I did not set out to write a multi-part series on the Blue Ridge Mountain evictions, but as the original post became longer and longer, I decided to split it into parts, all of which I will post in upcoming days. Be sure you read parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six.
My Blue Ridge Mountain Home Eviction: Part 7
Every 14 days, somewhere in the world a tribal elder dies, the last of his or her kind, and with him goes his culture’s language, folklore, crafts, and beliefs. Half the world’s languages are in danger of disappearing in the next 90 years as children leave the old ways, wooed by bright lights and big cities.
In China, traditional villages, some of them from the 13th century, are vanishing at an astounding rate of about 300 per day, bulldozed to make way for urban cities, the old people moved carelessly to apartment dwelling or some other unfamiliar government convenience.
For the Blue Ridge mountain people of Virginia, it’s too late. Their culture scattered to the wind when they were evicted from their mountain homes.
Without the cohesion of place they were simply swallowed by the larger culture of America, along with their way of life. Like drops of water in the ocean, they were absorbed, and then forgotten as a unique group.
Years ago I traveled to the island of New Guinea. To get there I had to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii, then Guam,then Sulawesi, then Bali, then Irian Jaya, all on successively smaller planes. There was no direct route to where I was going.
From Jayapura, Iryan Jaya I boarded a small Canadian-made plane, a Sea Otter, and flew out over the ocean, where we turned back 180 degrees, picked up air speed, started climbing, and that plane gave it everything it had to fly over the mountain range that jutted 15,000 feet into the sky nearly straight from the ocean’s edge.
Our destination was the Baliem Valley, a place 11,000 feet high and surrounded by those 15,000 foot peaks, which were nearly constantly hidden in clouds, though the valley was bright, sunny, and tropical.
Within the Baliem Valley live a people called the Dani. No one knew they were there until recent times. They were first spotted by the Western world in 1938 from an airplane, but it wasn’t until 1961 that a team went in to explore.
Michael Rockefeller, of “those” Rockefellers, was part of that team until he disappeared, his body never to be found.
The Dani were headhunters and cannibals until recent decades, and even recently there were rumors.
I needed to obtain special permission from our State Department to visit there because of ongoing wars between tribes. The police in Denpasar measured my bones before I left, in case they had only bones to identify me later.
The Baliem Valley and the jungles that crawled up its surrounding mountains were the whole world of the Dani.
Tribes were like states unto themselves, complete with different rulers and dialects of language, even though two tribes may live only a mile distant from each other.
Each tribe had its own way of speaking; its own customs and history. Language dialects changed from village to village.
Maybe each of them used herbs and plants as cures a little differently. Raised their children differently. Hunted differently. Sang different songs.
When I was there no hotels or restaurants were in the Baliem Valley. No natives wore clothes, except those living at one local Christian mission, or in the dinky military barracks in the valley.
I stayed in the village, introduced to the tribe by my guide, and slept on a hard floor alongside the porters who carried our supplies. One morning we were confined to our hut because a battle raged outside, with bows and arrows, one tribe against the other because someone stole a woman and a pig.
Why do I bring this up? Because Irian Jaya’s government, far away on a distant island, decided to build a road over the mountains and into the Baliem Valley, where the primitive Dani lived.
The nation’s other islands were getting too crowded, and they wanted to relocate those people to the Baliem Valley.
I saw the giant earth movers while I was there, a stark contrast to the naked, spear-carrying natives who lived there.
Today there are vacation resorts in the Baliem Valley. The natives panhandle for cigarettes, and demand money in return for taking their photo. There are hotels and restaurants employing natives, who must wear clothes, something that until recently was foreign to them. Their native culture is disappearing, a victim of the easy lure of Western pleasures. Soon it will be gone altogether, save for native performances at events and cultural centers.
Will the Dani survive the onslaught of popular culture? No. I can say that unequivocally. It may not be tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years, but it will happen.
They’ll be lost to history, just as the all of Virginia’s Blue Ridge culture was lost with the Shenandoah National Park’s building.
Sure, my great grandparents and other mountain folk carried their customs down the mountain with them, but once out of the mountains, their distinct ways were quickly diluted by the larger community’s ways. That’s how it works.
There are still mountain cultures here and there in pockets throughout the South. But each is distinct from the others, if only in subtle ways.
As with the Dani in Irian Jaya, there are different lyrics to the ballads, different ways of strumming a guitar, different ingredients in foods, different quilt patterns, and ways of tying rag rugs, and different herbal potions or superstitions to drive away freckles or curly hair.
I know there is a distinctive banjo technique that can be traced only to Grayson and Carroll counties in southwestern Virginia. I know that my grandmother believed whatever a newborn baby touches first, that is what profession they will be. She made sure her youngest, Bobby, touched a bible. He did not grow up to be a minister, but he was the kindest, gentlest man you’d ever meet. I have no doubt there were many unique practices in our part of the Blue Ridge that are now gone forever.
Old cultures are being mowed down to make room for the new. And more and more, the new culture that takes their place is becoming the same all over the world.
Maybe that is inevitable. Maybe it’s even a good thing; differences between people are what causes war, after all, and so maybe the ultimate result will be the end of strife between nations or peoples.
I can hope, anyway. Because otherwise, loss is simply loss.
The Blue Ridge are the oldest mountains in the world. And the culture of the people who lived there was one of the oldest (non-Native) cultures in America.
The world around them was changing rapidly in the early 1930s. The car, the airplane, the electric light and telephone – the country was giddy with change, and so it looked with suspicion on those backwards people who didn’t welcome it. It was all too easy to marginalize them, and to ultimately decide their fates for them.
Today the mountains remain, but the people are gone. The forest reclaimed its land. Vines twined in and over those old cabins and twisted through crumbling mortar. Saplings sprung from between their fallen walls, and 80 seasons of fallen leaves have covered their remnants.
Our Blue Ridge ancestors are long gone, and so are their homes. Their culture is lost, save for a few old folks who still remember. Soon they’ll be gone too. I want to learn what my ancestors knew, and continue telling their stories.
You can find Part Eight of My Blue Ridge Mountain Home Eviction here. Or access the whole series here. To make sure you don’t miss the next installments, go to the “Subscribe” form at the top of this page.