Wherever forests have not been mowed down, wherever the animal is recessed in their quiet protection, wherever the earth is not bereft of four-footed life – that to the white man is an ‘unbroken wilderness. But for us there was no wilderness, nature was not dangerous but hospitable, not forbidding but friendly. Our faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings. For us, the world was full of beauty; for the other, it was a place to be endured until he went to another world. But we were wise. We knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard.
Even when forced into the idea of borders and land ownership, the Native American’s view of land ownership was never to dominate and extract from land, but to protect the circle of life, especially from the greed and destructive ways they had witnessed amongst “civilized” European settlers . Eventually those Native Americans were forced to give up their lands, selling them to dishonest surveyors and politicians as they tried desperately to keep their traditional way of life. It did not matter, for as much as they yielded and conformed to the ways of society and civilization, they were still made to walk the Trail of Tears as heathens—savages. Only Mountaineers remained in Appalachia, and while many did not subscribe fully to modern civilization and an economic way of life, they were at least white and couldn’t be driven from their lands as brutally as those whose skin was a different color.
When Appalachians resisted the cruel hard labor imposed upon them by the greed of wealthy white men in northern cities, they found themselves being dehumanized in newspapers. The proud Appalachian was turned into uncouth, uneducated hillbillies who were “barbaric,” and “knife happy.” Not only did such stereotyping make it easier for the national conscious to suffer the horrendous treatment and loss of life i n coal mines, it detracted from coal miner’s struggles for better safety legislation and working conditions. For over 50 years Appalachian coal miners walked their own version of the Trail of Tears. Thousands of men and boys died in coal mines owned by wealthy white men, their families kicked out on the streets when they could no longer pay for company housing. Still, their skin was white and eventually they would gain some ground through the power they created within the United Mine Workers and the help of lawyers who could play the game.
Appalachian people have been coerced into a dependency on money and food from outside of the region and so have given up their freedom to wealthy corporations. The coal industry infiltrates schools, indoctrinating our children in this belief, telling them that coal mining is the best thing for Appalachia, that coal mining is their future, and that they should be proud of their coal mining heritage. When I bare witness to this, I cannot help but think of the mission schools that took Native American children from their parents and intentionally kept them from their traditions, teaching them how to become “civilized” people. In a way, what is happening with Appalachian children is much worse however, for the future they are being indoctrinated to will eventually choke their lungs with coal dust and destroy their backs as they forever destroy the land and their own sources of fresh water.
A handful of Appalachians still choose to see the problem, and they, like anyone else who feels compelled to seek justice, join in the struggle against those who exploit us.Those few true Appalachians understand to, that they are not alone and that the injustice and inequality they witness exists everywhere the global economy touches. They understand the destruction of villages and communities throughout the world, and the fear other people have for the lives of coming generations. It is for this reason that I am not surprised to hear the voices of other nations at environmental protests. I am not surprised to hear the drumming and singing of Native Americans as I march down the streets of Washington DC in an attempt to protect the land and water from the same greed that has plagued our world for thousands of years.
We are all bound together in the protection of life, not just our own, not just human, but all life. We are a part of the world, tied to one another and tied to the web of life. Only “white devils,” with a thirst for money and power, only those whose hearts have been away from nature to long, would think otherwise.
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.” –Native American Proverb