Where We’re From: The Perspective of a Displaced People

Government-run heritage programs exist for the sake of acknowledging and preserving cultural heritage, including that associated with public lands, but these programs are seldom evaluated from the perspective of the displaced people whose heritage is at stake.  As a result heritage officials seldom recognize how alienating even a well intentioned program can be and often see the displaced peoples as a challenge to their job—if not an outright threat. 

This problem has been somewhat addressed by the National Heritage Protection Act (NHPA) and the Section 106 review process which automatically give voice to tribal governments over their own heritage, and—at least theoretically—extend similar recognition to all peoples with a cultural heritage to protect.  But, the many less well defined peoples who have been displaced by government projects not only do not have automatic recognition, they are often overtly denied recognition.  The purpose of this paper is to present the perspectives and experiences such peoples have in trying to preserve their cultural heritage after having been displaced from their homeland.  I draw from my experiences as a member of the Between the Rivers communities.

In far western Kentucky and Tennessee the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Ohio Rivers form the largest inland peninsula in the United States.  Revolutionary War soldiers began arriving there in the 1780s after receiving the land as payment for their service.  The Tennessee River was the far western boundary of the nation at that time.  The descendants of these early settlers made their lives within the insulation of river-defined boundaries of the land they called simply “Between the Rivers” for nearly 200 years before being forcibly removed by a series of government projects (Resettlement Administration, Kentucky Dam, Barkley Dam, and Land Between the Lakes[1]).  The 170,000 acre Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) was established in the 1960s and managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) until its transfer to the Forest Service in 1999.  The displaced people continue to claim a cultural heritage associated with the peninsula, which has resulted in a long series of contestations with the agencies charged with its management.

A book is sold in the gift shops of LBL as the authoritative history of “Between the Rivers.”  The book [Wallace: 1992] was written by a history professor from a nearby university.  She is not a Between the Rivers native, but has made a sustained and serious effort to amass an impressive quantity of documents about the area.  Her book draws extensively from these bits of historical factoids to piece together a coherent narrative of the place—like a conceptual jigsaw puzzle.  The book concludes that:

It is…a fact that the unique culture of the land between the rivers was destroyed.  …it is impossible to ascertain or adequately describe the effects of the loss.  The cultural characteristics of the area are disappearing, and it is difficult to ferret out the traditions and attitudes which made this area reminiscent more of the eighteenth and nineteenth than the twentieth century.  One cannot ignore the many individuals who suffered the frustration and anguish of losing their homes and community.  In no way can we relate to their grief (Wallace, 1992: 279).


She continues, with what I believe to be genuine empathy, that of “those that survive,” some have tempered their attitudes, while others have been unable to forgive.  After the last of the surviving Between the Rivers natives are gone, the reader is led to presume, the book will be an invaluable contribution as the only record of a vanished people who once inhabited the place.

Such books are available in gift shops and information centers for public lands across the country, if not the world (Wheat, 2002).  After all, it is not possible to truly understand a place without understanding the culture it gave rise to.  I suspect that for the most part these books are well intentioned and are of genuine interest to visitors who want a deeper understanding of the place they are visiting; and all are likely drawn from solid research.  Perhaps it is only apparent to those who are native to those cultures that the information in the books, while mostly “factual” and coherent, does not sound like “our” story—not as we know it.  Of course, those native to the culture are not likely to possess the specialized training that would allow them to express this in language the experts would recognize as legitimate[2]. They will have rote oral stories, communal memories, shared values and traditions, collective assumptions, and a deep inexpressible sense of belonging to a place where their complex kinship structures are as much a defining part of the landscape as the stones in the hillsides.  But, they will not have official documents or theoretical underpinnings for their beliefs, and no voice with which to counter the formal declaration of the death of their culture.  One’s own culture is akin to one’s own accent; it is not the sort of thing most people pay attention to, much less document and study, as long as one is immersed in it.  An inaccurate portrayal may sound perfectly authentic to an outsider, but it will cause the natives to cringe.

            Like all forcibly removed peoples, the Between the Rivers people have been described by outsiders in various ways.  Who we were apparently depended on how we fit into their plans at any given time.  During the multiple rounds of eminent domain that finally removed all the people—and attempted to remove all evidence that we ever existed—we were a little Appalachian type culture in “a pauperized area” (Wagner, 1964) and in need of assistance. We were a culture that had failed, as evidenced by the population decline in the decades prior to the final expulsion (U.S. Department of Interior, 1961).   No mention was made of the multiple rounds of forced removals that had already taken place, or of the flooding of our prime crop ground by two massive dam projects. 

