Folk Image and Customs

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Arkansas’s Image

Two defining forces have shaped Arkansas’s image. First, physical geography placed the Mississippi River floodplain on the state’s eastern border. Second, public policy determined that, for almost 100 years, the region adjacent to the state’s western border would be known as Indian Territory. The combination of these two forces were primarily responsible for Arkansas being less densely populated than its neighboring states and being predominantly rural for the first 150 years of its existence as a territory and state. Lacking a major urban area or dominant physical attraction, relatively few people had first-person knowledge of the state. As a result, this area came to be viewed as a rustic, backwoods region out of touch with mainstream America. In an effort …

Back-to-the-Land Movement

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, nearly one million people throughout the United States left urbanized areas for rural settings, intent on establishing themselves as “back-to-the-landers.” While many of these people moved to the Northeast or the West, which had long been centers of counter-cultural movements, a significant number were drawn to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. It is difficult to state how many back-to-the-landers (BTLs) moved to Arkansas between 1968 and 1982, but rough estimates suggest that it was somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000. Nearly all of the BTLs who moved to the region were in their early to mid-twenties. On the whole, the BTLs were well educated, with over seventy percent having completed an undergraduate degree. Approximately …

Dialects

The classification of dialects is an inexact science, as it is often difficult to track the minute differences in grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, and intonation that distinguish one from the next, and more importantly, track how those changes occurred. Migratory routes provide a basic framework for identifying dialects across the country. Informed by this framework, linguists identify two umbrella dialects in the state of Arkansas:Midland, sometimes called South Midland or Mountain Speech, andSouthern, which refers to east-coastal Southern speech. Geography also plays a decisive role in the distribution of dialects. The Ouachita Mountains, for example, form a natural barrier for language and culture. John Gould Fletcher observed as much in his historical study, Arkansas (1947): “One may say that there are roughly two …

Feuds

A feud (sometimes referred to as a vendetta or private war) is a long-running argument or period of animosity, especially between families or clans. Feuds usually begin over a perceived injustice or insult. The feud cycle is fueled by a long-running cycle of retaliatory violence that often escalates into a “blood feud,” in which the cycle of violence involves the relatives of someone who has been killed or dishonored seeking vengeance by killing the culprits or their relatives. In theory, the cycle of killing continues until one entire family has been killed. Arkansas has had its share of feuds, particularly in the Ozark Mountains region of the state. Pioneers who came west from the southern Appalachian Mountains at the beginning …

Funeral Customs, Traditional (Ozark Mountains)

Settlers to the Arkansas Ozarks brought burial traditions with them from their home states of Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Prior to the establishment of a funeral industry with undertakers, embalmers, and factory-made caskets, every job associated with burial was handled by members of the deceased’s community. This work required practical know-how, physical strength, and access to materials, and was influenced by religious custom, folklore, and superstition. The modern death-care industry evolved from the trade of cabinet making, when stores that made and sold furniture added wooden coffins and caskets to their wares. By the late 1800s, many such businesses also offered the use of elaborate, horse-drawn hearses; burial goods (such as shrouds); and, later, embalming. The Arkansas …

Geophagy

aka: Geophagia
aka: Pica
Geophagy, or geophagia, is the practice of consuming dirt or clay. In the United States, the practice is associated with the South, where clay is still sold for consumption in some rural areas. Humans regularly ingest dirt in trace amounts in everyday life, but most Western societies declare a threshold at which deliberate consumption is treated as a symptom of physiological or psychiatric disease (called pica). Although geophagy is often met with disgust or dismissed as prehistory or pathology, it exists in many cultures around the world as a healthful if not vital practice. There are a number of reasons why humans might deliberately consume dirt. Some practitioners believe that the soil or clay affords nutrients and minerals, such as …

Hillbillies

The “hillbilly” has been an enduring staple of American iconography, and Arkansas has been identified with the hillbilly as much as, if not more than, any state. Despite the lack of scholarly consensus on the origin of the term—historian Anthony Harkins gives as the most likely explanation that Scottish highlanders melded “hill-folk” with “billie,” a word meaning friend or companion—there is no shortage of hillbilly images in American popular culture. Whether a barefoot, rifle-toting, moonshine-swigging, bearded man staring out from beneath a floppy felt hat or a toothless granny in homespun sitting at a spinning wheel and peering suspiciously at strangers from the front porch of a dilapidated mountain cabin, the hillbilly, in all his manifestations, is instantly recognizable. Wrapped …

Lost Cause Myth of the Confederacy

The Lost Cause myth consists of a set of ideas about the history of the South that developed following the American Civil War. These beliefs, which are largely considered by historians to be false, were advanced by contemporary Southerners as the so-called true story of the nature of the antebellum South, the reasons for Southern secession, and the character of the South’s people during the course of the war. The story comprised a defense of the South’s “peculiar institution” (slavery), secession, and the war. In Arkansas, the Lost Cause narrative developed with the emergence of various Confederate heritage organizations after the 1890s. These organizations worked to ensure that their interpretation was integrated into the accepted history of the state and …