles.

However, what has stuck with me even more is a simple, heartfelt statement that also was in the email. It said, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Since the writer is a fourth generation Canadian, I was flummoxed. I didn’t know how to reply. I’m a fourth generation Canadian from one Icelandic ancestor and a fifth generation from another. I cannot claim to be Icelandic by birth or citizenship.

What then could the statement mean?

It could mean, “I’m proud of my Icelandic heritage.” That made sense. Of course, “I’m a proud Icelander.” is shorthand for pride in one’s heritage.

And what a heritage it is. It’s got more drama, tragedy, triumph, melodrama, narrative, culture, history, than you can shake a stick at. But once I had sorted this out, I was left with this voice in my head asking questions, demanding answers. The biggest of all was, “Okay, you’re proud of your Icelandic heritage. What are you proud about?”

The answers were fragmented. Bits of this and pieces of that.  I’m proud of vinartera. Can you be proud of vinarterta? To make that even more difficult, vinarterta has largely disappeared from Icelandic cooking because Icelandic cooking today is very European. I definitely like vinarterta. I’ve eaten vast numbers of vinarterta slices in my lifetime. Would one say, “I’m proud of rabbit stew.”? I like rabbit stew. But am I proud of it? And rullapylsa and ponnokokur and rosettes (woops, rosettes are Swedish). Okay, okay. But I am proud of Icelandic desserts in that I enjoy sharing them with friends. I like saying, “Try this prune torte.”

I like taking non-Icelanders (see, there it is again, saying people of non-Icelandic descent is such a mouthful) to Thorrablot. I like seeing them try the Icelandic dishes. I take a certain pride in explaining what they are and a bit of the history behind them. I like watching their eyes get big when I explain about rotted shark. There’s a certain perverted satisfaction in scoffing up a plate of dried cod with butter. Mmmm mmmm! Worn asphalt shingle with motor oil. I don’t care. I enjoy it and if it wasn’t there, I’d miss it.

But is that an Icelandic heritage? I also like peroghis, hollopchi, Won Ton soup, apple pie, curries of all kind and like bragging a bit about how liking all those things is about being Canadian. I also like maple syrup, tortiere, BBQ ribs, blackberry pudding. In a bow to the little bit of English in my genetic code, I also like the occasional kipper for breakfast but no kipper ever smoked has come close to being as good as a Lake Winnipeg Goldeye but that’s not Icelandic, it’s Gimli. It’s part of my Icelandic Canadian heritage and I’m proud of the fact that it is served at events like embassy suppers. Some of us have heritages that let them say, “I’m proud of the fact that we conquered most of the known world.” Or “We defeated the Spanish Armada.”  With me, it’s “Smoked fish.”

So, what then is it that we’re proud of in our Icelandic heritage? I’m going to write some articles about things in my Icelandic heritage that I’m proud of. See if you agree. If you don’t, say so. Tell me what it is you are proud of.

This isn’t just an Icelandic NA community question. In the USA and Canada, we have immigrant cultures. Every immigrant group, in spite of their unique qualities, all go through the same process. They face the same questions. How German is German after four generations? What can they be proud of in their history. Or Italian. Or East Indian. Or Phillipino. What is worth preserving? What needs to be shed?

When someone chooses to leave home,  move to the USA or Canada, they begin a process that they cannot escape.

Something we should always remember. We can be proud not just of what our culture has done but also, maybe even more so, of what it has not done and does not do. Recently, four women were drowned to satisfy the honour of a man who was the father to three of them and the husband to one. We’re not perfect as a culture, we’ve made mistakes in the past and present. We’ll make mistakes in the future. But killing your daughters because you think your honour is lessened by their wanting to dress like other kids their age, wanting to have a boyfriend, wanting to be young, has never been part of our “tribal” culture. I’m proud of that.