The Between the Rivers people were verbally insulted and continually harassed by government officials who could not grasp our resistance to being offered the chance to leave our isolation and finally improve ourselves.  We were referred to as “Between the Rivers trash,” and portrayed as ignorant and inbred.  Depending on the argument that needed to be made, our resistance to being removed was proof both that we were so backwards and ignorant that we did not even realize we needed help and proof that we were wily land speculators just holding out for more money (Stubblefield 1968).  By the time federal marshals began removing families from their homes and bulldozers used to raze the structures, a potent public relations campaign had so well established our status as the last obstacle to economic prosperity that we were objects of ridicule and scorn across the region. 

One of the greatest tragedies from that long series of events is that the relentless derision and misrepresentation, in an effort to make our forced removal appear like a necessary and positive action, resulted in some Between the Rivers natives feeling ashamed of their own heritage.  Most became reluctant to speak of our cultural heritage and our feelings for our homeland to outsiders.  Very few, if any, trusted the motives of agency officials; and most still find it difficult to do so.  Just as an enemy nation must be demonized in order to build support for making war on the population, a people must be defiled and their cultural heritage demeaned before public support for forced removal can be achieved.  The agency officials come to believe their own rhetoric as self justification for their actions.  That negative portrayal of the people becomes the official account and will impact not only how outsiders perceive the people, but how the people perceive themselves (Brown, 1993; Coombe, 1995).  This is certainly no new phenomenon.  Less powerful groups have been ripped from their homeland and cultural heritage by more powerful groups for as long as history has been recorded; sometimes rather famously, but mostly without any recognition of their plight. 

Though it certainly did not appear to be the case during the long years that our expulsion was underway, it is now obvious from the agency records of the several rounds of eminent domain that we were not specifically targeted and there was no intentional policy towards us or our culture; we were just in the way of larger plans for our land that originated from far away.  We were, to borrow a term from the coal industry, overburden—just debris to push to the side in the most efficient means available.  The early memos between the agency officials and President Kennedy, who personally authorized TVA to undertake the LBL project, and even the early press releases announcing the project in the region, made no mention of people living on the peninsula, apart from an occasional statement that removing us would be of minimal consequence.  Most of those early planning documents took no notice of us at all, declaring simply that “…public recreation is the best possible use of the area’s resources” (Udall, 1963).  It was clearly society’s resource—even though we held land grant claims from the Revolutionary War—and experts had finally come up with a proper use for it.

For the twentieth anniversary of the announcement of the LBL project an in-house TVA publication commemorated their accomplishment by interviewing the man credited with the idea of turning the peninsula into a recreation area (Morgan, 1983).  He states that the planners estimated that around 4,000 people remained after the first three rounds of eminent domain.  They based this estimate on having “studied maps” that indicated the location of remaining houses and barns.  The proud planner expressed relief that there were so few of us remaining: “If it’d been 10,000 we’d have been dead ducks.”  The small numbers made his idea “feasible” due to the lower price tag for his idea.  It was a cold monetary calculation that gave us no consideration beyond the cost of clearing us out of the way.  That many on the peninsula had already been forced to move numerous times, as they tried to stay in their homeland despite the waves of eminent domain, was seen as proof of our inability to improve our lives, not as our commitment to our way of life.  The negative portrayal was a utilitarian means for building public support for the project while demoralizing the population to be dislocated so the ability to resist would be weakened.  It is apparent that the planners never understood our culture, but mostly because they never bothered to look.

The impact on us, whether intended or not, was profound and continues to reverberate through generations born well after the removals were complete.  Being treated as so insignificant as to be unworthy of regard is at least as traumatic as being deliberately targeted and, I would argue, makes it more difficult to conserve the culture.  Being both perceived as insignificant and then strategically targeted with a propaganda campaign is a devastating combination.  Three decades later, agency planners (whose jobs depend on always developing new plans to implement) would fail to consider that the cultural identity of the Between the Rivers people could persist across generations, even after removal from the peninsula.  In the 1990s outraged descendents of those removed by the earlier projects, which began in the 1930s, rallied to fight alongside those removed in the 1960s to defend their homeland when a massive development plan was announced by TVA.  This effort stopped the development and forced the park’s transfer to a different agency.  The number who felt they were Between the Rivers natives was not limited to the surviving remnants of the estimated 4,000 souls who remained on the peninsula when the final expulsion was being planned (the agency apparently did not bother to compile an exact count of how many it removed).  When asked why they had not anticipated resistance from the Between the Rivers people a TVA official responded, only half jokingly, “We thought they were all dead” (personal conversation).  The Forest Service was installed as the managing agency and now finds itself contending with the Between the Rivers people who still turn out when needed to defend their homeland and heritage, well into the 21st century.  It is difficult to know how to work with a people if you refuse to acknowledge that they exist. 

