Self-Determination on the Paleface Reservation: the Melungeon Reemergence in Southern Appalachia

Self-Determination on the Paleface Reservation
the Melungeon Reemergence in Southern Appalachia

Jason Adams

by Jason Adams
April/May 2001

"They say in Harlan County,
there are no neutrals there,
you’ll either be a union man
or a thug for J.H. Blair"

Florence Reece

"The way, the only way, to stop this evil
is for the red man to unite in claiming
a common and equal right in the land,
as it was first, and should be now,
for it was never divided."


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This paper is dedicated to the memory of the thousands of Kurds, Cherokees and Melungeons who have passed on as a result of the actions of those who would seek to build empires over, instead of relationships across, the muddied waters of cultural difference.

I. A Knife to the Hearts of History’s Assasins

Since the 1970’s, a latent indigenous presence has been quietly pulsing through the family, workplace, church and schoolroom arteries of southern Appalachia. Today, at the dawn of the 21st century, this awareness of a mixed-blood heritage has matured into a movement, one that is rising in reaction to an encroaching cultural deadness, created to facilitate an ongoing extraction of natural resources for profit, by way of centuries of racial assimilation and disenfranchisement from ancestral lands. The movement may rewrite American history books, reconnect Appalachians to their lands, foster cross-racial solidarity, replace imposed eurocentrism, and undermine the historical illegitimacy of male-dominant power in the region.

The movement is being led by middle-aged, working-class, mixed-ancestry Appalachians whose roots as a people go back over four centuries, and whose American Indian bloodlines go back millennia. In that mountain region that never was considered “quite white” these mixed-blood indigenous people, who also variably claim bloodlines from the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, North Africa and West Africa say they are rejecting white identity and reclaiming the epithet used against them for two centuries: Melungeon (Morello, 2000).

But even as Melungeons reject an imposed white identity, the omnipresence of the national eurocentric ideology, imported to the mountains to enforce outland corporate hegemony over the region, is still expressed in many ways. If a reclaimed Melungeon identity is to challenge the race and class domination which created the term in first place, Melungeons might consider employment of the term Metis as it is used by the many mixed-ancestry groups affiliated with the Metis Assembly of the Americas: not-quite-White, not-quite-Black and not-quite-Indian, but because of the American Indian context in which they originated, an indigenous people nonetheless. Similarly, the term “indigenous” can be applied in the same way the word “aboriginal” is officially used in Canada – as an umbrella term encompassing all people with bloodlines that go into the North American continent before “contact,” including Indian tribes as well as mixed-blood Metis groups. Such a rearrangement both in discourse and within the movement itself could provide assistance in authentically rejecting an imposed white identity, concretizing solidarity with all of the Metis and indigenous peoples of the Americas, and placing the feet of the movement firmly in the Appalachian region; all things that would implicitly challenge the central issue at hand: corporate hegemony over the region.

1570-1770: In the Sun of Indian Appalachia

When looking at the founding period of the “Melungeons” it is critical to remember that these mixed-blood people were for centuries slurred with that racial epithet, and had never used the term to describe themselves until a movement to reclaim it as a symbol of group pride emerged in the 1960’s. In addition, despite the undertones of some of the more popular theories, nearly all documentation, self-identification and oral histories present today bear out that Melungeons have consistently maintained a primarily mixed-blood Indian identity, until the 20th century (Everett, 1999). This history is consistent with that of Scots-Irish and Anglo deerskin trader infusion into the Cherokee, Creek and other southeastern tribes and their mixed-blood offspring, who usually retained membership with the tribe into which they were born (Sicko, 1999, p.12).

The first mixed-blood children whose descendants would later be called Melungeons are believed to have inhaled their first breaths in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, after east coast Indian women of various tribes and their communities took in escaped indentured slaves and other exiles who were variably Portuguese, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Ottoman, Moorish, West African and Mulatto (Kennedy, 1997; Wilson, 1998; Henige, 1998; Elder, 1999). Colonial newspaper ads of masters seeking to reclaim their “property” suggest that this period of escape from servitude and infusion into Indian tribes may have lasted as long as two centuries (Goad, 1997, p 65). Their offspring undoubtedly found themselves in an intermediary position between the two, combining elements of both cultures, within an Indian context.

This is supported by the many indicators historically found among the Melungeons such as a sweatlodges, female sexual freedom, herbal medicine, charms, conjurers, a reverence for nature, and American Indian burial methods (Elder, 1999). Throughout the southeastern tribes, the social context was matrilineal and matrifocal; women held power, and could decide who they wanted as their sexual partners. As one researcher says, “it would not be surprising to me, that the fathers of these children, coming from a much less sexually open society probably felt like they had found heaven, and never wanted to come back” (D. Wilson, personal communication, May 16, 2000). And as the descendants of escapees from indentured slavery, Melungeons were wise to the extremes to which European imperialists would go, and therefore were that much less likely to identify primarily with their father-culture.

The determination of exactly which tribes were the founding communities of the Melungeons remains to be uncovered. But we do know which ones were geographically in the right area – and that many of their own oral histories coincide with the Melungeon history. The most likely tribes of origin are the Chickahominy, Catawba, Creek, Saponi, Lumbee, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Keyanwee, Pamunkey, Powhatan, Yuchi, Gingaskin, Nanticoke, Nottoway, Rappahannock, Weyanock and Werowocomo (Elder, 1999, p. 134).

The top three of these seventeen are the Saponi, the Powhatan and the Catawba. The very earliest documented records that suggest tribally-specific origins of the Melungeons point to Saponi / Catawba Indian communities who are supposed to have taken in male exiles of Spain’s ill-fated Santa Elena colony on the coast of South Carolina, around the year 1576 (Kennedy, 1997). By the early 18th century, the Saponi had become a conglomeration of several tribes living most often in the piedmont region of Virginia and North Carolina and travelling occasionally to South Carolina Catawba lands. The term Melungeon first appeared in connection with places where the term Saponi had suddenly disappeared (Everett, 1999, p. 365-66).

