How to pronounce Appalachia

O those who pass between fleeting words
Carry your names, and be gone
Mahmoud Darwish

Appalachian identity politics has long struggled with its origins as a white identity politic, and an often explicitly so one at that. The first stream of mountain identitarians – whether one is speaking of Harry Caudill, Helen Lewis, Loyal Jones, James Branscome, Cratis Williams, and many others – were not shy in their construction of “the Appalachian” as regional whites and their location of “Appalachian culture” as a predominately European settler culture, usually (but not exclusively) weighted toward the Scotch-Irish. As Kathy Kahn put it in her 1973, activist-oriented Hillbilly Women (which also marks an early attempt at “reclaiming” the term “hillbilly”),

The women in this book have many things in common. They are the White Anglo-Saxon descendants of the pioneers who first settled the rugged Southern mountain land more than a hundred and fifty years ago…. Hillbilly women have a history of strength. Their land was first settled by English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century, who came to the Southern mountains to escape an oppressive British government. They were proud people and independent. They made their living from the land and passed down to their children a respect for family unity, for religion and for music…

I chose the women for this book because they are all proud to be hillbilly women… And there are no Black or Indian women. This is the story of their class-kin, poor White women. (pp. xi-xii, xxiii)

Though much contemporary Appalachian studies with an activist bent has taken mind to critiques of how “outsiders” constructed the region as hegemonically white, little attention has still been paid, either in academia or in activist spheres, to how past and present “insiders” have contributed to this view of Appalachia. Even less attention has been paid to the implications this has for politics and for what justice would look like in the region. This gap is due, in large part, to the apologetic politics that has motivated a not insignificant amount of regional scholarship ever since the its emergence in the 1960s as a reaction to “culture of poverty” models of Appalachian exploitation. What emerged during this reaction was a peculiar form of white settler identity politics that attempted to position “the Appalachian” – virtually always raced as a white racial innocent – as a colonized subject, and even as an “Indigenous” white race. One regional activist associated with the Highlander Center even argued that white Appalachians were victims of the worst genocide in world history.

Appalachian identitarianism has not led regional whites to support decolonization or Black liberation; in the main, it has instead fostered a politics of white victimhood and valorization, one which Emily Satterwhite, Barbara Smith, and myself have pointed out can have significant overlap with white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and other elements of the far-right – or which often simply is an expression of a purportedly left-wing white nationalism, and one which has little to no actual concern for justice for colonized and oppressed peoples.

Some expressions of white chauvinism are more implicit than explicit, are more subtle, moored in the language choices that regional whites, their worries and their joys in daily life, their loves and their hatreds, what they choose to support and what they choose to ignore. Here, I’ll take a brief look at one of the preoccupations regional settlers have: the pronunciation of the word “Appalachia” itself, and look more closely at what is talked about when this comes up and what is passed over in silence.

Appa-LAY-sha or Appa-LATCH-uh?

Though the exact origin of the term is bit of a tangled question, what is clear is that “Appalachia” is a colonial malformation of the Apalachee nation and a Native place-name. The first settler naming of the mountains as Appalachia was by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, a French artist who accompanied a Huguenot expedition in 1564. The map he produced following the expedition portrayed the “Montes Apalatci,” and he made it clear what to the settler was important about these mountains: “in quibus aurum argentum & aes invenitur” (“in which gold, silver, and copper are found”). Much more on the later history of the word’s use can be found in David Walls’s “On the Naming of Appalachia.”

How one pronunces “Appalachia” is seen by many regional white identitarians as a dividing line between “outsiders” and “insiders,” another preoccupation which wilts when viewed from critical Indigenous perspectives. (Appalachia’s “insiders” are identified not as Native nations, but as those settlers who have occupied stolen land for a little bit longer than the other ones.) Sharyn McCrumb, a South Carolinian novelist who considers herself a “cultural ambassador” for Appalachia, has explained “why it’s not optional” to pronounce Appalachia Appa-LATCH-uh in a popular[1] video that compares the two rival pronunciations to a case of politicized language choice in Northern Ireland:

