From One Hill Tribe To Another

One of my more obscure research goals is to undertake a comparative ethnology study of hill peoples around the world.  The more one knows about my own personal and family background and interests, the more sense my odd choices of what I am most passionate about studying and researching makes.  In this particular case, an understanding of my deep interest in hill tribes springs from my own ancestry and personal background.

More than two hundred years ago, some of my ancestors came illegally across the Appalachian Mountains (which were the boundary between legal and illegal settlement established by Great Britain after Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763) and settled on a lonesome hill very close to where General Braddock was buried after the Battle of the Monongahela [1].  Other members of my family settled in the valleys of the Pocono Mountains, or in the caves and hollows near Ohiopile (including some runaway members of the Eastern band of the Cherokees, escaping the Trail of Tears and the theft of their ancestral homeland by slaveowning Southerners).

Suffice it to say, then, that I am very clearly descended from “hill tribes,” whether you consider the American Indians to be hill tribes or also the European-American mountaineers of the Appalachians who suffer constant slights about marrying sisters and being uneducated and uncivilized hillbillies.  As someone who comes from a maligned and disrespected background, as a member of the Appalachian diaspora (which is not the only diaspora which I am a part of), I am deeply interested in what makes hill tribes distinctive, what factors make them consistently maligned and exploited by their lowland neighbors, and what common solutions to the problems of geographical isolation and external domination have been found over and over again by hill tribes and mountaineers of various kinds.  There is a sense of kinship between people who live the same kinds of lives and face the same kinds of struggles, no matter how far apart in space and time they may be.

First off, the most tragic conundrum of the hill tribe, whether we are talking about Montagnards, Karen, or Kachin in Southeast Asia, Cherokees or “hillbilly” mountaineers in the United States, Kurds in the Middle East, Armeneans and Chechnyans in the Caucasus, or Basques in the Pyrenees (or even the Swiss in the Alps and Scottish Highlanders) is that contempt and exploitation go together.  By and large, hill peoples have a longing to be free and a deep attachment to their hills and valleys.  Unfortunately, hill peoples are seldom granted their freedom and dignity except at the point of the spear (like the Swiss Phalanx) or the muzzle of a rifle.  The more surefire way that exploiters have of assuaging the feelings of guilt they have for taking advantage and oppressing other people is to have contempt for those they exploit as somehow less than human, less cultured, less intelligent, less civilized.  Only by proving to themselves that the exploited class or ethnicity is inferior can justify the despotic rule one holds over them.  That such justifications are invariably errant is irrelevant to the people who merely seek a pretext with which to take advantage of others for their own selfish benefit, but it makes a great difference to those who are exploited and then treated in contempt for their troubles, compounding their suffering.  This is true, of course, for all exploited peoples, and not merely hill tribes.

It often happens that hill tribes possess valuable resources on their lands.  For example, the Kurds have water and oil in their domains, and so they can never have peace in a dry region whose oil makes the world run.  The mountaineers of the Appalachians had oil and coal, and therefore their hills were stripped bare and their lungs blackened in mines for a pittance for the profit of fat cats elsewhere.  Sometimes it is trees that the lowlanders want to exploit–sometimes (as is the case in Southeast Asia) is is simply their hills and valleys that others want to feed their own people, because the land is good and the climate congenial.  Who cares that the people of those hills are there minding their own business and simply want their own hills to belong to them and to be left alone from rapacious armies and greedy tax collectors.

Another tragedy of the hill tribe is that their division by the hills they live in into scattered communities almost invariably leads to clannish divisions that can be exploited by imperial powers for their own goals of control and domination.  If the hill tribes ever united against their common foes, wherever they happened to be, they could be victorious and strong (this is what happened to the Swiss, after all), but all too often there is some clan who is the “real” enemy with whom some other clan will unite, not realizing that the goal of the imperialists is not to serve as an ally of any of the tribes, but rather the exploiter of them all.  Divide and conquer has always been the Satanic strategy, after all, and empire is just another form of Satanic domination over others.

There is something lonely and melancholy about hill country.  Whether it is the homes and refugee camps of the hill peoples (throughout history the vast majority of hill peoples, including the ancient Israelites) were poor in material culture compared to their lowland neighbors, or the pictures of scarred earth from mines like Potosi or the coal mines of the Appalachians, or just the lonely valleys and hollows themselves, a traveler can look at the people and countryside and get an intuitive feel for the land and what it does to the spirit of someone who lives there.

For these reasons and more I have long sought to better understand and appreciate those fellow hill peoples and mountaineers around the world.  Humanity only has a few patterns of life that it falls into, and when one sees others who have the same sort of “pattern” that one’s own background shows, there is an instant sense that one is around one’s kind, despite the distances of space and differences in language and culture.  Perhaps there is something about humanity that needs to find something close to home wherever one wanders.  At any rate, it is what it is.  It appears as if I will soon become very familiar with other hill tribes in Thailand who come from different backgrounds than me.  I imagine I will recognize them as kin, however.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Biblical History, History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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