With 19 member clubs spread across North America, the Icelandic National League of North America (INL of NA) has struggled to provide opportunities for clubs to get together, build new friendships, and share their history. In early 2010, Gail Einarson-McCleery started floating the idea of club-to-club travel and The Settlement Tours project was born.
The 200th Anniversary of Jón Sigurðsson’s birth was the perfect opportunity to draw Western Icelanders to Winnipeg for the June 17th celebration. The focus was to bring primarily the Minnesota and North Dakota clubs to Manitoba for the weekend: Winnipeg on June 17th and Gimli on June 18th. Invitations went out to all the clubs in ND and MN; two women from the Icelandic Hekla Club and five Icelanders travelled to Winnipeg on June 16th. The Icelanders had invitations to travel with the Icelandic choir for the weekend, so Elin Hansen and I were on our own.
Friday, June 17 was a beautiful day, perfect for the events. Ron Johnson, president of the Icelandic Frón club in Winnipeg, made sure we were included in all the celebration’s events. We were invited to the Lieutenant. Governor’s Reception honouring Jón Sigurðsson’s birth and joined 80 people for remarks, a wonderful luncheon, and a few selected songs by Iceland’s Bustaðakirkjukór. I brought greetings from the INL of NA as well as from the Minnesota and North Dakota Icelandic clubs. The Lieutenant Governor’s home is lovely and we were welcomed to walk through the first floor. In the early evening, Elin and I walked over to Legislative Grounds for the wreath-laying ceremony. The choir sang on the steps of the Manitoba Legislative Building to start the event. Then the Fjallkona, Vi Bjarnason Hilton, other dignitaries, and the choir led us in a procession to the Jón Sigurðsson statue. Presentations, speeches, and the wreath-laying took place there.
There was a large crowd and many of us stood for the entire ceremony. The sky had clouded over, but the rain held off. The next event was the Gala Concert at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. P.J. Buchan sang a short selection of Icelandic songs. The two-person play recapping Jón Sigurðsson’s life was very interesting. The actor playing the older Jón Sigurðsson, Arnar Jónsson, received the Best Actor honour in Iceland for his portrayal of King Lear on Thursday, June 16.
The program ended with Bustaðakirkjukór giving an incredible performance. There were 15 members of the choir, with at least five of them being top-tier talent in Iceland. Travelling with the choir was a young accordion player I first saw in Hofsós in 2009. He was impressive then and has gotten even more so in the last two years.
Presentations were also made to Consul General Atli Ásmundsson and Þrúður Helgadóttir and to the Honorable Peter Bjornson. Mr. Bjornson sponsored the legislation naming June 17th as Jon Sigurdsson Day in Manitoba. The entire day was very memorable. Saturday’s activities were all centered in Gimli, a place Elin had not yet visited but was eager to see. Our tour began with lunch at Amma’s Kitchen where several members of the Gimli Icelandic Canadian Society met us. A couple of them had participated in the Kvennalaup earlier in the morning and were wearing their race T-shirts and medals.
There were also several Icelanders visiting Gimli, so they joined us as well. It was a wonderful meal. Elin topped it off with dessert: vínarterta, with icing (we don’t ice our vínarterta in Minnesota). The Icelandic Heritage Museum was closed for the day in preparation for the opening of a new photography exhibit, but we were allowed in anyway. We saw a very interesting short film on New Iceland and then toured the museum. We gained a real appreciation of what the Icelandic immigrants went through as they started new lives in a new land.
Our guides showed us the mural on the museum wall and pointed out the faces of the townspeople that had been incorporated. It is a must-see for anyone travelling through Gimli. Claude and Dick Thorsteinson and Bryan Bjerring gave us a walking tour of the town, which was appreciated after the big lunch. Of course, when we stopped at the Reykjavik Bakery, we did indulge in a kleinur or two – very tasty.
Then it was back to the Waterfront Centre for a reception for Bustaðakirkjukór and, later, the opening of the beautiful new photographic exhibit by Jóhann Páll Valdimarsson. We also got a little shopping in at Tergesen’s. When visiting with the Icelandic members of our tour they said they were very impressed with the celebrations and the warm welcome they received everywhere they went.
It was a trip they said they would not forget. As we were travelling back to Minneapolis on Sunday, Elin and I took a side trip to Mountain, ND. Elin’s great-grandfather was Rev. Hans B. Thorgrímsen who founded Vikur Church in Mountain. We stopped in at the Mountain Chalet and had a cup of coffee with Leslie Geir, Vice President of the Icelandic Communities Association, who then gave us a tour of the new Mountain Community Center. It is a great addition to the town and I am sure it will get a lot of use.
Over the weekend, we saw old friends, made new friends, and learned the history of the Icelanders as they travelled through and settled in the New Iceland area. It is very powerful to be able to see the places and talk with the descendants of the settlers. It was a great weekend and the first Settlement Tours project was a success. Elin is already planning her next trip to Gimli and the New Iceland area.