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Tribalism as a Solution to the Folkish Versus Universalist Debate

For decades, since shortly after the time of McNallen’s 1970s revival, United States Heathenry has been plagued by the bitter, ongoing, and seemingly endless debate between what have become polarized as the “Folkish” and “Universalist” ideological camps. The label “Folkish” has come to mean that “proper heritage” is a required component of Heathen identification. “Universalist,” on the other hand, has come to refer to the idea that anyone, regardless of culture or race, can convert to and legitimately practice Heathenry. “Universalist” is largely a term of derision used by the Folkish to describe their detractors, though the polarizing of the two camps has led at least some Heathens to self-identify with the term. Many Universalist Heathens, however, are unwilling to use—or are uncomfortable with—the term due in part to the word’s long-standing Christian usages and connotations, often associated with imperialism and missionary proselytizing. “Folkish,” however, is a widespread term of selfidentification, even among those apparently unaware of the term’s origins in German nationalism. Universalists usually accuse the Folkish of racism, while the Folkish usually accuse Universalists of being communist, globalist, and destroyers of cultural particularity. Those wanting a middle way between the extremes have turned to “tribalism” in an attempt to reconcile the desire to be inclusive and avoid accusations of racism, while maintaining a degree of exclusivity through an “authentic” historical social structure. Heathens like Swain Wodening and Wayland Skallagrimsson have long argued that this is the most legitimate and accurate approach to doing Heathenry:

During the great schisming of the heathen community during the 80s and 90s, three distinct traditions were formed: Tribalism, Folkish, and Universalism. These factions formed in response to the question “Who can be considered a heathen?” Tribalists answered, “Only those who sufficiently make an effort to adopt the culture and beliefs of the ancient heathens.” The Folkists answered, “Only those with white European blood, such as ancient heathens had.” Universalists answered, “Anyone who says they are.” I am a Tribalist. I believe that the ancients were Tribalists. I have argued strongly against Folkism, viewing it as a corruption of true heathenry and a genuine danger to modern heathenry. However, I am just as firmly opposed to Universalism. It also isn’t a genuine heathen path. (Skallagrimsson n.d.)

The growing popularity of tribalism in Heathenry has for many been an opportunity to escape the constant tension and bickering about race (Snook 2015). “Tribalist” or “localist” projects have insisted upon the distinction and autonomy of smaller groups with more direct personal relationships and actual investment in each other’s lives, rather than a larger identification with “our people,” “European people,” “Germanic people,” or the like, all of which can be and have been used as euphemisms for “white people.” Swain Wodening (n.d.) argues that tribalism allows Heathens to become Heathen without many of the hassles of universalism or folkism. Since most tribal Heathens believe folks must be adopted into the tribe, ancestry is not as much of an issue as it is with folkism. Meanwhile, a group is not forced to admit anyone and everyone as tribalism is willing to admit Heathenry is not for everyone.

That “tribalism is willing to admit Heathenry is not for everyone,” implies that, unlike Christianity and other missionary universalist religions, Heathens do not either need, or even want, everyone to be Heathen like them. As the language used to claim indigeneity has shifted to descriptions of Heathenry as a “native faith,” Heathen “kindreds”2 have increasingly veered more toward an emphasis on local customs, reflecting the division of people into groups of friends and acquaintances that share the same social-geographic space and political ideological beliefs. In the past decade, the focus on the local and reworking of Heathen collectivities as “tribal” has led to the increasing fragmentation of the greater community as groups develop their own thew or sidu—group norms or evolving customs.3 To many Heathens, a critical component of Heathen organization is respect for the autonomy of every group or tribe. Similar to most tribes in the conventional sense, these groups have “a collective bond that involves shared values and understandings of what is appropriate behavior ... they have the potential to create moments in which to live out their own values, creating temporary pockets of sovereignty over their own existence” (Riley et al. 2010: 348). Any attempt by any Heathen to control, criticize, standardize, or influence the beliefs, behaviors, or customs of another group risks backlash and ridicule. Heathens refer to perceived know-it-alls as “Asapopes,” a derogatory term meant to insult the audacity of those who claim special knowledge—an indication of how strongly Heathens cleave to their own decentralized tribal thew and the tenacity with which they resist any attempts at homogenizing, bureaucratizing, or otherwise standardizing of Heathenry. Mark Stinson, a chieftain (leader) in the Midwest, frequently ridiculed on social media with the term “Asapope” for his prolific self-published books on Heathenry, argues that a

loose confederation of kindreds and families, allows each kindred to participate, contribute ideas, and partner with other kindreds and families in the region without any one person being in charge. Strong independent kindreds can then participate, communicate, collaborate, and support one another, without any one kindred or person being “in charge.” This maintains the grassroots tribal nature of our native Folkway, and avoids top-down organization, dogma, and divisions among our People. (Stinson 2013)