Powhatan confederacy tribes around Virginia’s Jamestown colony are also known to have taken in a number of exiles of euro-colonialism. That Melungeons were first discovered speaking a broken Elizabethan form of English, indicates that the language originally held by some of their fathers had been corrupted over generations in a non-English speaking Indian context. That, combined with practicing Christianity and the use Scots-Irish / Englishlast names and Biblical first names, implies that at least in this case, a somewhat separate Metis culture must have developed (Elder, 1999, p.135). Both the Powhatan and Saponi origins are supported by statements made in 1903 by Lewis Jarvis, a lawyer from the Melungeon Blackwater and Newman’s Ridge area of Tennessee. According to Jarvis, who said he had known many of their “cheifs”, Melungeon tribal traditions claimed origins from Indians originally from Virginia (Everett, 1999, p. 363).

Other stories that still persist in Melungeon lore that they were forced off of their lands geographically link them to the Catawba, which in turn reinforces the connection to the Saponi who had traveled there at various points (Elder, 1999, p.142). Later, around the period of the Trail of Tears, these Catawba would be left landless due to a “mismanaged removal” (Everett, 1999, p. 370). Interestingly, one testimony linked to Old Ned Sizemore, a man often thought to be Melungeon, says that he came originally from the “old Catawba reservation” (Jordan, 1987). Several other ancestors of people now referred to as Melungeons are known to have been identified as Catawbas while living in North Carolina as well – people with traditionally Melungeon surnames such as Bowling, Gibson, and Collins (Everett, 1999, p. 364). It seems that through the course of history, some Saponi may have become Catawbas, who in turn later became known as Melungeon, while still others became Cherokee.

The variations of these histories in time as well as location demonstrate that many related “Melungeon” groups were formed in just this way. Seeing themselves as sovereign “nations”, rather than federally regulated ethnic groups, southeastern Indian tribes always had been quite open to the concept of naturalization before the Trail of Tears. The question of whether one was actually of Indian blood or not became most important when the U.S. government decided that a certain degree of Indian blood would determine whether one would be eligible for benefits from federal treaties (M. Nassau, personal communication, May 2000). The historical context suggests that Melungeons “became” part of many different tribes, adopting and shedding their tribal names as white encroachment brought new challenges to indigenous peoples. And remnants of tribes such as the Saponi, deemed to no longer exist in the South, are equally as likely to have reappeared as generic mixed-blood Indians, labeled Mustee, Mulatto, Melungeon and other things by those who had an economic stake in defining them as an “other”.

Like most indigenous people, Melungeons did not have a written history of their own, at least not that has been retrieved. In uncovering the early founding periods of the group, an examination of Melungeon oral history, consideration of the Indian context in which they lived, and theoretical comparison with the small amount of documentation that does exist is all that we can rely on.

1770 – 1970: “Melungeons” Under the Spreading Shadow of America

As the 18th century approaches, the story of the Melungeons becomes clearer through the documentation of their existence by cultures that did employ a written language, namely the soon to form United States of America. As that documentation is examined, it belies in the many ways in which they were disenfranchised from their lands, communities and even their own history by the infrastructure of this new nation, whose principal of “liberty and justice for all” stated that only propertied white men were guaranteed an equal part of the franchise.

The war for imperial control over Appalachia was fought by those seen as their “subjects”; the indigenous Indians and Metis, and the Scots-Irish and Anglo workers. None of these groups benefited in the way the elite classes of the British empire, the American empire, or the coal and timber industries that followed in their colonial paths did. Despite having lived in virtual slavery, indeed despite their own disenfranchisement as a non-propertied class, many working-class Anglos and Scots-Irish bought into the idea of “white” domination and for two centuries many aided the legal repression, ethnic cleansing and brutal war intended to drive out the Melungeons and other indigenous people.

The embers of this imposed division began to burn in 1763, when the British enacted the Proclamation Line, set under order of the King. The line stretched along the eastern crest of the Appalachian mountains, and no indentured slave was to cross it. Just to be sure, armed posts were even created in order to stop any attempts (Leftjustified, 1996). But within a few years working-class anger had reached the boiling point, and indignant indentured slaves began to encroach on Appalachia’s rich lands en masse. Up to this point, only the most cunning and bold had both escaped indentured slavery and won the affection of Native women and their communities, as bounties were high and those who were caught were often maimed or killed by their masters (Goad, 1997, p. 59).

Daniel Boone was one of the first of these to cross into Appalachian Kentucky in this time period, and to record stories of path-crossings with “Welsh-speaking…blue-eyed Indians” in his travels (Gardner, 1986, p. 35). As the waves of former slaves crossed the line, Indigenous communities – both blue and brown-eyed – were for the most part left alone, as pioneers tended to claim land in the easiest places possible (Wilson, 1998, p. 63). But the British empire had overpopulated the colonies with their oft-kidnapped underlings, and as the numbers grew, the issue of land control would pit the two subjected cultures against each other. This new relationship signaled the dawn of a new era for Indians, the Scots-Irish, the Anglos and the Melungeons. This is the point at which we can be certain that they were stripped from a mixed blood Indian existence, and separated into a uniquely Metis people; as America’s extractive relationship became more imbedded in the region. Use of the term Metis in this context is itself practically synonymous with the word Melungeon which came to be used by others to describe them after this time period; both are from related French words that mean “a mixture” and both have always been words that referred to mixed-blood people of Indian origin (Everett, 1999, p. 386).

Like peoples in other parts of the world, indigenous Appalchians and their allies organized to stop this domination over their lands. In reaction to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which enshrined American sovereignty and guaranteed further encroachment, Cherokees, Mingoes, Shawnees and members of other Indian tribes united to resist what amounted to a trading away of their lands to the new colonial nation (Wilson, 1998 p. 63). But newly sovereign America was not defeated by this movement and continued as an empire in it’s own right. The first national census, taken in 1790 reclassified all the unique Indian, Metis and other non-black, non-white peoples as “Free Persons of Color” (FPC), effectively stripping them of their culture (Kennedy, 1997, p. 13).

