December 6, 2019

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Raised Icelandic

Don Icelandic sweater and sing a Lutheran liturgy while making vnarterta

Norma (nee Ingimundson) Busby and Karen Busby at Gullfoss, Iceland.

Norma (nee Ingimundson) Busby and Karen Busby at Gullfoss, Iceland.

Twenty-five per cent of Iceland's population left the island in the late 1800s. Acidic volcanic ash had poisoned the land and water, killed the livestock, and ruined much of the arable land leaving these fiercely nationalistic people with the choice of starve or leave.

Promised land in the Interlake, even though indigenous people also believed this land had been reserved for them under the recently signed Treaty 1, Icelanders came hoping to make a living by fishing and livestock farming.

Life in New Iceland was not easy. The people faced smallpox, frigid temperatures, grasshoppers, mosquitos and floods. Some Icelanders were treated as second-class citizens. One family changed their name from Eirikson to Steinberg to avoid discrimination.

All of my maternal great-grandparents came to Manitoba. Growing up in Lundar ("puffins" in Icelandic) my mother spoke only Icelandic until she started school. But like most of her generation she lost fluency after moving to Winnipeg as a teenager. The sound of Icelandic and Icelandic-inflected English is as familiar and comforting to me as the scent of my Amma's hand lotion, the clacking of knitting needles and the aroma of fresh ground coffee.

When volcanic activity disrupted air traffic for weeks in 2010, Eyjafjallajkull skipped off my tongue. But my understanding of Icelandic is limited to expressions such as "já, já, já" (yes or good) and nouns such as elskan (darling), amma (grandmother), Gimli (home of the gods), huldufólk (hidden people) and, of course, vnarterta.

My great-grandparents and most of their offspring married other Canadians of Icelandic descent. My mother and all but one of her cousins "inter-married." Few in my generation have Icelandic first names although some have anglicized versions. I am named after my grandmother Karitas.

Religious schisms tore the Icelandic community internally early on, but those differences were quickly forgotten and families reconciled. First Lutheran Church, established in 1878 in Winnipeg's West End, was an important spiritual home for many of Icelandic descent including my family. I left the church long ago in protest against its institutionalized sexism although I still feel at home when I return for a funeral or a confirmation.

So without language, name or religious community and as a fourth-generation Icelandic descendant, why do I take pride in my Icelandic heritage?

The easy answer is that an association with Iceland has positive connotations, at least until the 2008 financial crisis or the havoc wreaked by Eyjafjallajkull. It is a neutral country with a tiny population and a beautiful location. Everyone is curious about Vikings and the old Norse religion. In fact, many would say that Norse mythology is part of our daily life. Four days of the week were named after the Norse gods Tyr, Oden, Thor and Freyja. Ian Fleming's hero, James Bond, is modelled on William Stephenson, and Charlie Thorson is the artist behind Disney's Snow White. He drew this character in the likeness of a young Icelandic woman.

Icelanders have one of the oldest written European languages. Literacy was once a requirement for marriage and all knew the sagas. This love of learning and of storytelling migrated with Icelanders and thrived in the new world. Growing up, my mother expected us to read a book a week and the Canadian-Icelandic newspapers and magazines were always available for browsing. Canadians of Icelandic descent, including David Arnason (Baldur's Song: A Saga), W.D. Valgardson (What the Bear Said: Skald Tales from New Iceland) and Christina Sunley (The Tricking of Freya) continue this literary tradition, retelling the ancient tales with a modern twist. We were steeped in Icelandic-ness.

Icelanders and Canadians of Icelandic descent want to know each other's genealogy and where they are from. Until recently, I suspected there was a deeply embedded class implication to these questions and, not knowing the code, I was leery of answering. On my last two trips to Iceland, I came to understand that these questions are not about class but rather are about connection, specifically, how I am connected to you. Everyone is related to everyone else and therefore obliged to take care of each other. Social problems such as addiction, poverty, and crime are almost unknown in Iceland. Icelanders and North Americans of Icelandic descent seem hard-wired not to let go of each other.

The simple saga line "fair is the slope" expresses the nationalistic sentiment that true Icelanders would never abandon their homeland. (Some modern Icelanders still hold this sentiment and thus regard those who emigrated as traitors. But that is another story.)

When my great-grandparents left their homeland, they went into exile. Return was impossible. They lived out their days under the melancholy spell of heimthrá, of being in thrall of home.

My mother and I went to Iceland years ago to fulfil her unspoken promise to return to each of their birthplaces. Once there, we experienced the land's powerful draw. Every fjall and fjord has a tale. The island is alive with spewing geysers, steaming hot springs, fierce winds, fiery volcanos, massive waterfalls, melting glaciers and daily earthquakes. Treacherous lava fields cover about 20 per cent of the land mass and 7,000-year-old fields hardly look different from those formed 30 years ago. The land's elegant austerity is almost unspoilt by human hands. I understood the power of heimthrá.

I have an Icelandic wool sweater and can sing a Lutheran liturgy while making vnarterta. These things along with my love of a good book, dedication to learning and research, commitment to social justice, and respect for the spirit of a place all find their genesis in being raised Icelandic.

Karen Busby is a professor of law and director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.


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