Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part III

p. 11


The purposes of the present inquiry are threefold: first, we examine within an ethnogenic framework how persons of Melungeon ancestry are reconstructing their ethnic identity through purposeful changes in consumer behavior. We explore, for example, how food-ways, medical practices, and musical styles have been used to redefine these individuals’ sense of self and community, resulting in an emergent culture of consumption. This purposeful reconstruction of self through consumer behavior involves prospecting consumables not sampled previously in order to see if they are a comfortable fit for one’s new ethnic identity, and also retrospecting one’s traditional consumer preferences in an effort to discern novel ethnic meanings.

Second, our inquiry explores the social and personal struggles within the Melungeon community over the past five years resulting from access to newly available DNA data, genealogical records, and historical writings. This knowledge is being used to construct ethnic boundaries regarding who and what is a Melungeon. In short, modern Melungeon ethnogenesis is still very much in a fluid and volatile state. Of central interest in this regard is the social evolution of the ethnic label "Melungeon" from a derogatory racial term to one of sought-after status – from denigrating epithet to desirable personal possession. We explore the notion that certain, ‘exotic’ ethnic ancestries are emerging in multicultural postmodernism as important, valued symbols of personal uniqueness and can be core components of self identity (e.g., Bleakley 1997; Daniel 1992; Morello 2000). Newly desirable ethnic labels, such as Melungeon, often inspire contentious struggles over self and group definition precisely because they are now seen as valued symbolic possessions.

Third, the idea of ethnicity as a possession is carried more deeply into a consideration of personal physical traits becoming publicly recognized markers of ethnic membership. Because Melungeons have specific physical characteristics which set them apart from other ethnic communities, persons of Melungeon descent who possess more of these physical markers are deemed more ethnically genuine than descendants having fewer or none of these distinctive characteristics. We develop a discussion of the ethnicized body as an heirloom possession and specific physical markers as valued attributes (Curasi, Price and Arnould 2004).


We two authors are of Melungeon descent, something we became aware of around five years ago. Prior to that, we had identified ourselves ethnically as a WASP and an American Indian, respectively. Since learning of this ancestry, we have attended six Melungeon Gatherings during the summers of 2000 – 2005 both as observers and participants. These gatherings were instituted in 1998 in Wise, Virginia by Brent Kennedy and the Melungeon Heritage Association, and have been held subsequently in Kingsport, Tennessee (2), Sneedville, Tennessee, Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Frankfort, Kentucky, all locales of substantial Melungeon populations.

Additionally, extensive personal correspondence via e-mail, telephone, face-to-face conversations, and written mail/fax has been carried on between the two authors and several key members of the Melungeon community, including Brent Kennedy, Wayne Winkler, Jack Goins, Curtis Christie, Nancy Sparks Morrison, and Helen Campbell. These persons are cousins of ours and of each other, the Melungeon community being highly in-bred owing both to choice and geographic isolation. In constructing the present interpretation, we combined insights gained from direct discussions with the informants named above, Melungeon e-bulletin board postings, Melungeon Gathering presentations by diverse speakers and extensive readings in Appalachian regional history.


Patricia Albers in a 1996 paper, "Changing Patterns of Ethnicity in the Northeastern Plains, 1780-1870" does a compelling job describing the "transformations in ethnic identities based on cooperation and fusion" (p. 91) that took place among three Plains Indian tribes, the Ansinihoen, Cree and Ojibwa, who later merged with French, English and Indigenous metis groups. She develops a theoretical continuum of multi-ethnic fusion. In her view, "one end of the continuum is represented by polyethnic alliance formation in which different ethnic groups share territory, engage in joint military action, and collaborate in a variety of ceremonial and subsistence activities (p. 93)". She positions what she terms the emergent ethnic community at the other end of this continuum and states that here "the process of ethnogenesis has reached completion…Groups that were once distinct are now joined…In the process they not only form a political entity that is separate from their parent populations, but…an ethnic identification that is distinctive as well,…an identity that emphasizes unity and solidarity over any differences in their ethnic pasts (p. 93)."

An additional pattern Albers (1996, p. 93-94) describes residing toward the middle of the continuum is the hybridized group coalition: "here intermarriage and co-residency become so pervasive and widespread that local settlements with dual ethnic origins begin to constitute a socio-political body…apart from those of either parent bloc…At this point, ethnogenesis is not yet completed, because the hybrid populations still retain [an] umbilical connection to either or both parent blocs (p. 94)."