At the same time that this reclassification took place, people described generically as “Indians” – who were living at the site of the first people known to be labeled “Melungeon” (Everett, 1999, p. 360) – successfully fought off an emerging coal industry’s attempt to steal over 55,000 acres of their land. French speculator Pierre-Francois Tubeuf had aquired “rights” to fifty-five thousand acres of coal lands in southern Appalachia in 1791. When he arrived that same year to secure his paper claim to the already inhabited lands, he encountered a cleverly planned guerilla resistance from mixed-blood “Mountain Indians”, likely Melungeons. Having a variably Indian, white or other physical appearance (not to mention knowledge) afforded them the ability to carry out a creative resistance: they could dress and act as painted indigenous warriors and threatening, mystical snake-handlers or as friendly “Mountain Indian” traders and common White hunters. This chameleon-like power, unique to those of mixed-ancestry, was used to gain information about Tubeuf in order to secure their centuries old claim to the lands (Wilson, 1998, p. 66). Tired of what he called “black tricks”, in 1793 Tubeuf enlisted the violence of Virginia’s militia to clear out his claim of “inhabitants.” It is unclear how succesful he was, but by the year 1795 Tubeuf lie mortally wounded, killed by two men who were variably described as Indian, French or unknown by witnesses (Wilson, 1998, p. 57-59). The variation as to the ethnicity of these men, and the presence of a long standing indigenous resistance suggests that they were probably mixed-bloods, and given the location, Melungeon.

This was but one of many examples of creative indigenous resistance to land theft. By the first decades of the 1800’s the Indian alliance that had formed in 1783 had evolved to a new level. Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee Nation sought to form one unified Indian nation to secure their claims to the land, and succesfully recruited 3,000 warriors after traveling around the Ohio Valley. Seeking a greater force, he headed out to recruit southern Appalachian Indians and others throughout rest of the south. As he headed into Melungeon parts of Kentucky, William Henry Harrison, the American governor of the Indiana Territory attacked the capitol of the new Indian Nation and Tecumseh’s dream was shattered (Sultzman, 1998). The united force of all the Indian nations he sought to conjoin, combined with the force of the thousands of Metis would have far outnumbered the powers the colonialists could muster. Instead, tribe was played against tribe and Tecumseh’s vulnerable points were significantly undermined before he could safely declare war on colonization. Oral histories still recounted today near Cumberland, Kentucky claim that he left a child or two as a result of this trip, likely with a Melungeon woman with whom he stayed (D. Wilson, personal communication, May 20, 2000).

In the fall of 1838, president Andrew Jackson made a declaration to remove all Indians from the southern Appalachians and the rest of the South to the new Indian Territory, in modern-day Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears commenced with Melungeons on both sides of the barricades, as indicated by the presence of Melungeon surnames recorded afterwards in both the eastern and western bands of the Cherokee, and letters from Cherokees to Melungeon researchers. One of these researchers makes a case that Sequoyah, founder of the Cherokee written language, was a Melungeon caught up in this ethnic cleansing (Kennedy, 1997, p. 32) Some were forced to march at gunpoint alongside their Cherokee brethren, while others who were able to pass as “Portugeuse” were allowed to stay behind.

In fact when the Eastern Band of Cherokees was founded in 1905, nearly 3,000 Melungeons applied for membership including those with recognized surnames such as Hall, Bowling, Lawson, Sizemore, Collins, Bunch and Goins (Everett, 1999, p. 396). When they applied, the majority did not usually state that they were of Cherokee ancestry, but instead that they were mixed –blood remnants of tribes from other states or just in a generic sense that they were “Indian”. It seems likely that what was going on is that they were used to the relative fluidity of naturalization into a freindly Indian nation and therefore did not feel the need to claim that they already were Cherokee in order to join. Most of the over thousands of Melungeons that applied to the Eastern Band had been tribal members of the Whitetop Band of Cherokees, organized nine years before the Eastern Band of Cherokees. The Whitetop Band of Cherokees was based on Whitetop Mountain, Virginia and according to testimony, membership was open only to those related to the Sizemore family – a family recognized today as being Melungeon

This second wave of “running for the hills”, two centuries after a very similar process founded the Melungeons, was mutually participated in by the Cherokees. Just as some Melungeons apparently became Cherokee as a result of this process, some Cherokees must have become Melungeon as well. Mom Feather, Chief Elder of the Southern Band of Cherokees, related a legend that refers to the “Stick People” from her family of Leslie County, Kentucky regarding this component of the admixture. The legend states that Cherokees on the Trail of Tears escaped into the higher mountain ridges and were protected and hidden there by it’s inhabitants who built large piles of sticks to hide them. These Cherokees stayed and mixed with the people of the area (M. Feather, personal communication, April 2, 2000). It is quite likely that these people would have been Melungeons, given that they tended to be the only inhabitants of the higher ridges at that time, and that most older families of Leslie County are of mixed-ancestry, with almost all of the Melungeon surnames.

In the tumultuous years after 1859, when abolitionist John Brown fired the first shots of the Civil War in Appalachian Virginia, “Rebel” footsoldiers of the American empire left eastern Kentucky’s Melungeon counties plundered. Entire towns were left burnt to the ground, cattle and other livestock were summarily slaughtered and entire families were left without any food (Stidham, 1988, p. 6-7). Throughout southern Appalachia, Melungeons organized to defend themselves from these and other plunderers by organizing small guerilla armies known as the Melungeon Marauders. A militant, armed uprising spread throughout the mountains as Melungeon Marauders fought off hostile Confederate, Rebel and Union forces (Kennedy 1997).

After the war, which solidified the political unity of the rest of the nation, Appalachia fell prey to a uniquely vicious form of industrial colonization by outland capitalists. This occurred simultaneously, and in a very similar way as did the well-known conquests of large parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By the late 1800’s Appalachia’s resource rich mountains had been nearly cleared out of an asserted indigenous presence, leaving the mineral industry in an infinitely more powerful position than Tubeuf had been a century before. In order to enforce this extraction of profit, Melungeon family claims to southern mountain lands were illegalized by state governments and stolen at gunpoint by industry. The first major action of this sort came by way of James Fox, in alliance with his younger brother, John Fox Jr. James was a speculator, and he made plans to first monopolize access to all of the major entrances to the Cumberland Plateau coalfields of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, including Cumberland Gap, Pound Gap and Stone Mountain and to then extract their minerals. In a nod to his future actions, he mentioned to his brother that these were areas heavily inhabited by a mixed-blood people he labeled a “prolific, dark race” (Wilson, 1995, p. 31).

