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A Nordic heritage group that chose Wright County for its first-ever Midwest gathering had to scramble for a new location after Camp Courage in Maple Lake canceled the group's Labor Day weekend booking.

In a statement issued Thursday, Camp Courage said it canceled the booking of the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA), a California-based organization, after determining that the Nordic group's "mission and areas of focus significantly conflict with [our] core values."

Scholars who study modern pagan and heathen religions have identified the AFA as a white supremacist group.

"At this point, with decades of history and documentation, it is difficult to see the AFA as anything other than a hate group on the extreme fringe of Heathenry," said Karl E.H. Seigfried, president of interfaith dialogue at the University of Chicago and author of the Norse Mythology Blog.

Allen Turnage, the AFA's secretary and treasurer, blamed the cancellation on critics who ran a phone campaign that "badgered Camp Courage into pulling the plug." Camp Courage, about 50 miles northwest of the metro area, serves people with disabilities and also rents its facilities to other groups.

Turnage described the planned gathering as "a seasonal festival that hearkens back to old fire festivals a thousand years ago. It's a harvest-type festival … that gets us back into the rhythm of the planet and the season."

In old Norse language, "Asatru" roughly translates as "belief in the gods."

Turnage said the group had secured a new venue for its gathering, but said he didn't know where it was. He said the group expected 80 to 100 attendees.

Turnage acknowledged that there have been a minority of adherents drawn to the Asatru faith who see its mission as the promotion of white supremacy. But he insisted that he and other AFA members are "practicing a religious culture that is indigenous to Europe. There is nothing more than that."

That's what a lot of white supremacists say, countered Jennifer Snook, a sociology lecturer at Grinnell College in Iowa and herself a practicing Heathen. Snook last year published a book, "American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement."

The AFA has "identified themselves as a white supremacist organization," Snook said. "They will, of course, deny this, as do most white supremacists who view their ideology as pride rather than hate."

The group's website states that "the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA."

In a Facebook post, AFA organizers praised "our feminine ladies, our masculine gentlemen and, above all, our beautiful white children."

Followers of pre-Christian Norse religions are a small but growing number in northern Europe and the U.S., experts say. Seigfried estimated that there are around 20,000 heathen adherents of all kinds in the U.S., including those who follow pagan Norse religions.

Both Seigfried and Snook expressed frustration with media coverage of heathen and pagan religions, saying that too much attention is paid to a small minority of fringe elements.

"The majority of Heathens are reconstructing and revitalizing a cultural and religious system that provides them with an individual and collective identity that is meaningful and inclusive," Snook said. "Many of the people I know are outspokenly anti-racist, LGBTQ or LGBTQ allies, and are frustrated and enraged by the AFA and those white supremacists that use Heathenry as a platform for their hateful political rhetoric and ideology."

Said Seigfried: "The tiny percentage of extremist Heathens is repeatedly held up for public scrutiny while the mainstream of everyday Heathens is completely ignored. This is a shameful practice."

People who are drawn to pre-Christian religions are searching for a kind of authenticity, said Phillip Adamo, a professor of history and medieval studies at Augsburg College.

"As you're trying to establish some sort of authenticity, you make reference to things in the distant past. And maybe not just the distant past, but the mythic past," he said. "It's equivalent to people who would say, 'My ancestors came over on the Mayflower.' A connection to the ancient past gives you authority."

Adamo said there are two sides to the phenomenon. "The genuine part of this is, people are searching for meaning in life," he said. "People feel disconnected and disenfranchised by big, hierarchical, organized religions.

"The dangerous part is, if the group is — at the high end — a bunch of charlatans who are using this to promote a racist agenda, then I feel for the people who are being used, who may not be aware of that." • 612-673-7402 • 612-673-4482