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Sunna’s Dream of a Little Safnahús on the Prairie

Writer’s Note: This is the final article in the series commemorating Icelandic Roots' 10th anniversary. I sat down with Sunna Furstenau in July 2023 to ask her what she thought the future of Icelandic Roots would look like.

By Rob Olason

Any individual who can envision an organization like Icelandic Roots, before it even existed, and work for a decade refining that vision, bringing others into the process, and surviving the inevitable ups and downs, needs a lot of energy for the task. And a lot of passion. And a lot of enthusiasm. And a lot of grit. And a lot of ideas to try when failure appears. And a willingness to forge on. And do it all with a smile.

Sunna Furstenau is such a person. She has led the organization with her indomitable passion for its first decade. Turning her thoughts to Icelandic Roots’ future, she still is driven by her belief that the best of Icelandic Roots is still to come.

Like those Icelandic settlers who came to North America in search of a Nýja-Ísland (New-Iceland), a re-invention of a better life for Icelanders than in Iceland, Furstenau feels the draw of a similar dream. In her vision, she sees what Icelandic Roots does and will continue to do embodied in the Icelandic word, Safnahús (pronounced “sop-nah-huus”).

Safnahús translates into English as “Community House" or "Museum.” In many communities throughout Iceland, their local Safnahús also provides the community with a gathering place and can include art galleries, archives, space for classes, libraries, and events in addition to the original meaning of a museum. It is this broader role of Safnahús that Furstenau sees in Icelandic Roots’ future, but it also exists in the organization’s present.

The online offerings of Icelandic Roots already embody that Icelandic modification of Safnahús with the community-building gatherings of Samtal Hour, the Book Club, interactive social media pages, webinars, and the weekly newsletters that keep members aware of the upcoming activities.

The online genealogy database is also another expression of Safnahús which makes it much more than a database. Just like an archive and a research library, this online-safnahús is a rich collection of documents that offer everything from first-hand accounts of journeys to North America (“Stories of the Crossing”), and accounts of life in the new land (“Community Histories” and “Family Histories”), to original Icelandic Parish Records, and Sagas, the immortal tales of the Icelandic settlement period, that became the cultural heartbeat of Iceland.

Turning to another “wing” of the archive's links are books, recordings, and videos; all are available. This rich collection of Iceland-related material contained in the online Icelandic Roots Safnahús has inspired several authors' writings.

Furstenau believes bringing the Icelandic Roots Safnahús into the physical world could be the next logical extension of the online Safnahús. During the first ten years, Icelandic Roots has been doing just that by offering in-person seminars and presentations, and by collaborating with such Icelandic groups as the Icelandic National League of North America at the group’s conventions. Likewise making presentations at the New Iceland Heritage Museum in Gimli, Manitoba, the Icelandic Communities Association in North Dakota, and at the annual events The Deuce of August in Mountain, North Dakota, and Íslendingadagurinn in Gimli.

Each of these interactions has convinced Furstenau that having a physical home, a physical Safnahús, is an important goal for the next decade of Icelandic Roots. Just as the pioneering settlers came to North America looking for their ideal home, Furstenau feels an ideal home exists for Icelandic Roots in the future. Today she is searching for that home in the historic Icelandic settlement area of Northeast North Dakota.

Will she find this prairie Safnahús?

With her boundless energy and enthusiasm, combined with the dozens of volunteers who helped make her dream of a Safnahús a reality online, it would be foolhardy to say it could never happen.

As an aspirational goal for this decade-young organization, which has already made incredible strides, the dream seems entirely possible.

Sunna and Icelandic Roots volunteers who went to Iceland in September 2023
Sunna and Icelandic Roots volunteers who went to Iceland in September 2023


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