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Regional bias, and racism by association

November 23, 2009

I wanted to clarify a point neglected in my last (already rambling!) post here, but didn’t get a chance to write more over the weekend.

When I mentioned the ever-popular corncob pipe depiction, I wasn’t suggesting that everybody in southern Appalachia is Native–under either my own criteria nor some people’s more rigid official “blood quantum” based ones. There are an awful lot of us “invisible” folks around all over the Southeastern US, and especially in the mountains, for various historical reasons. There are also a lot of people whose ancestors were mostly European (Scottish and/or Irish, particularly), along with a good number of people who identify as Black.

But, as Dave Peyton pointed out:

Those first settlers who came with the early westward migration made the mountain valleys their home for reasons still unknown. Some claim they were escaping the authorities on the populated East Coasts. Some, including Dr. Simpkins, claim that the Appalachian settlers were primarily Scotch-Irish who left their homeland in Northern Ireland during the 18th Century to escape British oppression.

But the heritage of the culture is disputed. While many adhere to the Scotch-Irish theory, others believe Appalachia was settled by outcasts from England’s big cities, particularly London…

No one disputes, however, that the Appalachian people developed a folk culture that permeated the mountains. The culture tended to absorb those who moved into Appalachia. Whether they were Eastern Europeans, Spaniards or Italians, if they lived there long enough to have children, their children were mountain people.

The fact that the mountain culture was able to absorb other cultures with little or no change itself indicates just how strong the culture was. It wasn’t until the third decade of the 20th Century that the culture was brought to its knees by mass culture.

This was written, incidentally, the year I was born; I’d take the condescending death knell with more than a little salt. (Not to mention the isolation and oddly static culture notions, politically convenient as they are.) The new barrage of forced assimilation has not been easy to deal with, but we hillbillies aten’t dead yet.

There’s popular perception, which begins when Europeans started running inland away from the reach of the authorities. All the research I’ve done suggests that this drove a lot of settlement; some geographical distance particularly appealed to people who were or had been forced laborers (75% of Virginia’s population at times) and those migrants included one heck of a lot of Africans and enslaved coastal Native people. That also accounted for a lot of the early Scots, Irish, and people who’d been “recruited” or flat-out abducted out of London and other British cities. A lot of other people of similar ethnic backgrounds decided to join them. This is hardly controversial–except among those who would whitewash over just how North American colonial economies worked, and focus exclusively on the later wave of Ulster Scots/”Scotch-Irish”.

At the same time, lots of other Native people needed to move inland, to get away from land loss, slavery, and genocide. Not surprising, really.

Please bear with me; this mini-lesson in history is relevant. (Not just in the general sense of learning from history, though that too!)

What the popular perception neglects is that people were already living there–again, this is politically convenient, for obvious reasons. People who’d already been incorporating other Native refugees as needed; look at the Haudenosaunee pattern further north, which is better documented. Further south, we got more documentary genocide. The easy assimilation Dave Peyton notes did not start with the much-vaunted “Scotch-Irish”.

That worked more smoothly at first, with trickles of incomers, a lot of whom must have been really glad to live with or near people who treated them with respect.* That’s why the area I’m from is so full of Indian-identified people with Gaelic surnames, like me. Later on, there were larger groups who mostly cooperated with the neighbors, and mostly got assimilated after a generation or two. (Including a couple of new Irishmen my family picked up not long before the Famine.) That only held up to a point, until we got large groups of incomers with no interest whatsoever in getting along with the people already living there.

It’s also good to bear in mind that the people who were already living there took a very different view of “racial” identity. If you behaved decently and tried to get along with other people, you’d have aligned yourself with the locals. “Whether they were Eastern Europeans, Spaniards or Italians, if they lived there long enough to have children, their children were mountain people.” They would at least pick up the surrounding culture, even if they didn’t marry into or formally become members of one of the surrounding Nations. This approach was based on cultural considerations, pragmatism, and consensus-based decision making, rather than on constructed colonial notions of race and nationality. That pattern does continue to great extent, and there is still a lot of confusion around the very different approaches.

In short, no matter how many or how few actual Indian ancestors most of these folks have by now–and almost everybody in WV, for example, knows they have some–they’ve been tarred by long association. Too many of their people “went native”, and their cultures really do not agree with the dominant one. They’re subject to the same stereotypes as Native people, only revamped as White Trash. As has come up many times on Mingo-L, it’s a lot easier to change the kind of house you live in and the sort of clothes you wear than it is to change the way you look at the world.