In contrast with the homogenizing forces of modernity, this specific, cultural and ethnically based peoplehood that Stinson (2013) refers to as “our People” provides a sense of socioreligious distinction to people whose whiteness is otherwise invisible and taken for granted. Yet, this provides a conundrum—how to divorce ethnic awareness and pride from the abuses of white privilege. The “divisions” to which Stinson (2013) refers, when they happen, are more often in regard to conflicts over differing ideological frameworks regarding race or sexuality—conflicts which the tribal model and rule of “autonomy” effectively depoliticize. In reviving the Old Norse focus on tribes and local customs, Heathens have also revived the concepts of innangard (inner yard)—people within a tribe—and utgard (outer yard), which encompasses a wide variety of people who are not “your” people. In this way, Heathen tribes protect their membership, ideas, behaviors, and customs while adding nuance to the debate on the nature of “equality,” side-stepping the Folkish versus Universalist debate on “who gets to be Heathen” with a deeper conceptualization of the relationship between individuals and tribes. Through Facebook, Sunna, a 30-something mother and Midwestern spiritual leader, explains:

There is a concept of Innangard and Utengard [utgard] within the Teutonic culture and cosmology. It extends across all matters of being and understanding—social, political, and spiritual. Innangard is to be within, it is the inner circle, or inside the enclosure. Utengard is to be outside. There are levels of each. It is most sacred and most important because it relates directly to honor and luck. Many modern Heathens will throw about the word Innangard or its modern variant, Inner-yard, without fully understanding the weight of such. They think it simply means that “if you are not in my inner circle you don’t matter.” That is a grave misstep. What it truly means is that “I have taken on a responsibility to these people and things inside and so I must protect them from the outside, which includes how I live and interact when in that outeryard. (Sunna 2015)

Part political, part ethical, the notion of who is “equal” to whom centers around the nature of personal responsibility and accountability, divorcing the individual from the structural constraints facing those society has deemed “less than” or “other.” Sunna’s concern with the tribal exclusion of those who “don’t matter” references a tendency for some Heathens to enact an anticosmopolitan rejection of those of marginalized sexualities, races, social class, or, perhaps more frequently, those of opposing political viewpoints. Rather than focus on the effect of racial barriers, poor education, or class limitations on an individual’s ability to achieve a particular goal, Heathens, like many Americans, have revived a personal accountability model that sidesteps sociopolitical considerations and blames each person for his or her own shortcomings. In this way, Heathens may argue that not all people are created equal because not all people have earned equal standing in a community. They have not “achieved” renown through good deeds, gifting, or making themselves useful to others outside of their tribe (Snook 2015). Through the meritocratic focus of Heathenry and the de jure removal of racial considerations from membership by tribalism, problems of exclusivity are effectively silenced.

This meritocratic argument about personal worth impacts who is invited into a tribe, as well as how tribes interact. Yet, it attempts to sidestep larger structural and sociopolitical questions about membership, identity, and equality—a question that tribalism attempts to put to rest. In “Three Asatru Perspectives,” Metal Gaia (2014) expresses the ambivalence that some Heathens experience toward tribalism by explaining the “confusion of terms” because

... tribalists still call themselves “Folkish” Heathens, but they typically are accepting of non-white Heathens among their ranks ... they describe themselves as Folkish because they believe that there must be a deep adoption of Norse Culture in order for one to call themselves a Heathen or Asatru. They believe that anything otherwise is just a surface level adoption of Asatru. To become a Tribalist Asatru you either must have Norse/Germanic descent or you must be adopted and oathed into the community. This is similar to Judaism where one is either automatically born into the tradition via bloodline, or converted into the community.

As Gaia (2014) suggests, the work-around for racial exclusion, once done openly by kindreds averse to including people of color, is now rendered a private “personal matter” by tribalism. Some Heathens will defend racial inclusiveness by arguing that the Old Norse adopted foreigners into their clans and families regularly; therefore, it is expected that Heathen kindreds may adopt or oath in a non-white (read: outsider) member if they so choose. It is in this way that racial exclusion is depoliticized and that the strangeness of the inclusion of members of color by other tribes is excused. Heathens of color are held to a higher standard of “proof,” in which assumptions about ancestry are based on a person’s visible whiteness or brownness, regardless of ancestry. The result is that Heathens scrutinize a biracial Heathen with mixed German and African ancestry more closely than a Hispanic Heathen who appears white. These allowances make it possible for non-whites to participate in the movement, but only after overcoming more substantial social hurdles than those to which a non-Heathen white stranger would be exposed.

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