Cultural Attachment to Place: A Framework for Identifying and Working with
Traditionally Associated Peoples in Southern Appalachia
Benita J. Howell, the University of Tennessee
February 26, 2003
Appalachian people living near the region's national parks are not readily associated with the Applied Ethnography Program's concept of "traditionally associated people." There is no visible difference between the majority of Appalachian people and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the mainstream. In contrast to the neighboring Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, they lack the clear community boundaries of the reservation townships, have no government of their own through which consultation can be managed, and tend also to be under-represented in their county and state governments. Social scientists have long remarked on rural Appalachians' low level of participation in formal organizations; county leaders, middle-class townspeople, recreation enthusiasts and environmentalists are far more likely to attend public meetings related to park planning than are the folks whose daily lives likely will be most affected by park management decisions.
From the standpoint of Appalachian mountain people, TAP status is important because they are the most affected stakeholders, historically the people who were displaced from their homes by Great Smoky Mountains NP and Shenandoah NP, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and more recently, Big South Fork National Recreation Area. Although the National Park Service is not legally obligated to consult with other TAPS than federally recognized tribes, these displaced residents certainly deserve to be consulted as the National Park Service undertakes to interpret their history and culture to the public at large. Because it is the policy of the Applied Ethnography Program to encourage consultation with all TAPS, it is important that Appalachian mountain people have the same opportunity as more visible ethnic groups. Consulting with them can benefit the national parks not only in the realm of cultural interpretation but also in management of natural as well as cultural resources. Consultation establishes a basis for collaboration in documenting ethnographic resources and participation of people with extensive local knowledge in co-management projects that augment what the parks can accomplish with reduced staffing and tight budgets.
The contract research I did in 1979-80 (Howell 2003) during development of the Big South Fork National Recreation Area sensitized me to the concerns I raise here (see Howell 1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1998). In this essay, however, I discuss a more recent Forest Service EIS and its implications. My agenda here is to identify strengths of NPS applied ethnography research practices that might become a model for other federal agencies that presently lack ethnographic expertise but need to address cultural dimensions as they fulfill NEPA responsibilities.
Barriers to Ethnography and Participatory Research in Impact Assessment
Consultation is a key element in the NPS applied ethnography program and has been institutionalized in the program's suite of research tools. Rapid assessment in particular employs consultation to incorporate local concerns and identify local expert knowledge quickly and efficiently. Local consultants participate in the research in various ways: as members of focus groups, as interviewees, by accompanying researchers on transect walks, and sometimes by becoming full collaborators in planning and well as conducting research. In contrast to the situations in which parks have sought rapid ethnographic assessment, however, the logic of NEPA-mandated impact assessment poses a seemingly insurmountable dilemma for consultation.
Is the evaluation of multiple action alternatives a recipe for NIMBYism? That certainly was true in the case I will discuss, consideration of possible routes for a high-voltage power transmission line through southwest Virginia. The model of rational decision-making that underlies environmental impact assessment requires quantification so that costs and benefits can be summed for each alternative and compared among alternatives. Time constraints have dictated a pragmatic approach to data collection, but participatory research strategies that might generate information quickly are suspect in a politically charged situation in which everyone expects stakeholder statements of the sort elicited in public meetings to be biased to promote their own interests over those of competing stakeholders. Unfortunately, the logic of environmental impact assessment tends to leave out ethnographic issues along with ethnographic methodology, or else they are handled badly as occurred in the case of environmental assessment for a 765kV power line proposed to carry electricity from the West Virginia coalfields to serve metropolitan eastern Virginia. (See Wagner and Hedrick 2001; Wagner 2002; and Lucas, Brady, and Givens 2002 for details of issues I summarize here.)
American Electric Power, formerly Appalachian Power, first petitioned in 1991 to build a 765kV power transmission line from Oceana, WV to a sub-station at Cloverdale or Jackson's Ferry, Virginia. The US Forest Service was lead agency for environmental assessment of fourteen distinct alternative routes that crossed portions of twelve southwest Virginia counties, including portions of George Washington NF and the Appalachian Trail as well as private farmland. During scoping someone proposed that "cultural attachment to land" as well as more typical aspects of land use should be studied, and the Forest Service agreed. However, the contract research on this subject was seriously flawed because the researchers failed to recognize that they could not measure this intangible cultural phenomenon from a distance, without employing ethnographic methods. Without any prior experience working in the Appalachian region and relying on a scant array of outdated local color literature for ideas, the researchers defined a priori a set of variables which they could measure by mapping, gathering statistical data, and windshield survey, indicators they assumed could measure relative strength of place attachment.