When I was at Virginia Tech, I did an Appalachian Studies elective out of vague interest (and hopes of an easy grade). That course was Appalachian Communities. One of the books in particular was a big wakeup call, explicitly pointing out some cultural differences–which explained a lot of things I’d run into dealing with people from the dominant culture. (I can’t remember the title, but that was in 1994!) Forget politically convenient stereotypes. The two I clearly remember are extremely high levels of egalitarianism, and men actually wanting–and feeling free–to spend time with their kids and grandkids, and nieces and nephews. I’d naively assumed that most of the people I came into contact with were operating under similarly egalitarian ideals, and kept getting shocked. Besides assuming that everybody–especially little girls!–went around with their older male relatives half the time, without thoughts of pedophilia dancing in other people’s heads. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. 😐 That approach to child care (and “unschooling”) implies and leads to less rigid gender roles, besides leading to fewer hostile environments for the women those Little Princesses will become. (I was amazed the first time I got treated like crap and stared at in a hardware store. Seriously.) As much as some people may want to call these cultural patterns “Jacksonian”**, I can see some far more likely sources.

This kind of egalitarian approach to life does not always go over well, to put it mildly. Especially when the person or people in question don’t accept your authority, not to mention your views of why they should do what you say–and give you their stuff.

The specifics may have changed a bit, but reactions and ideological differences remain very similar. So does the fact that some people have resources that other people want to take. Some recorded comments the man Powhatan offered are still uncomfortably apt:

What will it availe you to take that by force you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide you food. What can you get by warre, when we can hide our provisions and fly to the woods? whereby you must famish by wronging us your friends. And why are you thus jealous of our loves seeing us unarmed, and both doe, and are willing still to feede you, with that you cannot get but by our labours? Thinke you I am so simple, not to know it is better to eate good meate, lye well, and sleepe quietly with my women and children, laugh and be merry with you, have copper, hatchets, or what I want being your friend: then be forced to flie from all, to lie cold in the woods, feede upon Acornes, rootes, and such trash

In the 19th century, it was still OK for hostile observers to point out all the too-brown grannies smoking pipes while they ran the farms as prime evidence that we Hillbillies were Not White Enough, and thus inferior.*** Now we’re supposed to forget that anyone besides (the carefully constructed) Nasty White Trash ever lived there, and that said White Trash is still experiencing land loss and environmental destruction. We’re not supposed to know nor care that whole mountains are getting knocked over–ones that people were living on–nor that this is polluting an amazing amount of water and directly endangering people’s lives. “Water is going to be more important to future generations than coal. You cannot drink coal.” #

Whatever happens to these people, they obviously deserve it, if nothing else for being in the way of Progress. It’s obviously their own fault that a number of them are poor, and the rest of us are having to take up the slack (in our minds, if not in reality). They deserve to become butts and scapegoats.

Does any of this sound familiar? There’s a very good reason indeed that southern Appalachia has been referred to as “The Paleface Reservation”.

* As one man put it, in a later period:

Among the whites I was nothing but a poor journeyman tailor, and never could be any thing else….There’s a great deal of talk about liberty, equality, and such great things, among white people; but the divil a bit of liberty or equality did I ever find till I came amongst the Indians… [T]here’s no one to drive you, nor can you drive any body but yourself, and that’s what I call liberty and equality.

–White Workingman living among the Seminoles [ca. 1830] (1)

** Which is enough to make my head want to explode, anyway, considering some of the crap Jackson got up to. Also, see the note above.

*** While a lot of people lost land to mining companies through threat of exposure of their Native ancestry, in the same era as the Wounded Knee massacre. It was illegal for Natives-on-paper to own land in West Virginia until 1964; if they didn’t fight losing that particular piece of land, they wouldn’t be outed and legally prevented from owning more. (Not to mention the not-so-subtle threats of physical genocide.) Of course, most of them couldn’t afford much if any other land after that! No wonder there was a lot of no habla and denial of literacy going around, to avoid signing things. This apparently applied to people with any recorded Native ancestry whatsoever. Even when people have tried to buy back land, most of it in the coalfields is owned by mining interests who won’t sell it even if they’re not using it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 24, 2009 7:41 am

    Recently I have been reading an interesting book about Virginia: Deer Hunting with Jesus, by Joe Bagegant.

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