Assembling Southern Appalachian Belief Culture from the Foxfire Archive
This project looks at the belief structure of people in the Southern Appalachian mountains as recognized through the Foxfire archival project, documentary evidence and artistic interpretation. Through an examination of belief systems it is believed that unique cultural aspects of this isolated group of people can be determined. The Foxfire project is an archive that documents how the people lived prior to the mass introduction of outside influences that happened concurrent to the ability of residents to electrify their houses which occurred from approximately 1935 and into the 1950's. Prior to this time the residents of these southeastern mountains were isolated due to the remoteness of villages, and they were able to remain relatively self-contained even though some sections were being encroached by industry. The belief systems in this examination include religion and healing, but mainly relate to how stories of hauntings and ghosts provide a glimpse into the cultural norms of the community. It is argued that these stories, which were prominent throughout the region provided a means for cultural survival despite evidence of its breakdown during the beginnings of the industrial and electronic ages. The examination of this evidence demonstrates how certain types of tales are used in primitive and modern communities to shape norms and other forms of belief through a look at the verbal recounting of the beliefs themselves, and then a comparison to other belief systems that produce an isolated culture of similar belief systems and ideologies.
Culture derives from a shared language, experience and belief system. Over time this may not remain exactly the same, but the society as a whole does move, somewhat synchronously, over the same period to develop communally. The language can be altered to such an extent that what came before is almost unrecognizable to the people in the present such as with Old English vs. New English, but the fact is that the culture which grew up with Old English has also evolved to accept the more complex and deliberate language which has adapted to chaining political and social times. The experiences can be seen in the history which the culture shares. In the United States, for example, there are necessarily (because of the great influx of many cultures) a variety of shared experiences when a group of people first arrives in North America, but over time the experiences of earlier Americans are taught to the new raft of people, and this helps them to assimilate/acculturate. Belief system though, that may be the most difficult to instill when a culture is as vast and diverse as that with in the United States of America. This could be one of the main reasons that many believe that there is no true American culture, but a conglomeration of small offshoots of other cultures that have remained intact amongst the vast colorless mass of humanity that gloms onto whatever comes to its shores (Schmidt 4).
However, there are those European-American cultures which have survived in the United States and researchers have provided a vast archive of their cultural reality in present times, and the roots from which they sprung. The Foxfire Project began as a class project started by a social studies teacher, Eliot Wigginton, in which he tasked his class with scouring the nearby communities for people who had grown up with the pioneering ways of the region. The class collected stories from people who had lived during a time when the Appalachian Mountains were so isolated that a distinctive culture grew up which was hardy, self-sufficient and superstitious. The archive first included first-hand accounts of everything from how the people raised a barn to when they planted corn. There was a reason for every technique and these generally had to do with some notion of signs for which the people looked. These beliefs and methods for conducting life grew into a cultural construct that extended even into the pidgin English dialect spoken by the people in the Southern Appalachians.
While the archive provided in the Foxfire set of books, and the subsequent museum and web pages is important to the success of any study of the Southern Appalachians and how the culture was influenced, it is also necessary to look at other source material to fully understand the archive. The most powerful and all-encompassing aspect of the Southern Appalachian culture explained in the Foxfire series and similar archival information is that the culture was shaped by values and beliefs more than any other element. Thus, it is important to gage the parallels that occurred in the experiences of other cultures in order to draw a true comparison, such as the surrealist movement in European culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is interesting to compare the surrealist movement in art and culture, and the culture in the Southern Appalachians to discover how powerful belief is in every phase of development.
The archive concerns itself with the physical needs of the people as a primary means to understanding how they lived and survived in the harsh conditions of an isolated, mountainous region, but information regarding the unexplainable that turned into foundational belief is even more cogent regarding cultural heritage. Many people interviewed for the series remembered being taught morals related through tales of "haints" (a colloquial version of the word "haunts" or ghosts), planting began at certain times and harvest could only occur when weather and plant signs pointed to a fruitful gathering, and medical remedies were passed down that related more to metaphysics that physiology and practical medicine. In this isolated culture in which people had to rely on common resources and where the modern world did not intrude to an large extent until the middle of the twentieth century, the Foxfire archive demonstrates how people used their force of belief to conduct every part of their lives. This system continues to have a great deal of influence even in the early twenty-fist century with regard to political affiliation, religion, healing, and many other areas of life. The fact that many of these behaviors came from superstitious Scotch-Irish and American Indian ancestors is, in large part, what the archive discusses.
Excerpts from the Foxfire Archive Relative to the Topic
The archival information that has been gathered over the past 40 years tells a story about the people who have inhabited Southern Appalachian mountains, but it is also provides a means to look at an American pioneer heritage that had been lost in most other areas of the country. Culture has a way of quickly moving past what it formerly was, and forgetting about that past (De Caro 1). The fact that this area of the country (and some others that have mountain ranges equally as old such as the Ozarks and the Ouachita's) was behind the cultural development of the rest of the country can be explained by the fact that it was so isolated (Green & Best 3). But, it can also be framed in the ideas of a culture that wanted to remain isolated as it saw what the rest of the country was becoming. Due to the simplicity of this rural life and the fact that it was relatively unspoiled, people wanted to be left to themselves, and, though poor in terms of financial accouterments, the people who remained in the Southern Appalachian region for generations were also proud and suspicious of other areas of the country. The reasons for this hiding are easily gleaned from the Foxfire archive.
The people in this area have practiced a very conservative form of Christianity that has remained unchanged for centuries. Although there were different denominations in the mountains, they all were believers in the that the Bible was infallible and this prompted many of the beliefs and images that have become a part of Southern folklore. It was important to document what the archives said about the religion of the people, and to examine documentary footage, to determine how isolation has formed beliefs that are still practiced, even in places where they are illegal.
Pentecostal churches in the area are known for their belief that God will save the people from any form of illness, physical danger or possession (Cheek & Nix 24). Throughout the collection of data for the Foxfire project, the researchers conducted interviews with people who were either involved in the religious practices mentioned, or the researchers attended services during which various observances were practiced. The church services observed were fairly commonplace for the most part, but there were certain practices which are common only to certain regions in the Southern Appalachians. Among these were snake handling, poison drinking, fire handling and speaking in tongues. It must be noted that speaking in tongues is a common practice throughout the United States among Pentecostal and Free Will congregations, but they are not coupled with the other rituals.
A metaphysical belief in a monotheistic God who controls all actions whether animal, plant…