After the peninsula had been purged of its human population and designated as a national recreation area, our cultural heritage became a “heritage resource” to be promoted as a tourism attraction.  With almost all physical evidence of our having lived on the peninsula deliberately removed, the “resource” had to be reconstructed from the scattered bits of official records.  We were surprised to learn we were a quaint people of strong Celtic origin (Wallace 2002, 1992) that had been “…geographically isolated… [and] maintained the old folkways, traditions, and attitudes which had long been forgotten in other parts of the United States…” (Wallace 2002: 3).  Many of the earliest settlers on the peninsula did come from the Appalachian region of North Carolina, but the German, French, Native American and African American strains among us were apparently not significant to the outsiders, who see what they expect to see.  We were portrayed as a “moonshine culture”[3] and caricatured in a cartoonish manner for popular consumption, because that is what outsiders expected, and wanted, to see.  Our “isolation” (we called it “insulation”) was portrayed as almost complete, as if we had been in a sort of time warp.   This popular depiction made it impossible to see the real culture, which was not wholly isolated, contained great variation and complexity within itself, had integrated “modern” technologies to fit our own values and ways, and yet maintained a proud distinction from the outside. 

The projection of inaccurate stereotypes onto culturally distinct peoples is common (Dunn, 1988) and leaves the people wondering why they never knew who they were until the outside world told them (Biggers, 2006).   The dichotomy between the actual culture as the Between the Rivers people lived and understood it and the “official” account was not new but it was enlarged and fixed by the relocations; and the externally constructed image is the version the public heritage program attempts to preserve.  Like so many other displaced peoples, we found ourselves with little power to define ourselves or to fend off the forces that were defining us, and our efforts to correct the image were met with bureaucratic resistance—if not outright hostility.  That we do not look like the stereotyped culture they projected onto us is now used as proof that our culture has vanished.   According to the experts, we simply do not understand our own cultural heritage.

            When we asked that our homeland be recognized as a Traditional Cultural Property and that we be granted Consulting Party status per the Section 106 guidelines we were informed that there was no Between the Rivers culture since we had never been any different than the people in the surrounding region (Lisowsky 2006; Wise, 2002).  Without a distinct language or religion we did not fit their loosely defined idea of what constitutes a “culture.”   The Area Supervisor who made this determination, as he is charged to do under the NHPA guidelines, has an educational background in engineering.  But, even a heritage officer for the Forest Service explained that the regulations require consulting party status to be extended to tribal governments as a “legal obligation” but “no other organizations or groups have this kind of status…” (Wise, 2002).  The few Native American heritage sites in LBL are from the prehistoric Woodlands and Mississippian cultures; none are from the tribes that were extended consulting party status for LBL.  The overwhelming majority of potential heritage sites in LBL are remnants of our lives in that place, but the determination was made that the heritage laws and regulations do not apply to us.  We have no recognized standing toward our own heritage, which puts us in the company of an apparently large number of other displaced and unacknowledged peoples.  As an official from the State Historic Preservation Office expressed it during a conference call, extending such recognition to us would set a bad precedent and “open the floodgates” of people everywhere wanting a say in how places important to them are managed.  We thought this was exactly the intent of the law.

By the time LBL was transferred to the Forest Service the heritage issue was already a strong point of contention.  We suggested that the incoming heritage official should be a cultural anthropologist.  Someone who could understand the dynamics of a living culture would be more capable of working with us.  Instead, a physical archeologist was hired for the job.  He was trained to preserve material artifacts of dead cultures and more than once described historic artifacts as “garbage” that should be cleaned up.  Our rich folklore and communal knowledge of the peninsula was dismissed as irrelevant to the LBL heritage program.  He had official records and archeological sites on the ground to provide all the information he needed and had no interest in talking with us at all.  We were told that as “interested” individuals (not as groups) we could volunteer to assist in their official LBL heritage program, if we wished; but, we would have no more say over the cultural heritage, what has significance, or how it is portrayed, than any other citizen in America.  That cultural heritage, we were told, belongs as much to the tourist visiting LBL as it does to us, and it would be inappropriate to give a small “special interest group” more control over the public’s resource than everyone else; that would be to “…assume that by virtue of their status, their opinions would in fact be considered more important than those of the general public” (Lisowsky, 2006).  Our involvement would be limited to volunteering to help excavate sites the experts decided where worthy of preservation, and later pay to see the displays about our culture.  Whether intended or not, this is an imposed culture-destroying alienation that leaves individuals feeling they have been turned inside out as they are forced to relate externally to a caricature of their own culture .  It does produce genuine nausea. 

