Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Tales of Infinite Sadness

I started my expedition through all the units of the National Park System to satisfy my fascination with all aspects of nature (flora, fauna, geology, aquatics, atmospherics). I did not expect to quickly fall in love with the other side of the parks: the historical side. As I began to tour each of those smaller sites, reading up on the history of each and their placement in the overall scheme of things, I also began to see the Great American Narrative forming, piece by piece, and was inspired to blog about it. It is only by seeing all these bits and pieces, filling in all the gaps created by our own, pufferied view of history, can one really see who we are and what we’re all about.

Yes, we are writing the Great American Narrative. And oh, what a narrative! We have heroes and villains, success and failure, trauma and reprieve, disaster and rebuilding, winning and losing. But through it all, there is something that is clear: we are making forward progress. Oh, sure, we’ve had setbacks. Right now, between lingering recession, erosion of certain civil liberties, the War on Terror and a culture that pits right against left in a Kobayashi Maru of political degradation, it feels like we’re going backwards. But really, we’d have a long way to go before we fall back to where we’ve been. Think about it: there’s no way any of our founding fathers would ever have imagined us having a half-black President. Like him or not, that’s a massive advancement from our formation over 225 years ago, when we held nearly 700,000 souls in lifelong bondage (a number that would swell to nearly 4 million by the time the War of Emancipation).

OK, so maybe progress is a little stalled …

That’s the interesting part of the Great American Narrative: we always seem to come out ahead, one way or another. The slaves were freed, but then they had to suffer through Jim Crow segregation, racial discrimination, institutional poverty, entrapping government subsidy programs, and bad educational systems, yet are finally coming out the other side. Sure, we’re not post-racial yet, but you can tell we’re really, really close (I’m guessing one more generation and we’re done with it — the recent Trayvon Martin murder debacle notwithstanding). Women also have made gains, from being the Great Unseen to becoming the major breadwinner in 40% of households and damn near winning the Presidency themselves. We’ve seen advances everywhere else, from sanitation & health to science & technology to occupational safety and even how we treat our children. Yep, we’re winning everywhere.

Well, we’re winning everywhere, unless you’re talking about the American Indian. When it comes to the Native American, there are no tales of victory. There is no Appomatox. There is no Seneca Falls or Nineteenth Amendment. There is no VE Day or the fall of a Berlin Wall. There is no eonomic security or energy independence. When it comes to the Native American, there is only one narrative, and that is a long tale of misery and betrayal and hardship and defeat and pain and infinite sadness.

The Parks reflect this in spades. Every park has some tiny, preamble segment of its visitor center museum dedicated to “early inhabitants”: always some native tribe who “lived off the land” only to, inevitably, be driven out of their homeland, be defeated in battle, be wiped out by some disease or pushed into starvation through overhunting or economic blockade. The lucky would be stuck on some downtrodden reservation, their pride replaced by the plagues of alcoholism, obesity and diabetes.


North Dakota reservation house, circa 2009

Horseshoe Bend is just one of hundreds of chapters in this sad, sordid book of misery. In this case, it is a tale pitting one side (the Cherokee tribal nation) against the other (the Creek) for the benefit of the middle (white Southerners). This particular Creek tribe wanted to keep their lifestyle and land and resisted American assimilation. White European settlers wanted the land for their own expansion. The Cherokee were allies of the U.S. and joined up with the militias of several states (led by future New Orleans hero and President, Andrew Jackson) to take Creek land through “justifiable” retaliation for some Creek raids on farms and forts throughout Alabama. The Creek, despite fortifications that impressed even Old Hickory, were eventually surrounded and horribly defeated. Out of a thousand Creek warriors, only about 200 escaped to south Florida to join up with the Seminoles. They had to surrender 23 million acres of land to Alabama and Georgia (2 million of which would go to the same Cherokee who turned their back on their brethren). It would end up being a short-loved victory for the duplicitous Cherokee: within 25 years those same people were expelled from Georgia & Alabama and forced to march down the Trail of Tears to dusty, infertile Oklahoma, where they would lead a hardscrabble life for generations. In the end, the only victor would be the white Europeans who used trickery, deception and long-standing inter-tribal rivalries to defeat the natives and take their land.


Only those with the bleakest heart can travel through Horseshoe Bend and the rest of the 400+ units of the National Park Service, and not be touched by the Tales of Infinite Sadness of the Native American.

[Unfortunately, I did not own a digital camera when I visited Horseshoe Bend.]



Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

Creek-Cherokee War

Scientific analysis of the demise of the Native American

Google map of Horseshoe Bend

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Competitive Religion and the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap

Nobody talks about Daniel Boone anymore. Folks my age remember Fess Parker as Daniel Boone on NBC between 1964 and 1970, and there was some interest during the Bicentennial in 1976. But now, no one cares or probably even knows who he was. Unless there’s a Hollywood movie about someone, no one knows or cares. If no one knows about Daniel Boone anymore, it’s doubtful anyone knows about the Cumberland Gap, that pass through Appalachia exploited by Boone, resulting in the nation growing beyond the Original 13. Nowadays, the Gap is both paved over by Hwy 25, and a chain of crappy clothing stores stretching all across Generica.

Cumberland Gap is in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky. True to stereotype, Appalachia is poor, there’s no doubt about it. Driving around the region, I was unsurprised to see economic distress & ramshackle housing. If you drive by with the windows down, you can practically smell the meth cooking. It’s pretty sad, really, for when I went (late 1990’s), the country was at the height of its economic cycle. Nowadays, with the nation on the precipice of the next Depression, I can’t imagine what’s going on down there. Of course, those nearest to the bottom don’t have as far to fall, but I digress.

Jesus Saves

There is one business in high gear in Appalachia: religion. I’m not a religious man, but I do acknowledge and respect religions. I think if I didn’t collect National Park sites, I’d drive around the country and take photos of churches. Large stone churches or modern glass-and-metal churches or one-room stick buildings, I wouldn’t care. Say what you will about all the controversies: the history, diversity, and evolution of religion in America is fascinating.

In eastern Kentucky, the story of religion is the story of competition. Throughout the region, you’ll see small stick church after small stick church, each having one of those quick-change trailer-towed portable billboards in front, mismatched letters stating “Newcomers Welcome”. It’s not just “Jesus Saves”, it’s “Jesus Saves Quicker Here Than the Church Around the Corner, They’re Really Pagans Disguised as Christians Anyway.” I wonder if there are Save-Offs, where the various hardscrabble churches meet and compete on which church wipes away sin quicker?

These quick-build churches really are competing for parishioners, each one scratching around for followers in a sparsely populated area. There’s a lot of poverty and a lot of want, but there aren’t a lot of folks. Hard conditions foster hard-core fanaticism, and it appears that hard-core fanaticism fosters hard-core soul-saving competition. A smart sociologist could have a field day here, studying religious competition in Appalachia. There’s definitely a cool doctoral thesis in there somewhere.

Golden Corral

There is one topic that has received much study, and that’s of obesity amongst the nation’s poor. Shortly before I took my trip to Kentucky, I heard of the theory that the poor are more likely to be obese than the rich, primarily because of bad food choices in local restaurants and grocery stores. Our twisted application of agricultural policies coupled with the borderline unethical practices of the nation’s fast-food chains makes it cheaper to eat fatty, corn-syrupy garbage that will surely kill you, than to eat fresh vegetables and lean meats.

On my trip to Cumberland Gap, these two factors: bad food choices and competitive religion, threatened to steamroll me into oblivion. Hungry after hiking through the park, I headed to nearby Middletown, KY, for dinner. Choices were, of course, crap. Fast-food outlets and all-you-can-eat buffets as far as the eye can see. I hate buffets almost as much as I do fast-food outlets, they’re usually bland as hell and festooned with pasta, meatballs, over-fried chicken and mashed potatoes, not exactly healthy eating.

I finally sucked it up and headed to one (buffets beat out starvation, that’s for sure). I pulled into the parking lot … right behind a church bus carrying half a dozen 300-lb. Bible Baptists. I had to politely let them go first (I tend to avoid fire-and-brimstone moments as much as possible), and was worried there wouldn’t be much left for me. I headed to the salad bar, figuring it’d be totally avoided by the locals (it was), for a feast of brown iceburg lettuce & rock-hard cherry tomatoes. Mmmm, feast of champions.

Honestly, I managed to get a sizable dinner there, and survived the post-processing. I only had “firsts”, surely I looked like an outcast, one of them there rich folks that don’t likes fatty vittles. I didn’t care what they thought, I was confident I could outrun them all.

[I didn’t own a camera when I visited Cumberland Gap. All photos are,  I believe, in the public domain. If you know any differently, please let me know and I’ll get the owner’s permission or remove them outright.]

[Special note to readers: I was contacted by http://chriscrawfordphoto.com/index.php about my use of one photo that belonged to him. I honestly don’t remember where I found that photo in the first place (this post is five years old), but I was clearly in the wrong and have removed the photo. My apologies to Mr. Crawford.]



Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Frontline: Why Poverty Persists in Appalachia

Child Obesity in Poor Neighborhoods

Church Sign Generator

Google map to Cumberland Gap

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