In our view, the originally-formed Melungeon community (1540 – 1890) constituted an emergent ethnic community; one which combined aspects of Sephardic Jewish, Muslim Moorish and Indigenous culture (see Hirschman 2005). Nearby hybridized communities tended to be dominated by Indigenous culture which Albers (1996) terms an ethnic bloc confederation. Included among these communities would be the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Pamunkey and Powhatan nations post-1650 (Kennedy 1997; Yates 2003). The Lumbee nation of North Carolina would likely constitute, as with the Melungeons, an emergent ethnic community (see Blu 1980).

Supporting this classification is the fact that among the Melungeon communities in Appalachia there were shared conventions of worship (Old Primitive Baptist), funerary procedures, foodways (e.g., ‘tomato’ and ‘chocolate’ gravy) and child-rearing patterns that set them apart from both white and indigenous settlements in the area (Bible 1975; Ball 1969; Kennedy 1997).

As will be discussed below, this original community was largely destroyed during the late 1800’s to early 1900’s as a result of racist activities which occurred at the local, state and federal levels. The present Melungeon community, in our view, is in the early stages of ethnogenesis – it is attempting to learn what it means to be a Melungeon. As we shall show, learning to consume like a Melungeon is a key ingredient in the ethnogenic process.

Early in the Melungeon Movement (1995-2000) efforts were made to extend consumption boundaries to the products and practices of those groups from which particular Melungeons believed themselves to be descended (Adams 2000, Wilson 2001, and see also Kennedy 1997). This frequently meantidentifying specific foodstuffs, musical styles, herbal remedies and so forth to sample and "see if it feels right", as one put it. As Melungeon ethnogenesis evolved from 2000 to the present, attention increasingly has turned to melding these newly-adopted ethnic folkways with the traditions of southern Appalachian regional culture with which most Melungeons grew up. At present, several Melungeons seem to have arrived at a comfortable homeostasis, balancing their former consumption patterns with newly acquired tastes and behaviors. We term this prospecting, because it suggests a purposeful searching to consume in ways viewed as appropriate to one’s new ethnic identity. Prospecting consumer behaviors may be directed toward any area of consumption, but most commonly seem to occur with regard to foodstuffs. Metaphorically we interpret this as a way of imbibing/sampling one’s new self; while metaphysically it implies re-constructing oneself from the inside out.

Occasionally, pre-existing Appalachian practices have been imbued with new meanings, as they become recognized as links to a previously invisible Melungeon ancestral past. We term this process retrospecting, as it involves the re-interpretation by group members of objects, practices, and behaviors they already engage in as being previously ‘hidden’ or ‘unseen’ markers of their new ethnic status. For example, the recollection that one’s grandparents strictly avoided pork had not been previously recognized as indicating Jewish or Muslim ethnicity.

Herbal Remedies

In several instances herbal remedies present in Appalachian culture for many generations have been retraced to Melungeon and American Indian roots. Because both of these ancestries were deemed a negative status within the southeastern U.S. until recently, the use of herbal medicines prior to Melungeon ethnogenesis usually was not attributed to one’s own ancestors, but rather said to be the province of a specific ‘herb doctor’ or ‘herb healer’ unrelated to oneself. Postings from the Melungeons @ Topic-A community bulletin board describe some of these remedies which now are publicly being claimed as part of the poster’s Melungeon ancestral history:

My great aunt got so aggravated when we couldn’t get her any more Swamp Root and Black Root. My father-in-law used slippery elm, yellow root, burdock root, calmus, and others. Catnip tea has a calming effect on the stomach…You can tie a piece of potato on a wart for a day or two and it will go away…, or [you can] go to one of our people here in the hills and they will rub it and it will go away. My wife can attest to that from experience. My wife’s elderly cousin once kissed our newborn infant, so that she would not have thrush mouth. (3/16/2003MTA)

My dad is into all the herbs…and like pressure points in your body…He does make lots of field trips to the foothills to collect specimens and take photos,…like wild tobacco and Indian herbs. He is a colorful little Melungeon…. Also to clear up seed warts,…he can make them come out and die…I had a large one on my foot… and he got rid of it right away… (3/16/2003 MTA)