The Foxes wasted no time convincing Melungeons to sign away their land and mineral rights on the basis of their race, by pointing out records dating back to the first U.S. census, thereby pushing their hand to sign “broad form deeds” over to them (Wilson, 1995, p. 39). Taken at a rate of one dollar an acre in such cases, while comparable land was going for six hundred dollars an acre in other parts, the simple fact that they were Melungeons left them both landless and impoverished. To ensure that their rule over the region would be totalitarian, the Fox brothers quickly replaced indigenous place names, law enforcement, stores, educational institutions, and even local labor with their own. One of James Fox’s business partners even got laws passed that restricted the power of local governments to stop industry-initiated land condemnations unless granted that right by the industry-dominated state government. Members of the “prolific, dark race” who had thrived for centuries on self-sufficient farms and the fertile valley soil they used, were either disenfranchised and run off the land or converted into “freindly gaurdian” tenants and laborers for the mineral industries (Wilson, 1995, p. 22-23). Such totalitarian behavior could not have succeeded had they not created an image of Appalachia as a place in need of industrialization; a “backwards” region less modern than, and implicitly separate from, the rest of the nation. The Fox’s are documented to have foreseen this conflict, and so younger brother John constructed a spectacle of Appalachia that effectively legitimized the exploitation of the land and people. In John’s works, Appalachia was portrayed as isolated from the national economy even though, as one Melungeon woman bitterly put it, “the rest of this nation was built on the broken backs of this region” (A. Collett, personal communication, May 23, 2000)

As the 1800’s gave way to the 1900’s a new fuel was added to industry’s emerging empire, in the form of the Eugenics movement. This psuedo-scientific system conveniently provided an explanation for everything from poverty to rebelliousness to nomadism; an inheritance of “bad genes.” To root out these often economically based problems, forced sterilization laws were passed in over thirty states. Across the U.S., over 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized, including 8,300 within the state of Virginia in the first half of the 1900’s. This shocking period of America’s history began in 1907 with a mixed-ancestry group based in central Indiana, the Tribe of Ishmael. This tribe was probably separate from the Melungeons, as they were a mixed-ethnic Muslim tribe originating from Shawnee Indians, Celtic “Tinkers” and West African Fulanis. But one eugenics related documents of the American Philosophical Society indicates a that members of this tribe also lived in Kentucky, hints that Melungeons may have been sterilized as well (Micklos).

In alliance with this Eugenics movement, in 1924 Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act came into being under Registrar of Vital Statistics Walter Plecker. The law denied Melungeons and other mixed people the right to vote, to represent themselves in court against white people, and to marry. Of course, Melungeons could not agree with such a horrific definition of the word “integrity,” and one brave Melungeon man from Coeburn Mountain, VA resisted. Blocked by an unrelenting line of white townspeople as he attempted to vote, an equally unrelenting Floyd Nash pulled out a pistol, shot at their feet and walked through the scattering, terrified crowd into the polls (Kennedy, 1997, p. 44).

As a result of elites such as the Foxes and the Pleckers of that era, hundreds of Melungeon men took up and migrated to the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest . As they went, Plecker’s racial records followed: Racial Integrity Act related communications have been located in every Appalachian state as well as in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and California.. When they left in this frenzy, their female companions often did not accompany them and instead stayed behind to take care of the elderly and the young. Much like the American Indian women before them, Melungeon women took in working-class Scots-Irish and Anglo men as they arrived in huge numbers to work the mines. As a result, they at times successfully “facilitated their family’s or clan’s entry into public records as ‘white’, thereby securing title to ancestral lands” (Wilson, 1996, p. 36).

The legacy of the eugenics and paradigm extended well past the time of Plecker’s and Fox’s deaths, so long in fact, that state anti-miscegenation laws were not officially declared illegal until the landmark Supreme Court decision in the mid-1960’s, Loving vs. Virginia. Indeed, even as recently as 1960, Melungeon Heritage Association President Connie Clark’s family was still hiding from Census takers. The mineral industry and their state supported reign of racialized terror kept Melungeon ancestry under wraps for decades (D. Wilson, personal communication, May 20, 2000).

II. 1970-2000: Cross-Cultural Liberation on the Paleface Reservation

Despite the Loving vs. Virginia decision, by the mid-1960’s the Fox brothers’ media spectacle of the isolated, ignorant, not-quite-white hillbilly had proven a remarkable perseverance, embodied in countless newspaper accounts, misguided eurocentric sociological studies and insulting Hollywood movies such as Robert Redford’s Deliverance. A veritable army of myth-makers, including some mainstream progressives, once again purveyed to the nation that Appalachian poverty and apathy was the result of it’s own innate apathy, isolation and backwardness; instead of the result of exploitation of the land and people by mineral industries and their hired guns (Eller, 1983).

But this veneer was finally torn to shreds when working-class struggles against this exploitation brought together Appalachians of all colors. United in a coalition of labor, anti-strip mining and regionalist movements, what was an ongoing struggle quickly evolved into a war. Death threats, bombings and organized gun play took place on both sides, and in 1964 the federal government suddenly became very concerned with the state of the Cumberlands, enacting legislation to begin a “War on Poverty.” Though it is doubtful that this was the intention, the legislation helped the movement progress. culminating in a reclamation of the imposed regional identity as a not-quite-American, exploited “other” in an attempt to foster a higher degree of regional self-determination. Many young mountaineers joined self-determination and liberation organizations such as the Young Patriot Party (YPP), which sought political sovereignty for Appalachia, and the American Indian Movement (AIM) which sought indigenous self-awareness, spirituality and self-determination (Watts, 1994). Around the country, it was these and other similar groups that undertook much of the direct work that brought about the nationwide rise of self-awareness among Metis peoples within the next decade. As Peter Lamborn Wilson states in the book Gone to Croatan (1996),

In the early 1970’s some of the isolated tribes were “rediscovered” so to speak, by roving activists of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and a renaissance of self-awareness swept over such groups as the Moors of Delaware and the Ramapough Mountain People of New Jersey. Thanks to an emerging culture which combined radical politics with deep respect for traditional spirituality, the “lost” tribes underwent a remembering of their original ancestral motives: free tribalism and the mystique of the wilderness.

