On To Victory: Alene Moris


You could be forgiven if, seeing Alene Moris for the first time, especially at something like the Icelandic National League annual conference, if you dismissed her as another little old lady who spent her life making ponokokur. We’re all entitled to mistakes. Even doozies like this one.

Alene Moris was the hit of the conference. The title to her talk, “Women in Iceland are Unusual and Happy” seemed motherly. Wrong again.

Alene Moris had the crowd so revved up by the end of her talk that I thought the audience was going to jump out of their seats and march through Seattle in support of women’s rights. What a speaker!

The theme of the conference was “There’s No Place Like Heima (home)”. Could have been a maudlin look back at earlier times. It looked back all right but it was anything but maudlin.

When she said that she babysat Tommy Douglas’s children when she was young, Canadian listeners knew this wasn’t going to be a mom in the kitchen making apple pie speech. The reference, I expect, went over the heads of the American part of the audience.

“Home”, she started off saying, is loaded with mixed emotions. And, going back to the settlement of Iceland, she didn’t rah rah those Viking men but rather looked at the fact that the majority of women were Irish/Scots slaves. She pointed out they were taken by force from their families and communities, must have been incredibly lonely, had no choice about having sex, and were pregnant and had to raise children without the normal family and community support. Their masters, maybe husbands, went away for long periods of time and the women had to survive and see that their children survived.

Throughout her speech, she compared women’s situation in Iceland, historically, and I the present, with the situation of women in the United States.

In Iceland there is a much better safety net and when you say safety net, you’re talking about women. It’s women and children who dis-proportionality need a safety net. Women often earn minimum wage. There has been an orchestrated attack on women’s freedom and rights. A major problem is that women in the USA don’t stick together. In Iceland a one day strike brought widespread support. IN the 1975 million women march, only one woman out of 150 came out.

Two years ago, Iceland was chosen as the best place for women. In the USA there is a large pay difference. There is widespread domestic violence. IN 12 years, 12,000 women were killed by male partners.
In Iceland women seldom respond with anger but with a pragmatic insistence that there be justice for everyone.

A striking image she presented was that women don’t want half of a bad pie. They want a pie that is worth sharing.

She praised Iceland’s response to the kreppa and said that the USA needs to find the courage to do the same.

According to her, women need to be in positions of power because they value independent thinking instead of group thinking. They want to treat all people well. Most women think in terms of a circle and community.

She inspired many with her speech and there was much more to it than I can include. Her mother was born and raised in Mountain, ND. Her father was a Norwegian from Minnesota. Alene majored in music and married a Lutheran minister. Now of these things, outside of long conversations with Tommy Douglas about universal health care, would seem to be the makings of someone dedicated to social justice.

She and her husband went to Borneo in 1965-69. She sent for three books and reading them created an epiphany for her. She learned that all the war decisions about Vietnam had been made by men. There was no woman there to ask why do we need to win? Why are we in Asia?

It’s not, she says, that women are more virtuous than men. It is just that they see things differently. Think back to those first comments about Vikings and the women they kidnapped to take to Iceland. Their view of what was happening had to be radically different.

She said something that for me was profound. She heard it at the Women As A Resource For A Changing World. The speaker said “Power comes to those who know and know they know.” She then gave a historical list of all those who those who know and know they know. Except, of course, that doesn’t mean they are right. But they do get to impose their will on the rest of society.

Toward the end, she said “Icelandic women show up.” American women, don’t.

Her speech was so packed with information that even though I took notes as quickly as possible, I could only get down a small part of what she shared with the audience. Anyone who wants to hear her whole speech, and I would hope that every woman who hears about it, will log in and listen, can go to the Icelandic National League website. If her speech is not already up, it will be, soon.

INL Convention Seattle: Day 3

I’ve never been to an INL convention like it. It’s been all over the place re types of speakers and topics. I think people are discombobulated in a good way. They’ve had their conceptions un-concepted, they’ve heard and seen things that have left them puzzled, curious, excited. It is hard to capture the excitement that has been generated. I am so grateful, happy, that I decided to come to this convention. I’m not a great enthusiast but I’ve found myself being amazed, amused, bewildered.

David Johnson is the Co-Chair of this Convention. He has been everywhere, checking on everything, making sure that we all stay on time.

David is Mormon and he introduced the first speaker, Prof. Fred E. Woods. Fred is highly personable, an experienced teacher and public speaker. He presented a slide show with commentary. Some of his slides were pictures of Icelanders who went to Utah in the early years. Other slides were of documents from that time, often letters, that have been translated into English.
I have read quite a bit about the Icelandic Mormons but Fred’s lecture made me aware of how much more material there is that I did not know about. I, and I expect, many others, will be going online to read the work that has been translated.