The contractor researchers had no graduate training in anthropology and operated with inadequate background knowledge of the research area, but their research strategies suggest that they chose research at a distance over approaches that would have revealed emic perceptions of place attachment. Having used a set of etic geographic features to map community boundaries (ones that not surprisingly did not correspond with community members' cognitive boundaries), the researchers collected data from which they inferred geographic and social isolation from mainstream Middle America. Their etic indicators of cultural isolation were then equated with place attachment. Contacts with residents were minimal; in communities where unfamiliar vehicles and strangers are noticed immediately, the researchers apparently interviewed no one formally, and residents could not even recall them "hanging out" around country stores or similar locations to "overhear" residents' conversations. Citizens concerned that they had been victims of "stealth research" learned from the Forest Service that their FOIA requests would be honored in only a limited way because the contract firm claimed proprietary rights over their discovery process. Citizens attempting to contest their community rating--"medium cultural attachment"--could obtain no information about the specific data and methods responsible for that rating.
Citizens responded in three ways. First, they accelerated community-based research to document their application for federal and state recognition as a rural historic district, a designation taken seriously by Virginia, whose state corporation commission ultimately held the power to grant or deny power line permit requests. Meanwhile, I helped them develop their response to the draft EIS by reviewing and commenting on pertinent sections of it and the limited additional information they had obtained from the Forest Service. Finally, they responded most directly to the contractors' findings by requesting Dr. Melinda Bollar Wagner and her student research team from Radford University to conduct alternative ethnographic research on cultural attachment to land (Link, Brady, and Givens 2002). The Radford study had as its goal elucidation of emic dimensions of cultural attachment to land. The students conducted open-ended interviews with community members, asking broad, non-directive questions. The tape-recorded interviews were fully transcribed and content analyzed using both quantitative "key word in context" methods and thematic analysis (Wagner 2002 describes the methodology in detail.)
In 1996 the Forest Service and Park Service identified "No Action" as their preferred alternative for the original power line request. The following year AEP presented a revised proposal for a more northerly route from Oceana, West Virginia to Jackson's Ferry, Virginia, which triggered a supplemental environmental assessment. The same contract firm implemented the same kind of "cultural attachment to land" study for the SDEIS as for the DEIS, while affected communities arranged an ethnographic study with Dr. Wagner and the Radford team. This time around, time constraints made it necessary for citizen interviewers whom Dr. Wagner trained and provided with an interview guide to conduct the interviews. The Radford team undertook transcription and analysis as before. By this time their methodology had been implemented in five counties with 223 residents, who had provided interviews ranging from twenty minutes to six hours: 4,000 pages of transcriptions. When citizens contesting the new power line route presented findings of the ethnographic research to the State Corporation Commission, AEP challenged the research and Dr. Wagner was asked to appear as an expert witness at a State Corporation Commission hearing in which bias and sampling, especially the use of citizens interviewing their own neighbors and kin, became issues. The State Corporation Commission in its May 2001 decision disagreed with the hearing examiner and held that residents' statements and the Radford research are legitimate evidence of attachment to land (Wagner, personal communication).
Observing the unfolding of the NEPA process in this case and the difficulties encountered in presenting interview data as hearing evidence motivated me to seek means other than interviews to document cultural attachment to place. Much is known about dimensions of place attachment in Southern Appalachia based on regional scholarship and literary works produced by or in collaboration with Appalachian people. This provides a sound conceptual framework. The next step is to develop material and behavioral indicators that can corroborate emic notions of place attachment, and thus attain construct validity without relying upon verbal data. Although the situation that stimulated my thinking bears little relation to national parks, I decided to pursue this project for the "Living Peoples and Cultures" workshop because, for Southern Appalachia at least, "cultural attachment to place" seems to correlate well with "traditional association." I'm interested to learn to what extent the Southern Appalachian template can help to clarify the Applied Ethnography Program's concept of "traditional association" and be generalized to other regions and groups.
