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Examining being ‘Nordic’ in Minnesota

If Scandinavian Americans are dismayed and disturbed by people and groups who use Nordic themes and heritage as weapons against people of color, immigrants, and Indigenous people, we should not ignore this misuse of history and culture but hold it up for study.

In Murdock, Minnesota, a “Nordic heritage group” called the Asatru Folk Assembly has purchased a church building. This group is a white supremacist group, promoting “white purity.” Groups like Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) are part of a larger movement termed “Neo-Völkisch” that raises up Northern European and Germanic ancestry as an appeal to potential members but is a veneer for extremist, racist attitudes and actions. AFA in particular grounds itself in its interpretation of the language, iconography, and interpreted beliefs of Nordic countries. It employs a neo-pagan “Odinist” worldview to justify exceptionalism for white people and to suggest their superiority (it’s worth noting that many pagans are anti-racist and strongly disavow AFA and similar groups). The Asatru Folk Assembly group in Murdock is an outpost for this international organization that is presenting itself as a community and service organization, situated in a small town in rural Minnesota.

Nina Clark
Nina Clark
The claiming of Nordic culture by this group can feel benign and somehow natural given our region’s long association with Scandinavian heritage. It is all the more disturbing for this very reason. I am half Swedish by descent, speak Swedish and love my extended family in Sweden. For years I have been actively involved in Scandinavian cultural activities in Minnesota. Many Minnesotans with roots in the Nordic countries read about a group like this, and think, “This is not me. I do not share their values and beliefs.” Many of us who take pride in knowing and understanding our Scandinavian heritage also appreciate how many Scandinavian countries are known for their progressive politics. We believe they exemplify caring for others in their social welfare programs, in their support of refugees, and in their work for international humanitarian causes. Many of us also feel that we carry these values with us as Scandinavian Americans here in the United States, with commitments that advance the public good.

If Scandinavian Americans are dismayed and disturbed by people and groups who use Nordic themes and heritage as weapons against people of color, immigrants, and Indigenous people, we should not ignore this misuse of history and culture but hold it up for study. We must also acknowledge that we are not neutral. Asatru Folk Assembly and groups like it capitalize on the notion that Nordic people are somehow pure and absolved of guilt because we have averted being labeled as perpetrators and wrongdoers. In fact, Scandinavians have been party to and beneficiaries of the systemic establishment of our country’s racial inequities.

When whites removed Native Americans from their land, Scandinavian settlers claimed those same lands through the Homestead Act. When formerly enslaved people were being denied the 40 acres and a mule that Reconstruction had promised them, Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes were able to begin building equity weeks after coming here on their own free will. Decades later, while Blacks struggled to secure fair housing opportunities in the Twin Cities, Scandinavian Americans bought houses with racial covenants in their deeds, guaranteeing segregation for generations. Were those different times? Yes. And the consequence is that in 2020, Scandinavian Americans who are white consistently benefit in material ways from the racial disparities that plague our state. Even “back home” in the Nordic region, the indigenous Sami as well as immigrants and people of color struggle for parity and recognition.

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So when a white supremacist group lays claim to Nordic ideology, I acknowledge the convenience of these references — that they conjure up whiteness (denying the increasing diversity in Scandinavia as well as Scandinavian America) and summon its dominance and privilege. When people refer to “good genes” or praise the superiority of northern Europeans, I am aware that these are falsehoods that capitalize on widespread attitudes.

I am working to confront the responsibility and culpability I bear as a white Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent and to commit to righting the inequities that persist here and elsewhere. I hope that Scandinavian Americans will join in rejecting everything AFA stands for — its hateful and damaging language and actions that obstruct the progress so many are working to secure for our Black, Indigenous, and immigrant neighbors, friends, and families. Local residents of Murdock are taking steps to organize and express their opposition to AFA through Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate because they see this group as dangerous and threatening. Their brave actions are part of the work we can all do to stop white supremacist efforts wherever they emerge.

Nina Clark is a Minneapolis resident and professional in the field of arts and culture. 

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