We had asked what we thought was a tautologically obvious question: “Whose heritage is it?”  The agency had responded very clearly that it was the public’s property, not ours.  The federal government had displaced us from our homeland and now was using a heritage program to dispossess us of all that we had remaining—our shared cultural heritage and our profound sense of being a placed people.  It is a commonly stated sentiment that even though the place no longer belongs to us, we still belong to the place.  It is painfully obvious to us that we have a relationship to the Between the Rivers cultural heritage and the peninsula that spawned it that no one else will ever have.  It is precisely that relationship that the government heritage officials see as a threat.  We have been told, more times than we can count, that “it is public land now” and the heritage belongs to the American people.  We feel that eminent domain took our land, but a cultural heritage is not something that can be bought or sold.  Unfortunately, it can be destroyed and the remnants appropriated for display, like a prized butterfly collection pinned to a specimen tray.  The purely immediate and subjective experience is that of identity theft, with the perpetrator looking you in the eye and proclaiming it is rightfully and legally theirs and you can’t have it back.

We were told that even if we, the few surviving members of the culture, did have such a connection to the place our children would not because their relationship to the place would not be the same as those who had actually lived there.  But, any living culture must evolve in response to changing conditions if it is to survive.  Among those who are actively engaged in our efforts in the 21st century are the descendents of those removed in the 1930s.  Though their relationship to our cultural heritage is obviously not the same as those who actually lived through the expulsions, it is still compelling them to be actively involved in a consuming and frustrating struggle that has persisted for decades with little we can call success.  That the cultural identity is still a functioning component in their lives is the only possible explanation.  The place gives rise to the culture; the culture gives rise to the people.  Though the people are physically displaced from the land, the culture continues to provide them with the connection to the place that defines who they are—even if only as a displaced people.  The new generations are not interested in learning about some past way of life, but in being part of a living cultural heritage.

An agency of the federal government charged with managing a public land has a responsibility to protect the resource for all Americans and to take a long range perspective when developing the goals for the management plan.  But rather than finding ways to accommodate future generations of Between the Rivers people in the management plan, the agency’s message was clear: you will be dead soon but, not to worry, the agency will preserve the cultural heritage (or at least those artifacts it determines are significant) for future generations.  As such it would not be a functioning culture which continues to construct shared understandings out of many generations of accumulated experience in a specific place, but a constructed commodity with a value determined by its ability to attract visitors.  No public display of artifacts and interpretive signage, regardless of how thoroughly researched and documented, can conserve an authentic culture; it must be lived to survive (Cruikshank, 1992).  It is surely more in the long term public interest to keep the many small authentically placed cultures alive and authentically connected to their places where they can evolve in accordance with their own cultural patterns than to destroy them. 

We continue to claim that it is our culture and we are still using it.  Rather than our being required to ask their permission to do our work, we believe it is they who should seek our permission to portray our heritage.  A cooperative arrangement with both parties assisting the other to achieve their goals would, I believe, be in the long term interest of the American public.  This can only begin with respectful acknowledgement of the culture by the agency officials charged with doing just that.  Until such recognition comes, we must continue to resist their attempts to appropriate our cultural heritage.

            From the perspective of a displaced people, the “outsiders” know nothing of the people or their real cultural heritage and do not understand the deep longing to maintain the connection to the homeland and, it is commonly assumed, no one cares.  An obstacle more daunting than the government’s refusal to work with us is the perception among the people that there is no hope of success.  The agency’s actions seem tailored to produce just this perception.  Even when agency plans have been completely withdrawn due to our having documented potential harm to heritage sites, the agency always says it merely changed its plans and heritage consideration was not a factor. 

No one who has not been in this situation can know the complex feelings of watching tourists, enthralled with the beauty of a place that defines you, picking spring Daffodils and Jonquils from a former home or church site, blissfully uninformed of the real cost paid for their enjoyment.  Any effort to inform them will almost certainly be perceived as an expression of a bitter people unwilling to forget the past and move on.  An official once told a group of Between the Rivers people that the agency did appreciate the sacrifice we had made; he became angry and ended the meeting when it was pointed out that there is an important difference between making a sacrifice and being sacrificed.  This brittle divide in how the situation is understood permeates every interaction between the people and the agency, such as when the heritage officer explained that the newly crafted Heritage Resource Management Plan (which we had no involvement in producing) and resulting official account of the history of LBL would not contain reference to our having resisted removal and federal marshals finally being sent in.  This was being done, he explained, to “keep the bitterness out of the official record” (Wise, 2003).  He had assumed we would appreciate his having done that, but we saw it as another deliberate misrepresentation designed to write us out of the history.