Hundreds of the same passionate youth attracted to the YPP and AIM enrolled in federal-service programs created under the War on Poverty legislation, such as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) which was under contract with the Appalachian Volunteers (AV), both funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity. Instructed to “eliminate poverty in the midst of plenty” and often just told to “do what they could” young people, angry at the some of the worst poverty and exploitation nationwide were presented with an opportunity to get paid for doing the direct community organizing they could not afford to otherwise do. In largely Melungeon areas near Leslie and Pike County Kentucky, VISTAs, AVs and homegrown groups such as Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People (AGSLP) united against strip-mining companies, which had been destroying homes, putting hundreds of in-mountain miners out of work, polluting the water and devastating the countryside since the mid-1950’s (Hampton, 1995). As they became more popular among mountain people, three anti-poverty activists found themselves in handcuffs, including AV Joe Mulloy, and a husband and wife duo working for the Southern Council Educational Fund (SCEF). All three were imprisoned and charged with “sedition” by Pike County’s prosecuting attorney, a former president of the Independent Coal Operator’s Assocation (Walls, 1972, p. 192). Upon hearing the news, all funding to AV and their hundreds of VISTAs in Eastern Kentucky was immediately cut off by the OEO in Washington D.C. (Walls, 1972, p.184).

As the number of Kentucky’s VISTAs took a sharp drop, newly commissioned Sneedville, Tennesse VISTAs supported local residents in forming what would become the first wave of the Melungeon reclamation movement. At the time, the Sneedville area was the eighth poorest county in the nation with no mineral or industrial resources. Increasing pressure from the community convinced two professors at Carson-Newman College to come up with a plan for “socio-economic change” in the depressed region. Gary Farley and Joe Mack High conducted a survey of the community and came up with the idea of a drama that would emphasize the people of the region, in the spirit of dramas at Cherokee, North Carolina and Berea, Kentucky (Ivey, 1977, p. 103-106). Gospel singer Tennessee Ernie Ford, who wrote the famous song Sixteen Tons started a fundraising group called “Friends of the Melungeons” to help finance the drama (Ivey, 1977, p.100). Shortly, the group contacted the OEO to arrange for VISTA funds to help implement the project as part of the War on Poverty.

The play, entitled “Walk Toward the Sunset”, attempted to reclaim the epithet “Melungeon” and redefine what it would mean for Appalachia. For the first time, many began to proudly call themselves Melungeons, popularizing this maligned heritage (Everett, 1999, p. 382). Curiously, this was extremely similar to what was happening in the American Indian communities and in the black communities of the time. A dissertation completed in the early 1970’s by Diana Werner noted that this early rumbling of a movement may have resulted “from the same climate of feelings” that had spurred the Black Panthers and AIM (Werner, 1973, p. 269). And in time, some of the VISTAs themselves began to acknowledge and embrace their own Melungeon ancestry (Ivey, 1977, p. 107). Though some consider the drama to be a purely commercial venture, leading activists in the Melungeon movement of today remember this time period as being the first time they had heard the term used in a positive light (Winkler, 1999).

But it was certainly much more than a money-making project for the region, as most who participated did so of their own free will without pay (Ivey, 1976, p.341). In the early 1970’s some Melungeons proved that this was truly a movement, when they reclaimed the term and actively asserted their Indian roots as “Melungeon Indians” at the first Eastern Indian Conference, organized by the Mattaponi Indians in Virginia (Everett, 1999, p. 407).

But as the active 1970’s bled into the apathetic 1980’s this first wave of the Melungeon movement died down considerably. When the second wave began to rise in the early 1990’s Appalachia still had not recovered from the false images set forth by mineral industry propagandists, as the strip mining industry still had a great interest in swindling people out of what property they still had. HBO’s recent, much-criticized documentary American Hollow focused on the Melungeon Bowling family is but one example that explains why the modern Melungeon movement “strikes a chord” with many mountaineers today; it represents an authentic native attempt to dispose of this imposed facade.

Since corporate / American colonization of the region is how mixed-ancestry people came to be both labeled Melungeon and disenfranchised as a result, a framework for analyzing the nature of the current wave of the Melungeon movement should be centrally concerned with questioning to what extent various threads support or oppose grassroots self-determination of Melungeons. Since the first wave of the movement, two main currents have literally defined the direction of the movement; not surprisingly they mirror the conflict of the ideology set forth by industry vs. that which was indigenous to Melungeon parts of southern Appalachia before industrialization / colonization. For the remainder of the paper, I will refer to the former as “eurocentrism and the latter I will call “abocentrism.” Following is a chart demonstrating how I would separate some of the larger threads present within the two currents:

Eurocentric threads:

(1) origin research that propagates a primarily non-Indian foundation.

(2) silence over the mineral industry’s continuing theft of Melungeon lands.

(3) acceptance of current patriarchal social arrangements as historically Melungeon

(4) propagation of eugenicist tri-racial isolate theories.

(5) rejection of Black contributions to the gene pool

(6) treatment as a quaint genealogical curiosity.

(7) imposition of the idea that a “white appearance” intrinsically makes one white.

(8) multiculturalist ideologies that strengthen upper-class white supremacy.

Abocentric threads:

    1. embrace of indigenous origins, including Metis and mixed-blood Indian.
    2. challenges to the mineral industry’s continuing theft of Melungeon ancestral lands.
    3. acknowledgement of the matriarchal nature of original Melungeon communities
    4. rejection of eugenicist tri-racial isolate theories
    5. acceptance of Black contributions to the gene pool
    6. rejection of the concept of race and the privileges accorded to it.
    7. encouragement of ethnic self-identification without regard to skin color.
    8. cross-cultural ideologies that encourage working-class solidarity.

The Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA) was founded under the slogan “all colors, one people,” a phrase that implies an equal inclusiveness of all ethnic components of the group. But the now-lightened complexion of Melungeons as a whole, a result of industry and government initiated laws that compelled them to marry whites, and later to identify as white if they could “pass”, have not surprisingly left a legacy of a deeply internalized eurocentrism. Libby Killebrew commented on this in a recent edition of Under One Sky, the Melungeon Information Exchange; “those of us who are “passing” are taught a most insidious kind of racism, because we inevitably learn to hate not only other people who look like us, but actually to hate ourselves” (Killebrew, 2000, p. 14).