Dimensions of Place Attachment: A Template for Southern Appalachia
Two key questions orient the discussion that follows:
- What knowledge, traditions, beliefs, and values tie people to place?
- How are these intangibles reflected in tangible material and behavioral indicators?
The conceptual framework reflects consensus of regional literature, salient themes in the Radford interviews (I have had access to unpublished reports of Radford studies in three counties), and my own ethnographic experiences in Kentucky and Tennessee. I will briefly describe five cognitive dimensions of place attachment and suggest appropriate material and behavioral indicators for each. These dimensions are the "genealogical landscape," knowledge of place, knowledge of environment and resources, home and identity, and place-based values and ethics.
The "Genealogical Landscape"
Folklorist Barbara Allen used the term "genealogical landscape" as a shorthand gloss for the ways in which people she encountered in rural Kentucky expressed place attachment. She wrote, "In conversations, residents reveal their conceptions of place, as well as personal and social identity, in talk revolving around the relationships between people and the land they live on. The landscape (has) historical and social as well as physical dimensions, a complex structure of both kinship networks and landownership patterns" (Allen 1990).
These observations are a localized example of the process of place making in which shared meanings transform physical space into cultural place (Low 1994). Allen's observations encompass a set of elements typical of the place attachment that develops in rural Appalachian communities based on historical continuity in land ownership and historical continuity of residence that results in largely congruent social and spatial communities. Such communities form dense and enduring kinship networks, integrate non-kin neighbors into kinship networks via marriage and fictive kinship, and possess deep knowledge of local heritage that is transmitted to successive generations through its everyday use in conversation.
Verbal indicators that one has arrived in such a genealogical landscape are legion. Whether in open-ended interviews or in informal conversation, fellow residents are "placed" through reference to their kinship affiliations and residence in ways that evoke many associations with the family's history and home place. Popular local anecdotes include frequent references to landmarks and places significant within the community; historical figures are tied to places and the places acquire layers of local significance through these stories. The outsider listening to talk in the community soon realizes that she is hearing what linguists label "restricted code." It is in no way impoverished communication, rather just the opposite, rich with elliptical references to the locally understood genealogical landscape.
What material-behavioral data might be indicators of this "genealogical landscape" pattern, independent of informal or formal interviewing that, correctly or not, can be accused of bias in favoring "old-timers" as interviewees and posing leading questions? In the power line case, the community historian had already assembled genealogical data based on marriage, census, and tax records that furnish evidence of residence histories and community endogamy. Based on land deeds and tax records, she was able to compile a series of maps showing that descendants of original settlers had held the majority of land in the community for 150 to 200 years.
Detailed Knowledge of Place
In describing the interface between local people and environment along the Coal River in West Virginia, folklorist Mary Hufford wrote: "Every wrinkle rippling the mountains has been named for people, flora, fauna, practices, and events both singular and recurrent: Beech Hollow, Ma Kelly Branch, Bear Wallow, Board Camp Hollow, Old Field Hollow - Kayford Mountain, the Cutting Box, Chestnut Hollow, Sugar Camp" (Hufford 2002).
This customary use of local place names (i.e., place names not recorded on official maps) shows up in narrative, in informal conversation, and in giving directions. Directions can be another sometimes-frustrating example of "restricted code" being used where the lost outsider expects "elaborated code" (speech that is explicit and refers to publicly available information, i.e. road maps and signs). Here's an example: "Go down here to the Smith home place and turn right onto the sawmill road heading towards Pilot Rock 'til you come to that chimney fall where that old Skidmore place was that was supposed to be haunted. Then take the next left fork that follows the White Oak down toward the state line." These directions are packed with esoteric cultural knowledge of place. You can't miss that road to the state line if you know the significant cultural and natural landmarks in the area, if you understand the genealogical landscape, and if you're familiar with the place references in local history and narrative.