            The peninsula defined the economic and social patterns of our lives for nearly two centuries.  Ferries were the primary access to and from the peninsula.  Much of our economic and social network was internal to the peninsula and a distinct body of understandings and folkways emerged.  During the time my family lived on our place it was in two states and three counties as outsiders redrew their political boundaries during the formative stages of the nation.  Life on the peninsula followed its own course of development and our loyalties and identifications were always more geographical than political.  Public services and the formal organization of government only marginally reached across the rivers, with the result that the many small communities developed a strong tradition-based organizational structure, each with its own unique identity within the unique identity of Between the Rivers.  Communities had their own small schools and churches and informal gatherings at these were the primary mechanism for decision making in the complete absence of any formal governance system with titles like “mayor” or “council.”  Leadership and authority were earned through a lifetime of active participation in the community and thus highly respected—but never formally designated.  This perception that formally designated “authority” is unearned and illegitimate while informally earned authority is fully legitimate remains a defining factor in interactions among the Between the Rivers people.  This most basic cultural trait is apparently not grasped at all by the agency officials, who exhibit a conspicuous arrogance in their own formal authority.  Our tendency to disregard titles and work with those individuals we feel have earned our trust (regardless of their title) is befuddling to agency officials, but they apparently have no interest in understanding.

An informal but concerted conservation effort began among Between the Rivers community members in the first decade of the 20th century, with no government involvement, and its success[4] is what originally attracted the attention of the government, which later came to trap wildlife on the peninsula for export as the state finally established a Fish and Game Commission.  Our uses of our resources and strategies for living within their limits were in conflict with the officials who were new arrivals claiming the resources we had based our way of life upon belonged to the government.  Early records from the agencies indicate that before the first rounds of removals even began we were labeled as outlaws who did not respect the authority of officials (Hudson, 1999; Henry, 1975).  The already strong sense of “insider/outsider” was exacerbated, on both sides. 

Like a great many self-defined peoples (Stewart, 1990), our version of our history and the events leading to our expulsion is markedly different from the version recorded in the official documents of those that exiled us.  It is their records that the heritage program draws its puzzle pieces from.  We have insisted that if the heritage program is to portray “our” heritage it should at least take our version into account when determining significance, but we were told there is no record of what we claim.  The narrative their official history tells is a coherent and documented account, but it is eerily foreign to us and we have to wonder to what extent it represents any real cultural heritage at all.

As a result of the widely diverging versions of the same history, the official heritage programs almost never take into account what the people value most: the deeply rooted communities with an interconnecting web of family lineage forming a cultural landscape that is, to them, inseparable from the physical landscape.  Over the generations the physical topography becomes a socio-geography.  It is the everyday world of lived experience within a landscape populated by memories that reach beyond the generations to a collective pool of meanings and significance the individuals do not know they possess (Bell, 1997).  This world of lived experience is unfathomable to outsiders (Allen, 1990). 

Whenever Between the Rivers natives meet for the first time there will always be an exchange of lineage; not just of kinship, but of neighbors and community alliances.  The names of people and places place the individual within a web of cultural memory that holds the socio-geography in place, even though we no longer live there—at least not physically.  In such a culture, you don’t really know someone until you know the geography of their lineage.  Official signage and maps of the LBL do not reflect the landscape we know.  The names our people used to designate our “places” often had little resemblance to the names map makers from across the rivers assigned.  Some of the places that are of great significance to us are not even recognized as “places” in any official account.  Other “real” place names were assigned to totally different locations by the government, apparently at random.  Our repeated requests that we be allowed to erect small signs, at our expense and by our labor, at sites that play a major role in our heritage have been dismissed because such signage was not a “goal” of the official heritage program and, even if it were, those places did not meet their “objective” criteria for significance. 