You need to know that when you choose what you’re going to call that city, you have told that man whether or not he can trust you. You have told him your politics, your religion, which side you’re on, and how open he can be with you in one word. Because Derry is what the Irish call it, and Londonderry means you sympathize with the British rule. Appa-LATCH-uh and Appa-LAY-sha work exactly the same way. Appa-LAY-sha is the pronunciation of condescension, the pronunciation of the imperialists, the pronunciation of people who do not want to be associated with the place, and Appa-LATCH-uh means you’re on the side that we trust.
McCrumb gives the same spiel elsewhere, in her novel The Songcatcher, where she (in the voice of Baird Christopher, an “insider” innkeeper speaking to a tourist) tags on that when the Appalachian hears the pronunciation Appa-LAY-sha that “we hear a whole lot of cultural nuances about stereotyping and condescension and [anti-white, anti-Celtic] ethnic bigotry, just built right in.” The ending McCrumb places in Baird Christopher’s voice is even more pointed: “So you go on and call this place Appa-lay-chia if you want to. But you need to know that by doing that you have made a po-li-ti-cal decision, and you’d better be prepared to live with the consequences. Friend.” Here, McCrumb begins a false displacement of a set of white Americans – the Appalachians – from their participation in imperialism and colonialism, repositioning them instead as the exceptional white victims of such structures.[2] Looking closer, for McCrumb, who then are the Appalachians?

Blood, soil, and serpentine

McCrumb’s cultural description of Appalachians are limited to “the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the Cornishmen,” and she uses “Appalachian Celtic people” interchangeably with “Appalachian.” For McCrumb, the Appalachian is an indelibly European people, and a key to understanding cultural and historical dynamics in the region is to understand certain moments in the history of Europe: “If you want to understand Appalachia, the movie to rent is Braveheart.” Elsewhere, she makes the same film suggestion, arguing that the failed Confederate uphill charge at Gettysburg was due to the Celtic ethnic composition of the South and specific cultural traits she assigns to that white ethnicity such as “courage, “determination,” and a predilection for certain forms of warfare:

I contend that if you want to understand the American Civil War, forget Gettysburg. The film you really ought to watch is Braveheart, because there it is. Remember? 75% of the South: Celtic… The other factor to remember is that Celts don’t like trench warfare. They don’t like entrenchment, barricades, and breastworks. They don’t like hiding behind stuff. (I wish they would learn!) There’s no lack of courage or determination, but they honestly think that if you charge and yell, you’re strong and brave – that you can overcome an enemy who is hiding behind fortifications. Gettysburg.

– Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachia, Loc. 546
According to McCrumb, in their colonization of the region these “Celts” who would become Appalachians did not find in the mountains a land to conquer, but found themselves returning to an ancestral homeland: “They were right back in the same mountains they had left behind in Britain.” How could this be the case? In one of the more absurd and bizarre examples of settler “self-indigenization,” the claiming by colonizers of an Indigenous identity, it is due to continental drift:

A vein of a green mineral called serpentine forms its own subterranean “Appalachian Trail” along the mountains, stretching from north Georgia to the hills of Nova Scotia, where it seems to stop. This same vein of serpentine can be found in the mountains of western Ireland. More than two hundred and fifty years ago (before fish even existed yet) the mountains of Appalachia and the mountains of Great Britain fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Continental drift pulled them apart… When our pioneer ancestors settled in the mountains because the land looked right, made them feel at home – they were right back in the same mountains they had left to come to America!
– Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachia, Loc. 177

The “pioneer ancestors” of the Appalachian are thus not imperialists, not part of the violence of settler colonial expansion, but displaced and disinherited European indigènes whose transatlantic journey was to a space simultaneously frontier and homeland. To McCrumb, the mountains were and are not Native land, but a lost shard of Europe recovered by the Celts. “Even the Indians were once interlopers,” as she puts it, and Native dispossession a mere “preface to the modern story of farm families losing their land to the developers in today’s Appalachia.”

As Stephen Turner has written, in the remembrances of settlers, “history ‘re-enacts’ the idea that this was always the home of the second settlers.” McCrumb is not alone in making such arguments for white regional belonging – and even indigeneity – on the thin justification of a geological tidbit. Chris Irwin, a cofounder of Mountain Justice Summer and staff attorney for United Mountain Defense, recites his own telling of the serpentine myth in a reflection written at an activist retreat. An edited version was later republished in the Mountain Justice Summer newsletter.