These factors, combined with the order of events in which the second wave of Melungeons reemergence evolved at the very end of the 20th century has spun a complex web of opposing directions within the movement that has led to several death threats, burning of family records and excommunication from families (Morello, 2000). By all accounts, this web of newsletters, websites, overseas and local funding, non-profit organizations and bi-annual national gatherings was a result of the popularity of Brent Kennedy’s book, The Melungeons, An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America which has now sold over 50,000 copies. In his widely read book, Kennedy explains that in the late 1980’s he came down with sarcoidosis, a disease found in primarily in Mediterranean populations, and to a lesser degree among the Irish, Scandinavian, and Appalachian blacks and whites (Kennedy, 1997, p. 3). After coming into remission, he became very interested in his family’s roots. As he became more and more enmeshed in his research, memories of running across “Melungeons” as a child kept coming to mind, and he realized that his own family looked very similar to them. As he made the connection between the two, and spread the resultant theory, Kennedy attracted the attention of a number of researchers with whom he collaborated to form a Melungeon Research Committee (MRC) to explore it. As the piles of information became mountains, he decided to write a book based on his findings, with the intention of reclaiming the Melungeon heritage for his own family and others who had swept it under the rug (Kennedy, 1997, p. 7).

Among the MRC researchers who helped provide the foundation for that book were a number of researchers from around the Mediterranean region. By 1995, funds for research and all-expense paid trips to Turkey were offered, at the expense of the Turkic government (Kennedy, 1997, p.130) Turkey was so interested in the Melungeons, that the community of Wise, Virginia – the site of the Fox brothers’ extraction regime – is now enshrined on the town’s welcome sign as the sister city of Cesme, Turkey. After his first trip to Turkey, Kennedy and fellow activist Wayne Winkler remarked that they were treated like they were “the Beatles”; wined, dined, treated to the best hotels and restaurants – they even got to meet with the President (Winkler, 1998). This lavish expenditure on the emerging movement extended all the way to Third Union, a Melungeon gathering organized by MHA in May of 2000. At the gathering, the Turkish presence was everywhere – pins displaying conjoined Turkish and American flags, Turkish musicians, Turkish professors, and Turkish exchange students, majoring in International Business. But most tellingly of all was the presence of the only free of charge, full-color, ultra-glossy pamphlet available, published by Turkey’s Dumlupinar University. The cover proudly proclaims this year as the “700th Anniversary of the Ottoman Empire.” Inside, the all too familiar-sounding goals of this “partnership” with the Melungeon movement are revealed;

Turkey also became closer to the USA through its help and contributions in the quest for membership in the European Union. In a near future, the 21st century it is expected that Turkey will become a global power after having a regional superiority…Energy, water and grain will be the vital values of the 21st century. It is clear that the importance of Turkey will increase, since the country lies at the center of, or on the transport route of all these valuable assets. We as academia, believe and are working hard towards, the reality of Turkey one day becoming a global power.

What could disenfranchised Melungeons possibly have to do with these long term goals of Turkish imperialists? The case of an 18th century Welshman named John Evans may provide some telling clues. After hearing reports from Daniel Boone and others that Welsh-speaking Indians had been discovered in the Appalachian mountains, the British quickly commissioned this young man to travel to America and find them. Upon arriving back in England, he informed his contractors that he had talked with Indians from the 35th to 40th latitude and had not found any who spoke Welsh. Suspicion immediately arose, and in some circles has persisted since, that he had been sent with the mission of securing British interests in the area, but had been bought off by Spain, a country “who did not want increased British interest in the area” (Gardner, 1986, p. 36).

At that time, imperialist countries would do about anything to secure claims to the “New World” including attaching themselves to mixed-blood indigenous peoples. Today, in the age of economic globalization and unrestrained capitalism, nations are in a surprisingly similar place and are certainly no less susceptible to such things. A number of factors support such a statement; the main being the simple fact that Melungeons are also Americans. While they have been reclaiming and researching their heritage in Appalachia, post-colonial politics combined with the globablization of capitalism has simutaneously brought instability in the Eastern Mediterranean; and a lot of bad press has come with it. So, like the British quest to forge an alliance with “Welsh Indians”, the Turks’ interest in the Melungeons seems to exist mainly because the U.S. is what the pamphlet calls “the most powerful (country) in the world”. Any type of alliance with Americans, especially an alliance that could prove early connections to the nation, could potentially help to “stabilize” their regional control back in the Middle East.

The irony doesn’t stop there. Much of the instability in Turkey stems from the government’s attempts to exploit the resources of the Kurds’ ancestral lands, and to disenfranchise them from it in the process. Officially called “Mountain Turks” (since it is illegal to use the term “Kurd”) they – like the “Mountain Indian” Melungeons, as they were called by the Spanish – live in the lush, resource-rich mountains of southern Turkey. In a mostly arid Middle-Eastern climate, Turkish control over the area where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate and cross borders into neighboring nations, becomes one of the “vital values” referred to in the Melungeon pamphlet. Control over these natural resources in turn, depends on total control and disenfranchisement of the Kurds who live there (Kaplan, 1999).

While the coal industry and Walter Plecker was hard at work disenfranchising Appalachia’s remaining Melungeons and other indigenous peoples, the governments of Turkey, Iran and Iraq were busy dislocating the tribal Kurds from their mountain homes as well in order to enforce newly formed political borders. As with Melungeons, Kurds were forced to assimilate to the prevailing nation, and were disenfranchised from their land, language and culture. Since that time, Kurds have fought back repeatedly, only to be crushed time and time again. Mirroring indigenous movements in North America, by the 1970’s a grassroots Kurdish sovereignty movement had emerged, culminating in the recent international headlines made when their leader, Abdullah Ocalan was caught and handed over to Turkey with the aid of U.S. Intelligence forces (Kakel, 1996).

The most insidious fact in all of this is that it is equally likely, if not more likely, that it was actually Kurds the Ottomans brought here as indentured servants – not those who would later be called “Turks”. From a merely geographical viewpoint, David Rouse, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wise observed, “if there are any people from the Turkic region who would have felt an affinity to these mountains, it would have been the Kurds.” And as Kennedy has pointed out in the case of Spain using subservient Portuguese labor, and England using subservient Irish labor (Winkler, 1998), does it not also make sense that the Ottoman “Turkic” colonialists would have used subservient Kurdish labor?

