When Congress passed the Federal COVID Relief Bill in December, they created the nation’s newest national park along with it. Southern West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve sits on 73,000 acres and a 53-mile stretch along the second oldest river and one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Its 1978 designation as a national river heralded an outdoor adventure tourism industry built on the vestiges of the coal and timber industries. Ghost boom towns, railroad tunnels and abandoned coal camps have all been “reclaimed by the forest,” according to park literature.
Today the area draws 1.4 million tourists per year, and a 20% increase is expected. But within the park, on interpretive placards that tell of Native American artifacts, settler culture and former industry, there are few signs of cultural life today. One could spend a week’s vacation there and come away with the idea that culture in southern West Virginia stopped when the last steam engine pulled out from the station at Thurmond. Establishing a cultural heritage center located in the park could engage, present and sustain this culture for visitors and locals alike.
From 1991-1993, the American Folklife Center worked with the National Park Service to conduct fieldwork with cultural communities in and adjacent to the gorge. The team, directed by folklorist Mary Hufford, conducted interviews with gardeners, hunters and fishers in the Black neighborhood of Harlem Heights, Lebanese foodways practitioners, ginseng diggers, gospel groups, quilters, a multi-racial bar band, a railroad crew cook and Italian restaurateurs. Many had been using the land in the national river as a de facto commons for hunting, fishing, foraging, religious observances, family reunions and the burial place of family members for generations.
The Folklife Center team’s vision was the Grandview Cultural Heritage Center, a public facility within the park that would serve as a resource for area communities to share their local cultural and ecological knowledge, as well as a place where tourists could interact with living cultural practices. The Park Service never acted upon the proposal.
The recommendations written by Mary Hufford and Rita Moonsammy call for full involvement of local residents in the cultural interpretation and conservation that would happen at the center. Rather than arrested “cultural history,” the center would engage living cultural heritage, as an ever-evolving community practice, invested in the self-determination of local communities to shape not only how they are represented to the public, but their economic and environmental futures too.
Programming would include concerts, workshops, tours, dances, storytelling, jams, intergenerational events and community dinners. Training programs would be offered to assist local groups in engaging cultural heritage in their own locales, facilitating economic and educational opportunities for artists, tradition bearers, families and communities.
The Park Service uses the term “traditionally associated peoples,” defined “as social/cultural entities such as tribes, communities, and kinship units, as well as park neighbors, traditional residents and former residents.” A group is considered “traditionally associated” when “(1) the entity regards park resources as essential to its development and continued identity as a culturally distinct people; (2) the association has endured for at least two generations (40 years); and (3) the association began prior to establishment of the park.”
As Hufford and Moonsammy argue in their 2007 Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, communities of the gorge meet this criteria, as culturally and geographically distinct groups whose families have lived in close relationship with the land for over three generations, well pre-dating the 1978 designation.
Elsewhere, the Park Service engages traditionally associated peoples in various ways. In 2019, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park announced it would allow an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian members to sustainably harvest sochan. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve holds living history programming and public conversations with former residents. Generally such initiatives begin with an ethnographic study like the one Hufford’s team conducted.
Culture and the people of West Virginia and broader Appalachia have long been depicted as anachronistic holdovers, referred to in an 1899 Atlantic article as “our contemporary ancestors” and in a 1965 book as “yesterday’s people.” These persisting misrepresentations function to exclude the region’s residents from full participation in the nation’s present and future.
The creation of the New River Gorge National Park affords a timely opportunity to revisit and act upon the proposal for community engagement and programming that a cultural heritage center could facilitate. The park would do well to acknowledge its impact on local communities, where livelihoods have been so entwined with the land for generations. To do so, it should work in collaboration with the traditionally associated peoples in its proximity, considering how the existence of the park could benefit their sustainable livelihoods too. Accordingly, visitors and locals alike might come to see themselves as actors in the making of this unique community forest and watershed, now and for the future.