We feel that being able to retain the “real” names of the places is a vital step if future generations of Between the Rivers people are to be able to keep their connection to our shared heritage rooted in the place.  If our stories are retained by future generations, but not locatable on the ground, the culture is but a memory.  The complex web of socio-geography cannot be written down and stored in a file cabinet or as pages on a web site.  The assumed meanings and interconnections are far too complex and the internal logic too fluid to be captured in any number of recorded narratives.  The culture knows more than any of the individuals who share the culture ever will and it exists only through their interactions within the praxis of the cultural patterns.  We never wanted the “stories” of the places preserved on some interpretive sign—just the correct names as we know them.  The meanings of those places must be kept alive and active in our collective knowledge and work or it will be reduced to bits of dry facts with no power.

We finally began our own program of constructing and erecting small inconspicuous signs, even though it is not part of the “public heritage program” for LBL and is not allowed on public land.  Guerilla heritage action is frowned upon by those in charge of the official program but if it is the only course available for cultural survival, the most effective assistance an empathetic heritage officer could provide is to sometimes simply look the other way.  

Individuals from the many small Between the Rivers communities intermarried, conducted economic and social exchanges, and thus built complex connections among the communities that even we could never map; but that kind of objective documentation is not the kind of knowing that sustains a culture.  No community was ever completely isolated, either from other Between the Rivers communities or from the outside world.  Yet, each retained its own character as a recognizably Between the Rivers community and forged the social identities of the generations of characters who lived in them.  In casual story telling among ourselves (which is rarely a deliberate telling of a “story,” but just a filling in of information during conversation) the people in the narratives are always placed.  Whether it is of current events or from 200 years ago, the people are placed in order to identify them to those who did not already know them.  They are not truly characters until they are located in that broad and deep socio-geography of intertwined physical landscape, kinship, collective memory, and community alliance.  Even in seemingly sterile statements such as “he was from the Cumberland side but moved to the Tennessee side (of the peninsula)  the placement descriptors cue a range of unspoken knowledge, without it being directly stated. The unspoken references transcend individuals generations and no one individual possesses it all.  This complex collective knowledge of ourselves in our place is what we are most concerned to keep alive.  It is also what is least likely to be understood by any official, or preserved by any artifacts or documentation, however nicely displayed. 

I believe Mary Hufford’s (1994) assertion that culture must be conserved because we preserve only what is already dead is to the point.  The dislocated people will always be most anxious to conserve their culture for their own use.  Whether any public display is ever developed is of little interest.  The heritage officials find it difficult to step outside of their training in the artful preservation and display for public viewing.  The art of the heritage officer at a public land is remarkably like that of the mortician, only sometimes they are unwilling to wait for death by natural causes.  This difference in agendas makes it very difficult for the two perspectives to communicate, even when they do try. 

             For a culture to survive it must be engaged in its place.  The forced displacement from the peninsula makes engagement through daily living in the manner that gave rise to the culture impossible, but engaged praxis is still possible.  Through every Saturday workdays to maintain the more than 250 small cemeteries, restoration and maintenance of the only remaining church in LBL, annual dinners and reunions for the various communities, festivals celebrating our heritage, a magazine consisting of contributed photos, stories, songs, genealogies, poems or anything else Between the Rivers people submit, organized resistance to agency proposals we see as harmful to our homeland, and many other activities recognized as Between the Rivers activities, we stay engaged with each other and with the place.  During the work days in the many community sites elders talk that invaluable talk about the happenings and the people associated with that place, and we all enlarge our understanding of who we are.  We have managed to retain a connection to each other that ties us to the place to an extent that is surprising even to us.  Our common heritage is what we all share and it defines us as being distinct from everyone else.  We have, in short, kept alive an ownership of our own collective heritage that no agency official can capture in an interpretive display.  Most importantly, the commitment that brings us together to do the work is NOT for the sake of preserving the past, but to hold open the future.  We would be satisfied if there were no heritage displays for the public at all, so long as we could continue to do our work to ensure that our descendents can continue that same work in our place.  The heritage officials would as soon we did die off, as long as they could preserve records of the past for the public to learn of “their” heritage.  The question is how to reconcile these two understandings and goals.

It cannot be denied that there is resentment, mistrust, and reluctance to work together on both sides.  In fact, acknowledgement of this is necessary if there is to be any hope of working together.  The Between the Rivers people sincerely believed that when TVA left and the Forest Service arrived as the managing agency of LBL we would have a fresh start and an agency that would be willing to work with us.  They had no guilt to conceal and no history of conflict to poison our work together.  We were naďve and soon bitterly disappointed to find that the resistance to working with us, or even acknowledging us, was worse than ever.  The new agency insisted that because it was not involved in the removals it had no interest in addressing the past—even as it developed a heritage plan for the park.  We still do not know if this is out of concern that the past wrongs of the government not be recorded by history, or if it is just a matter of wanting to avoid the complications of dealing with people who believe they know the land better than the revolving ranks agency officials ever will.

