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)

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.