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Will Beaton, Published August 04 2013

Americans celebrate Icelandic roots in Mountain, N.D.

MOUNTAIN, N.D. – Where could one enjoy a public festival featuring a prime minister, three different national anthems and people snacking on doughy pancakes called ponnukokur?

Mountain, N.D., that’s where.

This weekend marked the 114th annual Deuce of August Icelandic Celebration in Mountain, a town that is home to one of several scattered pockets of Icelandic culture in the state.

August 2 is used to commemorate Iceland’s adoption of a new constitution declaring its independence from Denmark 139 years ago.

The crowds that gathered for the weekend’s events – including a parade, two street dances and a tractor pull – are estimated to be 60 times larger than the population of the town of 92 residents.

“They come from all over the country for this,” said Rosemarie Myrdal, former lieutenant governor of North Dakota who is involved with the Icelandic Communities Association, which organizes the event. “It gets bigger every year for that reason.”

Myrdal herself entertained cousins from Las Vegas and Regina, Sask., who made the trip to Mountain to attend the celebration.

The festival’s keynote speech was given Saturday by Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland, who talked of building ties between his country and Icelanders abroad.

The Mountain Community Center, built in part with a gift of $75,000 from the government of Iceland in 2008, likely exceeded its 248 maximum capacity Saturday as people filed in to hear Gunnlaugsson speak.

Gunnlaugsson, 38, who just started his position in May, is among the world’s youngest elected heads of government, which may have enhanced the message of his speech: getting young Icelanders on every continent more interested in Iceland’s culture.

“Most importantly, we want to continue to enhance our ties to you, our friends and cousins in America,” he told the crowd.

Gunnlaugsson is not the first of Iceland’s prime ministers to visit Mountain, which has also hosted the country’s former president.

To end his speech, Gunnlaugsson said he had been trying to decide what has been his favorite event he has attended since becoming prime minister.

“This is the best thing we’ve done so far,” he said. “In fact, I have to tell you, that this is one of the most enjoyable days in my entire life.”

Ice in the blood

Many do not need the prime minister’s prompting to draw them to Icelandic culture.

North Dakota native Pam Furstenau is Icelandic to the core. She has even adopted the Icelandic first name Sunna, which means “sunshine,” since discovering her love for her motherland.

Aside from blogging and writing books about Icelandic immigration to North Dakota, Furstenau also runs the Mountain Genealogy Center, a volunteer program that helps Americans with Icelandic heritage track their genealogy to locate relatives living in Iceland.

She first became interested in genealogy while helping her son with an ancestry project for school.

“It was like a bug,” she said. “I just got hooked on genealogy.”

Her Cousins Across the Ocean project has connected Icelandic relatives to families from as far away as California, as well as to North Dakotans. Furstenau’s research database includes more than 70,000 names.

“To me, it’s not all about when you’re born and when you die,” Furstenau explained. “They say there’s your birth date, then a dash, then your death date. That dash is very important.”

Along the parade route down Main Avenue, one house stood out Saturday thanks to a banner that hung along the roof proclaiming, “Matthiasson: Family Since 1900.”

Their yard was busy with dozens of Matthiasson family members, some of whom, according to Hoople, N.D., resident Richard Matthiasson, travel from as far as New Jersey and Washington State to Mountain every year.

“I think it’s the knitted family life that still holds together. We’ve got four generations here today,” said Matthiasson, a self-described “full-blooded Viking” due to his half-Icelandic, half-Norwegian ancestry.

Matthiasson has traveled to Iceland several times, once with a North Dakota group designated Icelandic Heritage Ambassadors by the governor.

“The president of Iceland, Olafur Grimsson, I’ve sat in his kitchen and had dinner with him many times,” Matthiasson said. “It’s something unusual. I haven’t even met the (current) governor of our state!”