Over the past decades of working to protect our cultural heritage and homeland the Between the Rivers people have spent much time discussing what we would like to see as an outcome, so that our children and grandchildren do not have to continue the fights we have endured; or face fines or arrests for their efforts, as we have.  I believe that even though our emerging vision is place specific it can still provide a viable model for how other displaced peoples trying to keep their cultural heritage alive, and the agencies seeking to develop heritage programs for the broader public, could work together so that everyone’s goals are met.

When TVA was attempting its large scale commercial developments in LBL it closed many small educational facilities in order to divert funds to the new developments.  One such facility has a building that was constructed specifically to house interpretive displays for the public.  This is located at the site of a former community.  Just over the hill, maybe two hundred yards away, and nestled just out of sight, is an original home, still intact and still well preserved.  Of the thousands of homes destroyed, this is one of the two remaining.  This structure, which TVA used for storage, has been determined to be potentially eligible for the National Register by an independent consultant (Hudson, 1999).  The Forest Service has completely abandoned the site with the result that the buildings, while still easily restorable at this time, are deteriorating rapidly.  We have repeatedly proposed that the house be turned over to us for use as a heritage center for the Between the Rivers people—and we would provide all materials and labor and future upkeep for free.  We could use it to store maps, documents, genealogical records, photo collections, etc. and it could be a place to hold meetings, workshops, and festivals for the Between the Rivers people.  Just over the hill, in the display building, would be the agency’s public heritage program for the visitors to LBL to learn about the Between the Rivers heritage.  Conservation and preservation of the cultural heritage could exist side by side in a fully cooperative manner. 

From such a cooperative effort, strategies to develop and implement heritage projects throughout LBL could proceed in a manner that would meet all our goals.  We are dedicated, knowledgeable, and we do our work for free.  There are many such populations that have been pushed to the margins in hopes that they will just go away, with the result that the agencies are squandering the most valuable resource that they have.

The parallel heritage programs (one designed to allow the people to conserve their own cultural heritage, the other to allow the agency to educate the American people) could draw resources from and provide support to each other.  We could retain an authentic sense of ownership of our cultural heritage within our homeland.  It would be an acknowledged and legitimated mechanism by which future generations could participate in their own cultural heritage within their homeland.  The agency could have a public heritage program with our full support and assurance that the displays were accurate and as authentic as an interpretive heritage program can be.  The “natives” could even provide programs for the public, such as plays and guided tours of community sites.  We believe this would be a positive outcome for all concerned—including the American public which would benefit from both a vibrant educational program and from the continued existence of a placed culture.  Thus far, the agency has not even acknowledged our proposals and the buildings continue to deteriorate; but, we are not going away anytime soon.

The agency has consistently refused even our most basic requests to be involved in the section 106 process in any capacity beyond that of just another “interested” citizen.  Beyond the explanation that it would be unfair to give a small group more say over the public’s resource, the argument is often used that it would be impossible to determine who is really a Between the Rivers native.  It has been, they say, more than 80 years since the first removals and going on fifty years since the final purge of the population.  Like any other group, the range of active involvement covers a wide spectrum from being a defining part of daily life to marginal interest.  This is likely the case for all displaced peoples.  So, how could the agency determine who to recognize as a Between the Rivers native?

Our answer has been consistent and we believe it is very workable: Anyone who was either born Between the Rivers or who has direct ancestry to anyone buried Between the Rivers is a Between the Rivers native.  Beyond that simple mechanism for the agency to develop a system of “objective” validation is what we consider even more to the point: we know.  It takes only a short conversation to have a Between the Rivers native placed within the socio-geography of the place.  It is even an often made claim that, “We can just look at somebody and tell they are from Between the Rivers.”  There is no way the agency could ever verify that vague claim, however much truth there is in it.  We cannot explain what this knowledge is based upon, but we just know.  The agency could easily rely on objective criteria.

The government has acted as if we intend to open a casino, or take the land back by force, when all we want is acknowledgement of a simple fact: it is our cultural heritage and we are still using it.  That simple acknowledgement extended to all displaced peoples would benefit us all.  The only complication is that the agency would have to do its job, as the laws established to protect heritage intended.  Short of that, the unrecognized displaced peoples can only follow Calvin Coolidge’s advice to the Native Americans and endeavor to persevere.

- David Nickell  




Allen, Barbara. 1990. “The Genealogical Landscape of the Southern Sense of Place” in Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures, Barbara Allen and Thomas Schlereth, eds.  University of Kentucky Press,Lexington,KY.