Behavioral indicators of local place naming are verbal, but it is possible to document their use as an unconscious speech pattern in conversation, oral narrative, or interviews that have been recorded for other purposes. Quantitative content analysis of transcriptions would permit cross-group and cross-locale comparisons of the frequency with which local place names are employed and would provide a relatively neutral comparative measure of the detailed knowledge of place that is integral to place attachment. A more time-intensive but objective indicator might be mapping of non-official place names to produce visual representations. Spatial density of natural features that are given local place names and spatial density of all local place names might then be calculated and compared across groups and locales
Environmental knowledge embraces ways of learning about one's surroundings and ways of using that knowledge as well as the knowledge itself. It includes (but is not limited to) components such as orienting by natural features, knowledge of flora and fauna and observation of habitat and habits, weather observations, knowledge of landscape history, and aesthetic appreciation of one's surroundings. Although the knowledge is in people's heads, the behaviors through which people acquire and use their knowledge are observable and in some cases produce material evidence or records.
The most obvious behavioral and material indicators of environmental knowledge are the many uses of natural resources typically documented in a traditional resource use study. In Southern Appalachia these activities might include hunting and trapping, fishing, foraging for wild foods, collecting roots and herbs for medicinal use or as dye materials; selecting and collecting appropriate materials for woodworking and basketry; and acquiring and processing various mineral products for domestic use such as building stone, lime, sulfur, and saltpeter. Maintaining a farm in Southern Appalachia has meant maintaining extensive wooded acreage as well as cropland and pasture. Stereotypic images of "hollow folk" notwithstanding, established farms like those in southwest Virginia that have been in continuous production for 150 or 200 years attest to acquisition and use of environmental knowledge in conserving the land.
"Roaming the woods," begun in childhood and continued if possible into old age, is a means of acquiring environmental knowledge for the young and a means of tracking changes for those who have roamed the same areas for many years. They experience landscape history on the scale of a lifetime and thus are in a position to monitor ecosystem health. For example, when scientists from Ohio State University began research to understand the simultaneous decline of oaks, hickories, and other species in the mixed mesophytic forest, they found allies among citizens along Coal River who already were concerned about forest health based on their lay observations of diseased and dying trees and their knowledge of conditions over the past several decades (Lucy Braun Association 1994). Occasionally a lay naturalist makes written records of observations in a diary or journal; recording of daily weather observations is more common.
Home Place and Identity
Residents of southwest Virginia interviewed by Radford students spoke often of matters that tie their sense of identity to the home place. These themes included references to preserving the home place and family land, connecting to family history, having a strong sense of belonging to the home community as well as to one's family, the fact that ties to home are salient for work and residence choices, and awareness that choosing to remain in one's home community on family land entails sacrifice of economic opportunities and material comforts that most Americans value more than place attachment.
While these are intangible expressions of identity and values, they do not simply have to be accepted at face value. There are behavioral indicators that attachment to the home place is salient in work and residence decisions. Quantitative data can be collected on long-distance daily commuting to jobs, part-time farming supplemented by other employment, and return-migration of those who have moved away from the community for employment opportunities elsewhere. Various social customs reveal Appalachian migrants acting on their identification with home even while living and working elsewhere for many years. The "hillbilly highway" phenomenon is well known; others question why working class Appalachian migrants in northern cities pack their families into an aging cars most Friday evenings and drive all night to Kentucky or Tennessee, then drive into the wee hours of Monday morning on the return trip. The summer months are punctuated by special celebrations, family reunions held at the home place and church homecomings during which the dispersed church family and their neighbors and friends gather for fellowship, dinner on the grounds, and cleaning and decoration of graves in the cemetery (Decoration Day). Sometimes retirees who intended to return home are not able to do so, or infirm elderly people must move to a city where a child is living who can care for them, but at death they are brought home for burial. Persistence of these customs indicates that people are enacting, not merely talking about, identification with their home place.