He is working with the Icelandic scholar Kári Bjarnason, head of the Vestmannæyjar Folk Museum. Together, they are collecting and publishing Icelandic materials which are in Utah. You can read much of this material on the “Mormon Migration“ website hosted by BYU.

We went from this rather conservative individual who describes happy things as “sweet“ to Donald Gislason. Now, I have to confess that I‘m a great fan of Donald. That‘s because when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskingla, Donald provided marvelous interviews about the music and cultural scene in Iceland. I remember telling him at the time that he was the best interviewer I‘d ever worked with.

He has a Ph.D in Music History from UBC. He‘s made six trips to Iceland but given his knowledge of the music and cultural scene, you‘d think he‘d spent a lifetime there. I certainly did. He says he is a hopeless “miðbærritta“, that is a guy who thinks the whole world revolves around 101 Reykjavik.

It would be impossible to do justice to Donald‘s lecture, slide show without writing like Hunter S. Thompson.

We saw bands of every kind. And, in Iceland, there are bands of every kind. I‘ve always wondered where Bjork, Monsters and Men, Siguros, etc. Etc. Etc. came from. How come, with a population of less than 320,000 that there are musicians of very kind, playing multiple instruments, old instruments, space age electronic instruments, playing multiple styles?

Donald provided the answer. The system in Iceland provides funding for every child to have music lessons. The child in Reykjavik and the child on the most isolated farm. The cost is split between parents and state. I wish I could have hauled all those people into the auditorium with us, those people who want to fund nothing in the education system unless it leads directly to a job, to a trade, who think things like music lessons are a waste of the taxpayer‘s money.

Donald told us about Icelandic music culture. About the Airwaves festival which he describes as the hippest event on the planet. Five days of musical mayhem. He credits some things that Iceland doesn‘t have for the creativity and productivity of musicians and, remember, everyone is a musician.

What don‘t Icelanders have? They don‘t have the powerful influence of marketing companies. They don‘t have corporations telling them how they ought to be. They don‘t have fear of failure. They are playing among friends for themselves and their friends instead of for paid audiences of strangers.

Everyone, no matter what age, listens to the same music. Parents, teenagers, kids listen to the same music. Part of that has to do with demographics. Iceland‘s population is young. There is a lot of support for young parents and young children. Parents take kids to rock concerts. Musical events, a lot of the time, are family events.

I saw this when I watched a video about Of Monsters and Men. Crowds were streaming into an open area to listen to them. There were young parents with babes in arms, kids in strollers, kids holding their parents’ hands. There were even some people who might have been grandparents in the crowd.

What a contrast this morning, from Fred who is dedicated to preserving Mormon history to Donald with Reykjavik 101, party, party, dance all night, drink all night, listen to music all night, and then eat Subway type sandwiches for breakfast.

It’s all Iceland. It’s all part of our history. I know that I’ll be looking up those Mormon sources. Some of the letters we got to read were surprising, even shocking. I know that I now understand more about the Iceland of our ancestors. I also know more about the Iceland of the present.

Before I forget, did I tell you about breakfast? Before we listened to these lectures, about the scrambled eggs, the bacon, the scones, the jams, the fruit, the yogurt, the coffee black as the devil’s soul but, I’m sure, much better tasting?

Did I tell you that next year this party is going to be in Winnipeg?

Did I tell you…? Never mind. Later. I’ve got to get dolled up for the banquet tonight. Comb my hair, try to look respectable. More food, more talks. More surprises. I’m glad the Clipper doesn’t charge passengers by weight. It would cost more to go home than to come to Seattle.

Carving the future

Jón Adólf Steinólfsson was born in Reykjavik. He has studied wood carving in Icelandic, Germany and England.

Jón follows an old tradition for he often works with driftwood. Driftwood from Siberia is caught in ice and gradually brought by the ocean currents to Iceland. Wood also comes from other parts of the world, ending up on Iceland´s beaches. Some historians have claimed that without driftwood, Iceland would not have been habitable.

Driftwood was so precious that a host of laws regarding its ownership were passed and enforced. Traditionally, driftwood was used for building nbut also for fuel, to make boats, furniture and to create charcoal. Imported wood was so expensive that it was only available to the foreign traders and to the wealthiest Icelanders.

Given this history, it´s not surprising that Jón carves driftwood.

In his show at the INL 94th convention, there are a number of pieces which reveal both his techniques and his interests.