Irwin imagines that upon their arrival the Scotch-Irish settlers “made a beeline trekking hundreds of miles by foot and horse to make it to these mountains which we later generations now call home. Did they know about Pangea [sic] and the mineral Serpentine? No, but somehow instinctively they knew that these mountains were home and that they belonged to these mountains.” Irwin’s account is even more fanciful than McCrumb’s, and it is central to his construction of the Appalachian as a white resistance identity with a unique right to regional land ownership:

For those of us who are Scotch/Irish our relationship with the Appalachian mountain chain goes back for literally a thousand years. The genetic history (as well as the cultural history) which pounds in the veins of the Scotch/Irish is inseperately [sic] interwoven into the Appalachian mountains. We belong to these mountains. The irony of being called a ‘outsider’ for defending these mountains against a rapacious corporate carpetbagging coal company from Florida in the face of these facts is amazing when you think about it. Our people lived and loved in this mountain chain before there were corporations, before there were empires and indeed even before there was an English language.
The political conclusion Irwin draws from this is to appropriate the vigor of the Native slogan “500 years of resistance” to describe the political activity of regional whiles, while holding to regional white exceptionalism by curiously doubling that number to “1000 years of resistance.” Irwin ends his essay with a pledge to struggle for possession of the mountains – by the Scotch-Irish – against the “colonialist destroyers” for another thousand years. For both McCrumb and Irwin, serpentine is invoked to forge a special connection between stolen Native land and a particular group of settlers, the Scotch-Irish, in order to navigate intra-settler disputes over land ownership within (and not against) colonial capitalism.

Native nations are wholly absent from Irwin’s serpentine tale, as they are from McCrumb’s. But this isn’t mere happenstance. They must be for these narratives of white dispossession to make logical sense and possess moral force. If anything, the dispossession of Native nations is rendered a “tragic” aspect of the past (see Seminole historian Susan Miller’s critique of this discourse) without political recourse, as a mere “preface” to white dispossession which is conveniently seen as having political recourse, or simply one link in a chain of regional dispossessions, as I’ve heard multiple contemporary, and supposedly intersectional, Appalachian studies scholars say. Yet in all of these cases, what is centered is the “dispossession” of regional whites by coal or timber companies, and what is imagined as the political now is a populist expansion of land ownership among “Appalachians,” or “the people here now,” or other turns of phrase which all mean, when it comes down to it, mainly white people. For these folks, the re-occupation of Native land – for example, swapping coal companies for “Appalachians” – is portrayed as liberation. Environmental organizations, of which there are quite a few here, simply do not work for Native land return. (I think, too, of the many regional activists and academics who will, if you ask them but not before, claim to support “decolonization” but who turn out to do no actual work towards this goal, their solidarity existing somewhere in their skull but nowhere else.) Decolonization, the repatriation of Native land, life, and sovereignty, is called in turns unrealistic, impractical, or even impossible.[3] Of course, that’s what settlers everywhere have always said.
The uncritical application of “Appalachian” as an identity to regional whites is itself a settler colonial sleight of hand, a naked appropriation that is never questioned but is instead treated as entirely unproblematic. (In their appropriation of a Native name for themselves, one might conclude regional whites could be making “a po-li-ti-cal decision.”) For all the talk by white Appalachian about their “rootedness” in the mountains, there is little on how those roots are submerged in blood. In that light, perhaps we shouldn’t even humor regional whites in their calling themselves “Appalachians” at all. And even more importantly, maybe our focus should instead be figuring out how regional whites can abandon the settler drive to possess Native land that dominates their current “progressive” political projects – and how they might put in authentic solidarity work toward decolonization.


[1] I’ve seen this video shared quite a lot by Appalachian studies scholars online, and also by activists. It’s also the video that was shown in the Introduction to Appalachia course I took in college, and also the one that the campus Appalachian Student Union would play at their meetings. So while it’s tough to measure popularity when it comes to something like this, well, I’ve seen it around plenty.

[2] Again, this isn’t new, but overlaps with the project of the Colonialism Model of Appalachian exploitation, as I’ve described elsewhere; one of the plainer instances was Edward Guinan claiming white Appalachians as the “co-victims of the Cherokees.” Some of the following material is repurposed and rewritten from that previous discussion, and fuller citations can be found there. Much of what I say about self-indigenization there generally applies here, too.

[3] For only one example, I once spoke with a number of anarchists in Morgantown who thought decolonization was impossible, yet were quite confident that turning the United States into a chain of autonomous communes modeled on Rojava was eminently realistic. The utopian dreamworlds of the Eurocentric left are always portrayed as rather reasonable and even on the verge of achievement, whether they are dreaming of communes, Soviets, or a redeemed and properly “democratic” America that has (finally!) fulfilled its “promise.”

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