Who’s an outsider? Let’s not forget Appalachia’s real natives

Native Americans, dating back to prehistory, made use of Eastern Kentucky’s rock shelters. Indian Cliff Dwelling at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County was used as an early dwelling and also as a burial site.
Native Americans, dating back to prehistory, made use of Eastern Kentucky’s rock shelters. Indian Cliff Dwelling at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Harlan County was used as an early dwelling and also as a burial site.

I recently attended the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Blacksburg, Va. During a session titled “Extreme Appalachia: Rage and Renewal,” someone mentioned their anger at people seeking to “colonize” Appalachia.

I was struck by the use of this term for present-day conditions.

It reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a Kentuckian who referred to white residents of Appalachia as “indigenous” peoples fighting off the appropriation of their culture by “outsiders.”

There has been a long history of misrepresentation by people outside the region, but the important task of talking back to these stereotypes has sometimes resulted in suspicion of all outsiders.

It can also result in rewriting history to consider current residents “original” inhabitants and current extractive methods new.

In such a scenario, non-white Appalachians are invisible, and appropriation and extraction become relatively new phenomena.

Environmentalists who come to Kentucky learn about extractive technology and mountaintop removal early on. Too often, they also learn who is allowed to speak on these issues. A skim of comments on social media still brings up terms like “carpetbagger” and “yankee.”

Whether you are an “outsider” or “native” determines the extent to which some people are willing to hear your thoughts.

As an historian, I can’t help but wonder about the people who came before the Europeans and how their histories go untold in conversations about rightful land ownership and current extractive culture in Appalachia.

How do our conversations change when we extend our collective memories back to the exploitation and extraction that came with European settlement?

The nature of American colonization demanded a new and often detrimental impact on the land. After centuries of use and care by Native Americans, Europeans colonized and changed the land with subsistence agriculture. As the market revolution developed, pervasive crop agriculture ensued.

The wealthiest white families made out like bandits, securing land and political posts, while poor white settlers lived as tenants. Indigenous peoples were shut out of land ownership and the political sphere. As technology advanced during coal’s boom, extraction increased, increasing its impact.

This process started long before predatory coal companies came to the region and some white Appalachians benefited from it early on.

Conversations about disenfranchisement in the region must start there.

We need to know about the people who lost the most before President Lyndon B. Johnson stepped in to try to help with his War on Poverty.

We need to know who owned the land before coal companies retreated from traditional coal mining techniques to mountaintop removal. We need to know how they gained the rights to land and how they treated the people in the Appalachian region.

We should not forget that some coal companies were local and some people, whose families previously benefited from owning land taken from others, advocated for the coal industry. We also have to hold generations of absentee landowners accountable for their active roles in exploiting Appalachia.

The danger in seeing the world from the perspective of the outsiders-versus-natives is that those groups change.

We need to keep a sense of history and those changing roles in order to fairly tell our stories. We should think about the role our government played by considering land a commodity to be used by one group over the other.

Our government moved indigenous groups all over this country to benefit white settlers and rich European investors. When white people characterize themselves as “indigenous peoples” we lose centuries of this history.

We lose the role the European ancestors of these people played in shaping the colonial landscape which disenfranchised Native Americans.

If we focus only on the industry’s current victims, we lose tales of earlier losers and winners. Ultimately, we lose the histories of non-white people in Appalachia.

Reach Jillean McCommons, a Berea librarian, at jilleanmc@gmail.com.