Many of his works , if you look at his website, www.jonadolf.com, are well done carvings and include things like picture frames or masks. However, he steps away from that role with pieces like Lif (Life), done in lime wood and birch. Here, he becomes the sculptor and, interestingly, for me, at least, I see in this piece influences of Iceland’s religious past.


Not only is a child being born from wood but given the texture of the wood on which it sits, it appears to be being born from a chaotic environment and even hell.

The other piece that caught my eye was Leit að Takka (Looking for any key). The face in the wood made me think immediately of the carvings of the West Coast aboriginal art. Often this West Coast art is obvious, representative of totems and myth but sometimes It goes beyond that and keeps within itself some mystery below the surface of the wood. Leit að Takka is like that. Or like, perhaps, like an iceberg where the tip only reveals a small part of what lies beneath the surface. Here, where the obvious is not invoked, mystery brings the viewers eye and mind back to look time and again.


The Christmas Party

There was wind. There was threatening rain. There was a storm on the ocean, a storm strong enough to keep our guest speaker from Seattle, David Johnson, from joining us. Two days in a row, the Clipper catamaran’s run between Seattle and Victoria has been canceled. However, he sent a message encouraging us all to attend the INL weekend of fun and frolic in Seattle this coming spring. I made a short speech encouraging people to attend. I’ve found that attending INL conventions has increased and changed my knowledge and opinions about my Icelandic heritage.

However, none of us local members had to come by crossing the ocean. We came laden with good food. Much too much good food. Enough good food for a vast number of people. We could  have fed the multitudes on the Mount.

There was Riverton rúllupylsa, cookies that were in the shape of a Viking boat with its sail up, rosettes. I just about felt like I was back in New Iceland. There were cakes and fruits and more cookies and desserts I did not know the names of. You can tell we come from a culture where eating and celebrating went together.

Trish’s viking ship cookies.

Kladia Robertsdottir brought the laufabrauð that I made at her house the other day. Although they were not as pretty as Kladia and Trish´s, they got eaten. Kladia also had made one with the initial W on it for William. I accidentally included it in the basket on the table. However, it was retrieved. It´ll get eaten at the family Christmas dinner.

Kladia’s rosettes. There was a time when, I could have eaten a dozen topped with whipped cream and a bit of strawberry jam. Of course, in those days, I had a 28 inch waist.

Trish Baer told us a bit about her Phd dissertation on images in the Eddas. She gave a presentation in Sweden this summer, is going to give another at the University of Victoria and is, I believe, going to give a presentation at the INL conference. Her dissertation has been submitted and is being read by her committee.

The Vikings would hold parties that went on for days with feasting, drinking, story telling, negotiating, buying, selling, and just about anything you can think of and, when it was over, they gave their guests rich presents. That´s when things were good. Crops were good, and if they needed a bit extra, they went off and killed people, burned down their homes, looted their storehouses and demonstrated how good they were at this sort of thing by giving away a lot of what they´d stolen. That meant no one criticized them for their business  methods.

However, the Vikings ran out of wood for making ships,faded away,  became sheep farmers, lost their independence to Norway and then Denmark, and times became tough and then tougher. The weather changed. No more cereal crops. Not much to trade. However, they kept up the tradition of feasts as best they could.

The bishops may have been able to stamp out dancing but they couldn´t stop people from eating. The Icelanders did their best with what they had. During the hard years of famine, a sheep´s head was a feast. Nowadays, with Icelandic prosperity, there´s the Jólahlaðborð, the Christmas buffet. Some people go to two or three or more. That doesn´t surprise me. I remember, as a teenager, eating a full Christmas dinner at Fjola and Brinky Sveinsson´s and then their son, Robert, and I walking into town to my parent´s place to eat another full Christmas dinner. Little did we know that we were carrying out an Icelandic tradition.

Then there´s the Jólaglögg. Often made of wine and vodka, it stimulates the appetite and weakens the knees. With the harsh liquor laws in BC, one drink is all you are allowed before you risk losing both your driver´s license and your car and being forced to stand on a street corner with a sign saying you are an irresponsible glogger.

Also in Iceland, there´s Þorláksmesa, celebrating Iceland´s patron saint, Þorlákir helgi. I don´t remember us celebrating any saints. As a matter of fact, I didn´t know we had any. We just ate our way through Christmas day, dined on left over turkey and whatever on Boxing Day, struggled through boxes of chocolates and left over shortbread cookies for a week or so, then partied on New Years. New Year´s parties were about drinking, dancing, smooching, yelling, singing and having a hangover the next day . When there was food, it was more along the lines of dinner and dance food. Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic haggis, that sort of thing.

