For the last few years, I have driven past a small, drab community center called Sons of Norway. The building, set off of the street in a questionable part of town, often appears to be empty, unused and possibly even abandoned. On occasion, I’ve entertained the idea that this Norwegian gathering spot is not the cultural heritage site it claims to be, but rather a front for some sort of white supremacy group or drug-dealing mafia. I mean, who can imagine a bunch of old white men with silly hats doing anything but causing trouble?
Still, as someone fascinated with the idea of Norse role-play involving some of the Gods and Goddesses of my own Scandinavian roots, my inner skeptic became intrigued.
I imagined a variety of magical things happening behind the walls of the lodge, which is named after a Norse goddess. In my best-case daydream, the members host women-positive pagan rituals, drink mead from viking ship-engraved chalices and throw runes to foresee the future. Pelts of Nordic reindeer would cover hand-carved benches crafted from Norwegian spruce and maple. Maybe some of the members were even in Norwegian Black Metal bands and hosted hardcore events, complete with slide shows of burning churches, a la Until the Light Takes Us. At the very least, I fully expected lessons on how to hammer out my own functioning bronze helmet and to embroider hand spun wool with the pre-Christian symbols of my roots.
As I have recently committed to further exploring and sharing my own heritage with my children, I decided to do some research on this tiny little building and the people who gather in it. The simple website informed me that the venue holds many events, including traditional Norwegian dance performances and language and art classes for youth. Aside from the gnarly lutefisk dinners, Sons of Norway appeared to be a decent enough organization. The only thing holding me back from immediately signing on as a member was the idea of explaining to my peers why I’d be spending my weekends in a secret clubhouse with hoards of old white men.
Here, in the land of celebrating cultural diversity and cramming tolerance down each other’s throats, most Californians assert themselves as almost self-righteously open-minded. So much so, that any membership with a European-affiliated organization could easily deem one a racist. As a result, well-meaning white communities such as my own often denounce their heritage and instead, unknowingly engage in cultural appropriation and gentrification, clinging to the “exotic” in order to either fit in or appear interesting. For a lot of Caucasians, being white or of European descent isn’t cool unless you come from a long line of political revolutionaries or gypsies. The only thing more uncool than having white genes is celebrating a fighting, pillaging group of Vikings. It’s not politically correct and carries too much baggage, so it’s better to ignore it. Or to wear a sari and change your name from “Sarah” to “Shakti.”
And although the intentions are misguided, I get it, really. Many white Americans are so far removed from deep connections to ancestral lands or any type of cultural heritage that they feel lost and maybe even a little jealous for what others have in regards to tradition and connection to place. So people watch TV and go to Disneyland and replace their inherited cultural rituals with shopping and then wonder why they feel disconnected. On top of that sense of detachment is the lumping together of people of all different pigment-lacking backgrounds into one big pot of creamy whiteness, regardless of where the family trees sprout from. This can result in a weakened sense of identity. And generally speaking, most white people have ancestral roots associated with oppression of non-white people, whether through active participation in genocide or just plain ignorance. And no one with even the dimmest spark of decency wants to be associated with genocide or oppression.
So, to really, truly embrace ancestral roots, most white Americans would have to dress as if every day is a trip to the Renaissance Fair. And no one wants to look like Braveheart or a 15th-century peasant girl. Well, some people do, but nobody wants to talk to them except other people who also frequent Renaissance Fairs. Plus the food is bad. Tamales and curries are so much better than mutton or fermented trout. So people deny their roots and adopt the cultural practices of others in attempts to present themselves as open-minded or culturally inclusive. Others—particularly in the region of the world I live in—embark on familial expeditions, digging deep through their heritage to locate even the smallest sliver of non-white lineage in order to prove a point, clinging to their variation in genes to utilize as street cred. And for me, although it is rumored that somewhere along the line a woman of Native American decent took up residency in my own family tree, I remain saturated with a smörgåsbord of the whitest genes this side of Snowflake, the albino gorilla. There is no way around it. This, I believe, is something worthy of examining.
With no Daughters of Germany or A Little Bit Historically Oppressed Scots-Irish or I Might Be Native American But I’m Not Really Sure organizations nearby, I decided to risk rumors that my involvement with Sons of Norway would be misconstrued as a descent into a white supremacist society. I set out to meet this small fraction of my people, hoping for a sense of belonging.
The thing I noticed at my first trip is that everyone looked like they belonged at my father’s family reunion, sans the mystery casseroles and jello salads. Most attendees were really old and really white, with blue eyes and aesthetically offensive sweaters. The men were enormous, with the giant farming hands of the Midwestern stock they were born into. The room filled with North Dakota accents in lieu of the Swedish Chef voice I had so desperately longed to hear. Everyone sipped instant coffee from styrofoam cups.
There were no murals of Norwegian fjords, no kinetic Viking ship sculptures, no statues of Thor or Leif Ericson, no battle scene reenactments and no one close to my age at this small town Viking Fest. There were no chalices of mjød , or mead, to be found. And there were certainly no Norwegian Black Metal band members strolling the grounds with crazy tattoos. After a brief introduction to handmade ring maille armor construction and a quick lesson on identifying ancient Nordic coins, I looked into rosemåling classes for my kids, ate bread with gjetost—a very brown and very salty goat cheese—and returned a few months later to learn more.
Despite the lack of action in the form of the hollering, bearded Vikings I’d hoped to meet, I am learning a lot about the emigration, food and music of these white folks whose genes I share. Yet, as was my Scandinavian ancestors experienced when first arriving on the barren prairies of the American Midwest, I’ve been slightly disappointed and still don’t quite mesh with this community. And it is quite likely that I may never find a place outside of my home where I’ll really fit in. Like most Americans, I am a diluted mix of European blood with a sprinkling of a few other tidbits mixed in along the way. There are few made from the exact same recipe as my siblings and I. Regardless, I am learning to find my place and embracing my pasty little inner mutt.
I’ll keep visiting the hall in attempts to uncover some links to my past. And until my fantasy of bronze head wear and fleeting thoughts of forming a flute and bass Nordic Metal Band called Valhöller with my friend come to fruition, my daughter’s hand-crafted aluminum foil Viking helmet and my OE Synth Norsk/Darkthrone Pandora station will have to do.