Bell, Michael.  1997. “The Ghosts of Place,” Theory and Society. 26:813-836.

Biggers, Jeff. 2006. The United States of Appalachia. Shoemaker & Hoard, Emeryville, CA.

Brown, Richard Harvey.  1993.  “Cultural Representation and Ideological Domination.” Social Forces 71(3): 657-676.  March

Coombe, Rosemary. 1995.  “The Properties of Culture and the Politics of Possessing Identity: Native Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy” in After Identity: A Reader in Law and Culture.  Dan Danielsen and Karen Engle, eds.  Routledge, New York.

Cruikshank, Julie. 1992. “Oral Tradition and Material Culture: Multiplying Meanings of ‘Words’ and ‘things’.”  Anthropology Today Vol 8 No. 3. June: pgs. 5-9

Dunn, Durwood. 1988. Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community 1818-1937. The University of Tennessee Press.  Knoxville, TN.

Hudson, Karen. 1999. Kentucky Woodlands Wildlife Refuge: Historic Context. Lexington, KY: KEH Preservation Services.

Hufford, Mary, ed. 1994. Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Lisowsky, William. 2006. Letter from LBL Supervisor to Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.  Dated 12/1/2006.  In author’s possession.

Morgan, Harold Van.  1983. “LBL: The Evolution of an Idea.”  Inside TVA.  May 3, p. 4

Stewart, Polly. “Regional Consciousness as a Shaper of Local History: Examples from the Eastern Shore,” in Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures, Barbara Allen and Thomas Schlereth, eds.  University of Kentucky Press,Lexington,KY.

Stubblefield, F.A. 1968. “Submission Before House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Flood Control of the Committee of Public Works.”  Ninetieth Congress, Second Session, May 14-15, 1968, Washington, D.C.

Udall, Stewart.  1963.  Memo to President John F. Kennedy, dated March 25.

U.S. Department of Interior. 1961.  Field Investigative Report for the Proposed Between the Rivers National Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. National Park Service: Region One, Richmond, VA.

Wagner, A.J. 1964.  Testimony before the Eighty-Eighth Congress, Second Session, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations.  March 25.

Wallace, Betty Joe. 1992.  Between the Rivers: History of Land Between the Lakes.  Miscellaneous Publication Number 8.  The Center for Field Biology, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN.

________ 2002.  "General History of the Land Between the Lakes Prior to 1962,"  in Chester, Edward & Fralish, James.  Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky and Tennessee: Four Decades of Tennessee Valley Stewardship.  Miscellaneous Publication Number 16. The Center for Field Biology, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN.

Wheat, Sue. “Visiting Disaster: A Rapid Growth in Ecotourism has been made at the expense of Indigenous Peoples Around the World.”  In Guardian Weekly, June 20-26, 2002

Wise, Robert. 2002.  E-mail from LBL’s Heritage Officer to the author, dated April 11, 2002, 9:44 A.M.  In the author’s possession.

_________ 2003.  Audio recording of the meeting between LBL’s Heritage Officer and representatives of the Between the Rivers people to discuss the draft Heritage Resource Management Plan on May 31, 2003.  In the author’s possession.



[1]  For a more thorough treatment of the history of the Between the Rivers people and the attempt to conserve the cultural heritage, see Nickell, David. 2007. “Between the Rivers: A Socio-Historical Account of Hegemony and Heritage.” pp. 164-209. Humanity and Society Vol. 31, (Nos. 2,3. May, August 2007)

[2] I have been told repeatedly that my attempts to express these concerns are not legitimate because, as one of the Between the Rivers people, I cannot be objective.  The insistence on an “objective” treatment of culture excludes anyone who actually knows the culture.

[3]  The term and the accompanying inaccurate narrative were prominently displayed on the “heritage” page of the LBL web site and on a web page by a citizen who described himself as a regular visitor to LBL.  A local business used the caricature of backwoods Between the Rivers moonshiners in an ad campaign.  Hard copies are in the author’s possession.  The offensive description was finally removed from the official LBL web page and the business stopped the ad campaign in response to numerous complaints by Between the Rivers people. 

[4] The success of the community’s conservation effort, begun by at least 1908, has been verified by genetic tests that show that all wild turkey and white tailed deer in Kentucky originated from Between the Rivers.  (Turkey from out of state were introduced in the 1990s to expand the genetic diversity.)  Both the Kentucky Fish and Game Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted aggressive capture and relocation programs Between the Rivers.