Times have changed. Old age has snuck up on some of us. Where did that hair go, we ask ourselves when we look in the mirror? Where did this stomach come from? Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic fried chicken, plus kleinur, vinarterta, hangikjöt, pönnukökur and rosetttes. Etc.

We can´t eat and drink as much as we used to but we can still talk as well as ever and at the Christmas party we did talk, we conversed, we visited, we enjoyed ourselves. When we were leaving, we felt better for our conversations about now and about our past, often a past that began in New Iceland, for, like the Vikings, we´re travelers, many of us having traveled across oceans and over continents earning a living. Most of us are far from home.

Gleðileg Jól, Gleðileg Jól, to one and all, wherever you are. We´re with you in spirit. May your Christmas party be as enjoyable as ours.




Graveyards, oooohhhhhh, spooky places when I was a kid. The only spookier place was the undertakers. If I had to go past either, I got to the other side of the street or the road, moved quickly and, sometimes, whistled. I’m not sure if dead people are frightened by whistling but it bucked up my courage. Dead people, I believed, didn’t like noise.

One of the problems with graveyards when you are a kid is that that’s where they put dead people and at that age, the people you know about who are dying are close to you. Family, friends. The deaths often untimely, the grief profound. People are in excruciating pain. You pick up their pain. If you don’t,  people tell you to go out and play and be quiet.

Unless there’s a sudden death from an accident, there are the weeks or days leading up to a death. There’s grief in people’s faces, postures, often anger in their voices, tears, despair. They go from being adults in charge to not being in charge of anything. They are helpless in the face of death.

Death is a mystery, arbitrary, unexpected, unfair, often unreal. Sometimes, it is filled with blame. “You should have….”

Later, as I grew older and more people I knew died, death became more familiar.I became used to its rituals. It’s beginning and end became more familiar. I noticed that the living survived. In a day or two, or a week or two, they went back to their daily chores.

In spite of movies where rotting hands rose out of the earth, the graveyard became more less scary .

Gradually, I became more familiar with graveyards, became interested in who had been buried there. They were, I discovered, filled with both information and questions. I discovered that God would not strike me dead if I stepped on a grave. Sometimes, I rode my bike out to visit.

To me, graveyards were sacred places, places deserving of respect and permanence and I was shocked when I heard that graveyards sometimes were dug up, the remains of people moved to somewhere else so the ground could be built on. It didn’t shock me to discover that graveyards were often neglected. Small towns all across the prairies have disappeared, their graveyards tangled with thistle and grass, the headstones tipping or fallen. The houses have fallen to ruin or been moved so there is no one left to care.

That’s why, when my cousin Dilla said that she’d show me a nearly forgotten graveyard, I said yes, let’s go see it. It’s the Fagrabakka graveyard. At first, it was in the wilderness, then on a farm, now, incongruously, in a posh lakeside suburban neighbourhood north of Gimli.

Dilla Narfason, my guide

It’s rescue started many years ago. In 1987 a ceremony dedicating a headstone with the names of those known to buried there was held.

Stefan Stefanson made the Gimli chapter of the Icelandic National League aware of the cemetery’s state and the League and the Rural Municipality of Gimli worked together to restore the cemetery. A Mr. S. Wood who owned the surrounding land, donated the cemetery plot and fence.

Because of Stefan’s involvement, the site became known as an “Acknowledged Pioneer Cemetery”. There are few headstones. The area was isolated, travel was by boat on Lake Winnipeg, people were poor, stones would have had to be brought in from distant places like Selkirk.

Some names of those buried at Fagrabakka were discovered and one person was buried in 1897 and the last was in 1954.

At the time of the dedication, Guðny {Gwen) Cronshaw was able to provide information as she’d lived near the original farm called Geiröstodum. The area is now called Lake Forest Farm. A rose granite stone was unveiled by Olla Stefanson and Gladys Harris (nee Thorkelsson).

The visit to Fagrabakka was worth the drive and the walk. The cemetery plot in the forest is pleasant. There’s no need to whistle to keep the ghosts away. Those that are still around will be glad of the company. If you go on a nice day, take a book of favorite poems with you and read them in silence or aloud. The early settlers were poets. In spite of tremendous hardship, they found time to write and read poetry and share poetry. It’s not a bad thing to share some poetry with them.

Where you walk, where you sit, where you stand, your ancestors walked, sat and stood, in much harder circumstances, a long way from their homes in Iceland.

(With information provided by Dilla Narfason, any errors or omissions are mine.)