Appalachia: America’s mainland colony

Chris Salvemini
7 min readApr 20, 2021
The Island in Pigeon Forge. Imagine this with “Margaritaville” playing.

There is a place at the foothills of Appalachia where people can ride a Ferris Wheel and gaze at the mountainous expanse around them to the echoing tune of “Margaritaville.” Beneath them in Pigeon Forge, there is an expanse of retailers, rides and residual patterns from the area’s long and neglected history.

The Island, which features the perpetually spinning Ferris wheel, was built after wildfires swept through Gatlinburg and turned much of the region into ash. In nearby Knoxville, college students and craft-brewery-owners choked from the smog cloud carried over by the wind.

And in counties across East Tennessee, people watched in terror and anguish as the place they loved was destroyed by fire. The Great Smoky Mountains was not a tourist destination to them — it was a refuge. Many people consider the area a place for country music and fun, but for many communities it is home.

Instead of the trees, rocks, and wilderness that Appalachia’s identity was rooted in, reconstruction efforts after the 2016 disaster replaced much of the area’s legacy of community and stewardship with more tourism businesses. It sacrificed history for modernity and erected The Island as a façade of Appalachia.

It’s a familiar story for families in the region, whose generations stretch back to the first settlers of colonial America. Those early arrivals in the mountains did not arrive out of the profiteering that marks contemporary western capitalism.

Their ancestors were desperate and suffering, outcasts of the New England and Virginian settlers. Early Appalachian settlers fled persecution from the same people who were fleeing it themselves.

In the mountains, they found people who faced their own kind of persecution — Native Americans. White settlers had already begun the genocidal process, erasing their ethnic identities and slaughtering thousands. Yet, instead of reenacting the stories of White conquest that marks early American lore, many Appalachian settlers built communities with the people already there. They united in a common goal: survival.

In this way, East Tennessee and Appalachian legacy is about cooperation, community, and respect for both the people in it and the land they’re on. For that reason, history is more valuable in Appalachia than profit. However, those values come at the expense of prosperity in the United States’ markets.

“Administration after administration has tried to bring the region sustained prosperity, yet many communities remain on the brink,” wrote Will Wright in The New York Times.

There are families in East Tennessee where people still live like this. It’s kinda a dream to just find a cabin and hide out in the mountains, tbh.

Those administrations tailored packages to boost employment in the IT industry and build new schools, disregarding the foundation of those regions' economies. In Appalachia, employees do not gather in office spaces to chat about sports on their breaks, working for mega-corporations. Instead, they gather in churches and parking lots of Taco Bell to talk about each other’s concerns.

Effective projects would serve these communities, instead of changing them. They would build up regional churches and bolster community centers, giving people employment opportunities in childcare, outreach, or any multitude of jobs neglected by market-oriented policies. They would fund family care services, or build up existing efforts to curb substance abuse.

But they don’t do that. Administration after administration has only sought to make Appalachia more profitable as if the region’s lack of market participation is somehow the problem.

Community-oriented values and the notion that collective history outweighs affluence and is fundamentally opposed to the creeds of capitalism and the modern United States. In Appalachia, wealth is not found through business and building. Instead, it is found through cooperation towards survival and familial ties.

White settlers traded with tribes, learned the languages of the natives, married together, and created an American dream beyond nuclear families and two-story homes. They found hope for the future of a country still struggling to be born and revered the history that brought them together.

The cultural practices and artifacts found in Native American tribes persist in the area today. Families weave traditional quilts while passing down myths of distant relatives and the people they encountered. Entire communities can be cut off from the rest of the U.S., almost entirely unaware of the events in the world around them.

Settlers carried over clan structures from their Irish and Scottish roots, naturally meshing with native tribal structures. Native American and Appalachian settlers together developed a reverence for community and kinship, woven into their cultural fabric and entirely unique in the country.

Given that history, what reason would Appalachian communities have to care if a market collapsed or a company went under? In the rest of the U.S., market collapse is nightmarish. But in Appalachia, it’s insignificant.

The region’s relationship to the U.S. is complicated because of the country’s relationship to capital. In Appalachia, each person is a story to behold and every living creature is deserving of the respect a person owes to their country. Most importantly, the region is removed from American history, so why would Appalachian communities care about it in the present?

Life in the mountains is often a violent contrast to U.S. values, which places the individual and personal profit above all else. As a result, the area which values community is the most isolated in America.

Flag of the Cherokee Nation. It’s a better flag than the one that replaced it, IMO.

It is stuck in a constant colonial process, The Island standing as the latest iteration of a perpetual cycle.

The process is simple: Appalachia first suffers some arbitrary harm from external forces, such as capitalist selfishness manufacturing the opioid crisis or climate change resulting in the Gatlinburg Wildfires. Then, federal officials and uncaring entrepreneurs arrive to build in their own image, with no understanding of the history they’re sacrificing nor respect for the people there before them.

In the final stages of the colonial process, federal officials fund organizations unfamiliar with the region in the guise of fixing the manufactured problem— uncaring that they contributed to its cause. Business leaders build tourist destinations like The Island in the name of providing jobs, apathetic to the harm they do to the land or the families and communities that depend on it.

Almost every effort to “save Appalachia” is a veneer to continue the colonial processes that originated with the beginning of America. The more help people give the region, the more harm they end up doing.

Trump was the latest, and potentially the final, iteration of those processes.

His particular brand of politics resonated with the Appalachians who came to expect nothing but selfishness from their country. After countless new TVA buildings (leading to coal ash spills), tourist outcroppings, and failed social welfare projects, it became clear to the people in the region that their country does not care about them.

The county does not consider or about Appalachia’s history, communities, or people. So why should they care about the country, or ever expect a sudden change of heart?

To put it prosaically—America was a leech siphoning Appalachian labor from tourist traps and power plants so that it could gild its own name in gold, just as the Trump family has done.

In Trump, Appalachians saw a truth that they had already learned and embraced: that no leader in America cares about the people. It’s painful, but it’s true.

However, Appalachia is not America. The values in its history emphasize community health and environmental stewardship. Its communities produce the faith-based organizations that people depend on to endure poverty. In Appalachia, truth is rigid and families work to combat the isolation that the digital age has entrenched urban communities in.

Its colonizers (entrepreneurs, politicians, and most of America) cherish rugged independence, self-reliance, and the worst of all: capitalism. Adam Smith and the invisible hand of the market guide their decisions, regardless of the history it erases and the identities it excludes. In the end, America values apathy above all, punishing those who care for their community.

As a result, the outcasts of the outcasts can only do what they have done from the first day they ventured into the mountains—work to survive.

Appalachian eagerness to embrace Trump and defend him results from those communities defending a truth that most Americans are only now trying to reconcile. The truth is that Trump represents America. While in office and wielding power, the country had to finally confront the terrible powers that uphold it.

After Trump, America has an opportunity to learn from Appalachia and appreciate more than wanton greed and selfishness masquerading as independence. The nation can overthrow the Titans of industry that created such an unequal and harmful socioeconomic system. Through new policies, it can create a system that benefits people in poverty without sacrificing their history.

Trump could be the final iteration of a colonial cycle in Appalachia. By confronting him, America had to confront all the people, values and ideas that put him in a position of power and kept Appalachia in a position of poverty.

Given enough time, “Margaritaville” may no longer play in Appalachia and the Ferris Wheel may be torn down. In its place, the mountains may flourish and the folk in it may find a better place in their country.

But until then, the wheel keeps turning.