Here lies the heart of the abocentric vs. eurocentric conflict; will Melungeons as a result of this movement feel a greater connection to the mountains and therefore be moved to it’s defense, or will they feel a greater connection to Mediterranean countries, severing their roots to an exploted region? Certainly it is no secret that disenfranchisement by the mineral industry continues today. In fact, the laws originally enacted to take away the power of native Appalachians in land condemnations, are still on the books and are hotly debated each legislative session by county officials from Appalachia (Wilson, 1995, p. 37).

But since that time new tricks have been invented by industry, and not surprisingly the victims are still often Appalachia’s indigenous peoples. In 1998, Melungeon activist Darlene Wilson, and her husband David Rouse were forced to abandon their home in Wise because explosions from a nearby strip mining operation had literally cracked the foundation of their house and sent family pictures crashing to the floor (Wilson, personal communication, May 17, 2000). Another relatively young Melungeon woman recalls when an oil company came and drilled her family’s property as a child, her father bitterly explaining that they had no recourse since the mineral rights had been “sold off along time ago” (Killebrew, 2000, pg. 13).

In 1999, one of the fieriest of the AGLSP activists, by the name of Joe Begley passed away. A member of both the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers, Begley took a militant stance when it came a devastating industry which literally took people’s land at gun point (D. Rouse, personal communication, May 18, 2000). He is remembered by some as a probable Melungeon, and by many for his destruction of strip mining machinery and for stopping coal trains in their tracks to get coal for freezing families in the winter. In a recent documentary by eastern Kentucky’s independent media group Appalshop, Begley looks straight into the camera with a wry grin and offers his remedy to the strip-mining problem, “take dynamite to those bulldozers, and take his machinery of destruction”(Lewis, 1999)

One academic who would no doubt be shocked at such a statement is a woman employed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Virginia DeMarce. Epecially despised for her support of a eugenics-based Melungeon theory, the former president of the National Genealogical Society argues that Melungeons are simply a “tri-racial isolate” group, a term first coined in a December 1957 issue of Eugenics Quarterly by a man named Calvin Beale (Winkler, 1999). As mentioned, the eugenics movement, for which the journal was named, was the psuedoscientific basis for anti-miscegenation, segregation and involuntary sterilization laws, all of which affected Melungeon life profoundly throughout the first half of the 20th century. While it is not surprising that Melungeons strongly objected to the modern use of such a basis to explain who they were, dominate most criticism of DeMarce’s theory. The most common criticism is that it is a view that cannot conceive of a mixed-ancestry people not being “isolated”, nor of anything other than a “race”.. Indeed, to the contrary, much evidence shows that Melungeons were an integrated multi-ethnic community engaged in trading pelts and “Indian remedies” among other goods (such as at Fort Pitt), and attending the same churches as blacks and whites (such as at Blackwater). Another point of contention is the reverence displayed by these researchers for the outdated concept of race itself, even in light of the American Anthropological Association’s resolution to no longer use the term years ago. The final objection is to the idea that only three races, or that even that many make up the ancestry of all Melungeons (Wilson, 1998). Additional questions may be raised as to the reason for her interest in delegitimizing the Melungeon movement, in light of the fact that DeMarce is employed by the Department of Recognition at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

As an indigenous people, Melungeons could conceivably attempt to gain federal recognition as an Indian tribe. Since they are one of approximately 200 other similar Metis groups throughout the nation (such as Lumbees, Brass Ankles, and Redbones) looking at the approach Melungeons have taken on this issue demands that it be looked at in context. Other Metis groups have tried to get federal recognition as Indian tribes, but most only get as far as the state government. In the process, they often find themselves at odds with already-recognized tribes who usually have some white blood in their ancestry as well. Mike Nassau explained, “what you have is a situation where if one group claims to be an Indian tribe and they have a lower average percentage of Indian blood than an already recognized tribe, they could potentially put that tribe’s recognized status into question. This is what happened between the Lumbee and the Eastern Band of Cherokees within the state of North Carolina – is that the best course of action? I’m not so sure that it is” (Nassau, 1994). Recently some Melungeons, sensitive to such issues, asserted their right to claim an indigenous heritage, as opposed to claiming to be an Indian tribe.

It was January of 1999, when about three dozen Melungeons gathered before the Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs (TCIA) seeking to bring state requirements for the recognition of “people of Indian heritage” back to what it was in 1990. Among these was Scott Collins, a descendant of famous Melungeon Vardemon Collins, who had ran a sweatlodge on Newman’s Ridge (Elder, 1999). At that time, all that was required was that one provide some sort of documenation of their Indian ancestry. But in 1991, the law was changed so that state recognition required membership in a federally recognized tribe as well. At the meeting, Melungeons pointed out that there are at least 12,000 people in the state who think of themselves as Indian, but with the current regulations less than 100 are officially recognized by the state.

TCIA Commissioner Eddie Nickens, a Melungeon himself, had invited them to the public meeting and even stepped down from his position as a commissioner in order to make the presentation. Some interpreted this move as meaning that Melungeons wanted to be recognized as an Indian tribe. Toye Heape, executive director of TCIA clarified the matter, “they were not applying for recognition as a Indian tribe,” he said, “but rather as a group that has Indian heritage that it is within the state of Tennessee”. He went on to state, “Tennessee is the only state in the nation that I am aware of where an individual can be recognized as Indian without a tribe being recognized” (personal communication, June 22, 2000). At the meeting, Melungeons pointed out that recognition of that Indian heritage would extend needed minority scholarships and contract preference to their families and would greatly increase the practically non-existent political clout of indigenous peoples in the region (Whitaker, 1999).

Melungeons are not alone in their quest for a greater amount of self-determination in the region in which they live; similar Metis peoples across the U.S., Canada and Mexico are also struggling for these things, and have been for quite a while. One Melungeon is involved in a movement that could increase that indigenous political clout that would come with recognition in Tennessee, times ten. Leo Abdulmalik is a member of the Metis Nation of the South (MNS), a group that would like to bring all the Metis groups of the southern United States together in a sovereign nation of it’s own. He explained his perception of Melungeons as Metis in a recent email: (personal communication, May 20, 2000):

The Brass Ankles, Red Bones, Jackson Whites, Weesorts, etc. are all excellent examples of our historical Metis presence here in one form or another; and of our long struggle against the attempted genocide perpetrated against our people and against our human right to enjoy the dignity of a mixed heritage.