Place-based Values and Ethics
In the Radford interviews and in oral histories recorded in the Smoky Mountains and Big South Fork areas, rural Appalachians often speak of family heritage, community history, and their natural surroundings in ways that express their appreciation and the salience these intertwined aspects of their lives have for their personal sense of identity and well-being. Elsewhere I have attempted to explain how and why in a period of industrialization and rapid population increase some Appalachian mountain people acquired a reputation as irresponsible resource managers (Howell 2002). Agrarian communities such as Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains or Clover Hollow in southwest Virginia were overlooked in discourse aimed at justifying federal management of lands acquired for national forests and parks; however, a stewardship ethic shaped their use of natural resources as well as conservation of the cultural landscape.
Land ownership records demonstrate that people have acted upon the expressed value placed upon keeping land in the family or at least in the community. In mapping land ownership and genealogical relations in her Clover Hollow community, Nancy Kate Givens was able to show concretely how land acquired by Isaiah Givens in the eighteenth century was distributed among his descendants in 1920 and in 1996. (Preparation of her maps is described in Lucas, Brady, and Givens 2002.) The cultural landscape shows material evidence of careful upkeep of homes built in the nineteenth century as well as careful maintenance of churches and cemeteries. Visiting with residents one sees that antique furniture, tools, needlework, and photographs of family members are treated as heirlooms valued for the anecdotes and memories they conjure up rather than for their monetary value as collectibles.
In rural Appalachian communities with intact place attachment, residents still share customary rules for use of commons, i.e., wooded land open to roaming by all community members although individually owned. Outsiders typically post "No Trespassing" signs; local people post their land only when outsiders who abuse the rules (chiefly unauthorized, irresponsible hunters) become a problem. Traditionally accepted uses of the commons included grazing, foraging, hunting, and collecting of down wood. Invading someone else's marked bee tree or ginseng collecting area were violations of the unwritten code. In recent years outsiders who have taken up harvesting plants such as galax, goldenseal, or ginseng have not followed local practices of leaving small roots, scattering seed, or otherwise insuring that a stand could regenerate itself; local people are concerned about destruction of resources that were responsibly harvested for generations. Nor are the ironies of state intervention in resource management lost on them. A Coal River resident pointed out to Mary Hufford (2002) that while endangered species status regulates traditional harvest of ginseng for sale, complicity of the state and federal governments in mountaintop removal coal mining each year permits destruction of untold quantities of ginseng and irretrievably alters its habitat. This loss and the greater loss of forest it epitomizes proceed unchecked, challenged only by local grassroots environmentalists acting out of deep-seated, multidimensional attachment to place.
Summary and Conclusion
In this essay, I have attempted to show how observable elements of material culture, everyday behavior, social custom, and individual action reflect cultural attachment to place. These observable phenomena provide indicator variables consistent with the emic complex of knowledge, oral tradition, beliefs and values that constitute the intangible construct "cultural attachment to place." Using these indicators, it is possible to conduct appropriate ethnographic documentation that can withstand scientific scrutiny and the skepticism surrounding verbal statements, particularly if they are elicited in politically charged circumstances such as protest against unwanted development or unpopular management decisions.
I have suggested multiple indicator variables for multiple dimensions of cultural attachment to place. As a practical matter given the logistical challenges of coordinating multiple tasks in multiple locales under time constraints, consultation, indeed active participation of research subjects in data collection would be essential. I have proposed a framework for Southern Appalachia based on twenty-five years experience conducting research in the region, reading and evaluating multidisciplinary literature on the region, and interacting regularly with other scholars in Appalachian Studies. I have the advantage that the extensive Radford interviews and analysis already have documented emic perspectives in this section of Southern Appalachia. In other implementations of this method, however, because the aim is for operational measures to reflect emic understandings of cultural attachment to place, consultation from the research design phase onward is desirable to insure that sound methodology will produce findings that subjects of the research consider to be valid.
How can the National Park Service Applied Ethnography Program make use of the place attachment documentation that I propose here? First and foremost, in rural areas at least, I would argue that cultural attachment to place is a diagnostic criterion that can be used to distinguish "traditionally associated people" from other park neighbors and stakeholders. Because their cultural attachment to place entails knowledge useful to resource managers, they would be wise to seek consultation whether or not they are legally obliged to do so. Finally, I have suggested what I hope is a robust, credible multidimensional methodology that can contribute to the National Park Service ethnographic resources inventory by generating information to illuminate cultural dimensions of human-land relationships.
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