Deep North Episode 51: Western Promise

west icelanders canada

While most people today are very much aware of Europe’s exploration and colony building in what was optimistically called the New World, you would be forgiven for not knowing that Icelanders founded a self-governing colony in the Americas as well. New Iceland was established on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba in the late 19th century, beginning with the settlement of Gimli, named after “the most beautiful place on Earth” in Norse mythology. It is estimated that nearly 25% of the entire population of Iceland emigrated to North America over the four decades that followed.

We look at the history of the short-lived Icelandic colony in Manitoba, and the story of one Icelander in particular.

Government Pledges to Strengthen Manitoba’s Icelandic Studies Program

The Icelandic government has pledged to strengthen the Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba by developing deeper connections between that institution and the University of Iceland’s Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies. Mbl.is reports that among other steps taken, a lecturer position in Icelandic literature will be established at the University of Manitoba which will be partially funded by the Office of the Prime Minister in Iceland.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced the collaboration on Thursday during a speech at the Veröld, the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages. During her talk, Katrín recalled her trip last year to Manitoba, where many Icelanders emigrated in the late 19th century. She said the trip had made clear to her what a strong connection Canadians with Icelandic ancestry (often known as West Icelanders) have to their Icelandic heritage.

The new lecturer will teach two classes on Icelandic literature in the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, as well as advise graduate students in the department, and oversee a summer exchange program at the University of Iceland. The lecturer will also oversee possible research projects and publications in connection with the literary and cultural heritage of Icelandic emigrants and their descendants in North America.

Lilja Guest of Honour at Icelandic Festival in US

Minister of Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir in Mountain, North Dakota.

Iceland’s Minister of Education, Science, and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir was the guest of honour at Mountain, North Dakota’s annual Deuce of August celebrations this year. The festival of Icelandic culture celebrated its 120th anniversary this year. The Deuce of August celebrations are organised by descendants of Icelanders who immigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Maintaining connections

As many as 15,000-20,000 Icelanders immigrated to North America between 1875 and 1914 due to difficult living conditions in their country of origin. It’s tradition for a representative of the Icelandic government to attend the Deuce of August celebrations in Mountain, as well as those that take place to the north in Canada, in Gimli, Manitoba.

On her visit to Mountain, Lilja took part in the festival parade and held a speech where she emphasised the importance of maintaining connections between North Americans with Icelandic roots and their country of origin. As an example, the Minister mentioned the Snorri Program, which brings young people of Icelandic origin to Iceland to learn about their background. Over 500 youth have participated in the program, including some from Mountain.

Lilja also visited Vikur Lutheran Church during her time in Mountain. Built in 1884, it is the first Icelandic church to be erected in the United States. In 2013, the church and associated cemetery were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

American Icelandic speakers

“The legacy of West Icelanders’ descendants upheld here in North Dakota is truly important,” Lilja asserted. “People here make a great effort to cultivate their relationship with Iceland and keep our history and culture alive. Here in the area there are still descendants of Icelanders who speak Icelandic without having lived in Iceland. Despite the fact that more than 100 years have passed since the migration of [West Icelanders] ended, people are still very much aware of their origin and are proud of it.”

A press release from the Government of Iceland stated that many Icelandic nationals were also present at the celebrations, and groups from Iceland regularly visit Icelandic settlements in the US and Canada.

Prime Minister Guest of Honor at Icelandic Heritage Celebrations in North America

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and her husband Gunnar Sigvaldason will be the guests of honor at two Icelandic heritage celebrations held in Gimli, Manitoba (Canada) and Mountain, North Dakota (US) this weekend, RÚV reports.

Dubbed “New Iceland” by Icelandic settlers who started settling there in 1875, the town of Gimli is home to the largest population of people of Icelandic descent outside of Iceland. Islendingadagurinn, the town’s annual Icelandic Festival, is taking place for the 129th time this year and includes a Viking Village with 100 re-enactors who “live like authentic 800 A.D. period Vikings on the Harbour Park Hill during the festival and will ‘battle’ each day,” as well as music, children’s activities, Icelandic food and beer, and more.

The Deuce of August, Islendingadagurinn’s sister celebration in Mountain, North Dakota, will be held for the 112th time this year. The event quadruples the town’s population of 130 and offers free genealogical research, as well as a full schedule of cultural events. Mountain is also home to Vikur Lutheran Church, which was established in 1880 and is said to be the oldest Icelandic church in North America. Katrín will be taking part in the festival’s morning parade this year and will be the Keynote Speaker at the event’s Heritage Program.

Read more about ‘West Icelanders’ and their heritage celebrations on the BBC website here.