Lone Eagle, Chief of the Metis Nation of the United States (MNUS), contacted the Melungeon Heritage Association in June 2000 after seeing an article in the Washington Post. The article had appeared on Indian news sites and email lists such as the AIM listserv and under the heading “Are Melungeons Indians?” According to Lone Eagle, Melungeons and Metis will shortly be meeting to discuss possibilities for a relationship between the two groups, both based in the southern Appalachian region.

Both the MNS and MNUS are part of an international movement that started with non-status Canadian “mixed-bloods”, referred to there as Metis, who felt they were quickly losing their indigenous roots and rights to self-determination. So throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, they organized and pressured the Canadian government for recognition. By 1982, they had won it – while Metis in the United States looked on with envy. But like those who want to limit the definition of Melungeon to include only a few “core” families, the emergent Metis National Council (MNC) sought to limit the legal definition of the term – and all the government benefits provided as a result – to descendants of five families in the “Northwest of Canada” (RCAP Report, Vol. 4, pp.376-382).

But the MNC website itself actually validates the claims of Canadian and American Metis when it describes who Metis are and what role they played in history. The site states that the Metis were a mixture of Cree, Ojibwa and Salteaux women and French, Scottish, Scandanavian, Irish and English men – in simpler terms they were the product of Native women and male off-shore others. It goes on to state that they worked “as guides, interpreters, provisioners to the new forts and new trading companies.”

Melungeons are just one of many American and Canadian groups that mirror this social position. For instance, in the 18th century times of Tubeuf’s coal fiasco, Melungeons worked as guides, interpreters and provisioners at Fort Pitt (which later became Pittsburgh), employing a clever combination of Appalachia’s “native highways”, knowledge of “Indian remedies” as well as remnant fatherland skills (Wilson, 1998, p. 64). In addition, the Canadian Metis had set up trade agreements with a number of southern U.S. Indian nations by the mid 1600’s (Everett, 1999, p. 368).

Clearly, thousands if not millions of other Metis also fit this definition; politics had gotten in the way of an all inclusive Metis recognition across Canada. Enraged, the thousands of left behind Canadian Metis organized their own organization, the Canadian Metis Council (CMC). After the formation of the CMC, which grew quickly across the country, a cross-national Confederacy of Metis Peoples ( was formed. It was from this counter-movement, the Confederacy, that the Metis in the United States began to organize on a national level here. Today, the MNUS claims several thousand members from coast to coast, while the MNS claims several hundred as well.

The style of MNUS government is with decision making power flowing from the bottom up, originating at the local “band level” and on up to the national level. Directly elected government officers carry out the will of the people, with all the important decisions being made by direct vote. Like any other sovereign nation, individuals become citizens of the Metis Nation of the South by birth, marriage, or natualization. Historically Metis groups such as the Melungeons, Redbones and Brass Ankles could form “bands” in much the same way. For instance if Melungeons wanted to affiliate they could first join as individuals and families. Then they would organize their own “Melungeon Band”. Others may wish to join just as Metis and not to adopt the Melungeon title. Lone Eagle says that he will be meeting with Brent Kennedy and Darlene Wilson in the coming months to figure out a relationship between the two groups (personal communication, July 5, 2000).

Being recognized as Metis by a community already existing is considered by the MNUS, MNS, CMC and MNC as the most important step to claiming such an identity. But unlike many marginalized indigenous peoples, the Metis are not seeking state recognition as an Indian tribe. Instead, they are pressuring our federal government as well as the United Nations to recognize them as an indigenous people, creating a new category very similar to the three tiered definition of aboriginal found in Canada. If that were to happen, millions of America’s mixed-blood indigenous peoples including Melungeons, Brass Ankles, Redbones, Weesorts, and others could find themselves with a much wider array of options open to them than are today.

Conclusion: Towards a Melungeon Movement for Indigenous Self-Determissnation

As a Melungeon myself, I feel that a path has been laid out for us by our ancestors that we should respect. It’s not that I believe in an sort of strict reverence for tradition, but the history of the Melungeons is a very rich legacy of cross-cultural resistance to domination. As I have established, our founding parent cultures were both the subjected peoples of euro-imperialism, who came together for their mutual benefit. As domestic and foreign capitalist domination over the mountains grew, the mixed descendants of these two peoples threw their lot in with all the indigenous peoples of the region. After their near defeat as a result of the Trail of Tears, many of those still living in the mountains afterwards collaborated with the new Appalachian working-class, with which they had become a part. Together, they built a grassroots movements that would in time escalate to an all-out revolt for regional self-determination in the middle of the 20th century. However distant it may seem, that is the collaboration spirit and foundation from which today’s movement blossomed.

As the TCIA testimony shows, indigenous mountain people are increasingly feeling a desire to once again assert their legacy of struggle for self-determination. Some in the movement have stated in national publications that our collective mission as Melungeons is to “show the world we are all one people” (Morello, 2000). I’m not sure that is being done in the most effective manner at this time; to really do that, we need to actively dissolve the ideological structures that were engrained into our recent ancestors and therefore into us as well. Foremost among these are white supremacy, class supremacy and patriarchy.

Doing that requires real organizing and coalition building with indigenous peoples, with other people of color, and with working people; together building a movement for regional self-determination by and for the people living in Appalachia. Uniting the Melungeon movement with other Metis peoples through the Metis movement in the United States could undermine eurocentrism and further the cause championed by Eddie Nickens by placing all of our collective futures together. Instead of pushing the U.S. government to recognize us as an Indian tribe, why not push for something new, in the more intelligenlty organized Canadian system? On the non-Appalachian level, those Melungeons who no longer live in the mountains would still have the opportunity to take part through the Metis communities wherever they now live. It is in the union of these Metis groups that lies the strongest promise for a complete rejection of eurocentrism, the social status accorded to it, and ultimately the solidarity and future continuity of all the unique Metis peoples. If our movement is truly opposed to an agenda that resulted in this legacy of exploitation and genocide, we will follow in the path paved with the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us.


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