I know grandpa grew herbs and used a cut stick just a little longer than my son was to cure him of asthma, and it worked…He could dowse for water, but his brother, Richmond Brewer, could not only dowse for it, but tell you how deep to dig. And of course, we had our ‘dreams’ and ‘feelings’ that came true. I still have them. It was never called magic in our family, but a gift from God to be used for good. If you used it for evil, it was dangerous. Grandma could take a needle, put it on a string, and it would go in a circle if you were having a girl and back and forth if you were having a boy…She was always right. Didn’t have ultra-sound back then, but didn’t need it. (1/28/2004) MTA

I know for a fact my kin kept some parts of [dangerous] animals they had [killed] up on their properties as charms of some kind, maybe to keep future animals at bay… I know my Dad’s Aunt Ella told me herself about a mountain lion that someone had killed and nailed a paw to the shed … (1/28/2004) MTA

My father taught me some about Cherokee medicine that he knew. We’d spend time looking for herbs in the woods together. Some of the herbal stuff he taught me has been tremendously useful in my life, and he taught me some of the Native spirituality he learned growing up…My friends when I was young were weirded out by some of the foods we ate, like pokeweed Jellico, roasted cat tails (young cattail plants can be cooked like corn on the cob, the roots can be made into a starchy flour), and venison jerky...My father was a Spencer who lived in North Carolina around the Grassy Creek area…He had ruddy skin, black hair and ice blue eyes…Had very Indian-looking features." (4/27/3003 MTA)

The attribution in the quote directly above to "Cherokee medicine" is what Albers (1996) would term an ‘umbilical link’ to one of the Melungeons’ founding ethnicities. Historically, several Southeastern indigenous communities fed into the Melungeon population from the 1500’s onward (Yates 2003). These became amalgamated after 1640 when susceptibility to European diseases caused a demographic collapse among Native populations across the Eastern seaboard (Stojanowski 2005). The Cherokees, a native nation already in place prior to the arrival of European colonists, intermarried with Europeans from the outset. This early pattern of hybridization likely saved both the Cherokee culture and population, as illnesses such as smallpox, typhus and measles decimated less mixed indigenous peoples (Albers 1996, Hill 1996; Sattler 1996; Stojanowski 2005; Yates 2003).

Because the Cherokee, by default, became the dominant indigenous nation in the area inhabited by Melungeons, those Melungeons who believe they have Native ancestors often label them as "Cherokee". In actuality, by the 1700’s the Cherokee were a collection of several surviving Native peoples; likely their folkways and genetics reflected a diversity gained from both Indigenous and European inputs. Thus, when current Melungeons hark back to Cherokee consumption practices, they are making attributions to an already ethnically mixed society.

However, it is important to understand the repatriation of Melungeons with their indigenous medicinal heritage as an act of complex and multi-layered meanings. On one level it represents a willingness to publicly avow animistic, non-scientific cultural practices. Most Melungeon medical traditions are based on Nature-grounded spirituality and what would be regarded by many American consumers as archaic superstition. The current willingness to not only publicly announce these practices, but to attest to their efficacy speaks to a new-found confidence in the wisdom of one’s forebears. On a different level, it gives voice to an anger and resentment toward the larger culture outside Appalachia, whose dominance and repressive ways led to ethnic abandonment or concealment over the past two to three generations. On yet an additional level, the reclamation of such practices signifies a bond across all those indigenous peoples made to feel less worthy, less desirable and less ‘evolved’ than the colonializing populations who engulfed them (Bell 2005; Haley and Wilcoxon 2005).


naithom said...

OMG, my grandmother did that with all of us when we were pregnant.  

nobodyschild1960 said...

Reading some of your words really freak me out. Growing up I was led to believe that my Father's Dad( Young) was full blood Cherokee and his Mom( Williams) was Irish and English. After so much difficulty in finding any records we've begun to wonder if we are Melungeon. My Dad and his Brothers and Sisters could have a dream and tell you about it and it would come true. They had a strange way of doing everything. They did have weird concoctions and did things like laying a hair over a wart to get rid of it. They spoke a language amongst themselves that I thought was Cherokee, but no know it is one called Romnus or Romni, some sort of E. European gypsy language. I don't know if I am Melungeon, but my Father's family and I are trying to find out. Very strange growing up thinking you are one person and finding out you might be someone else. Connie