4 Forgotten Communities That Somehow Still Exist In America
You may have heard of the Yanomami -- a tribe in the Amazon who have existed for centuries, all the while blissfully unaware of the shitty cell phone service and 2 Broke Girls box sets they're missing out on. But the remote and unapologetically malarial rainforest isn't the only place where one can find isolated communities. There are just such places right here in the U.S. And we're not talking about the bearded weirdos in Pennsylvania or the town in Florida that's populated by former carnival workers of the "Monkey Girl" and "Lobster Boy" variety. Those places are practically Las Vegas timeshare resorts compared to ...
The Gullah/Geechee Nation
So imagine you're on vacation in Myrtle Beach for some reason. Why not? The fact that they have a law against pissing in swimming pools there is a pretty good selling point, I'd say. But anyway, maybe you decide to explore a bit and take one of those cool fan boat excursions to ogle some alligators. Then, at some point during the trip, you see an island off in the distance. And on that island are people dressed in African garb, engaged in traditional activities like basket weaving, quilt making, and so forth. Did your drunken pilot wander too far south and wind up at one of those Epcot Center World Showcase pavilions? Nope, you just crossed over into Gullah/Geechee territory!
The Gullah/Geechee "Corridor" used to extend from North Carolina's Cape Fear to Jacksonville, Florida, but it's gradually shrunk to the point where you can only find it in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. And today, visitors at upscale tourist destinations like Hilton Head might spend the entirety of their stay without ever realizing they're golfing right next door to something even more authentically African than when Dave Matthews played his last gig at the local Marriott.
Which presumably leads to no small amount of confusion for disembarking cruise ship passengers.
So who exactly are are the Gullah -- and furthermore, the Geechee? Well, those are just two ways of describing the same group of people: the descendants of former West African slaves who've lived since the bad old days in rural isolation, keeping the traditions of their ancestors alive to the point where they're "known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States."
Oh, and that lady in the image above? That's not just some random basket-carrying nobody from the bygone days. That's Queen Quet, the current Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. She's pretty hot, as queens go. Just try not to get too weirded out when she breaks into song right in the middle of a conversation:
Only time will tell if the Gullah/Geechee Nation will be able to retain such a close connection to their roots, what with bulldozers constantly threatening to turn their way of life into waterfront condominiums. But even if they do all eventually disperse and the old ways become a distant memory, at least least they'll always have one of the most disconcerting mascots in children's television history to remind them of the struggles of their forebears.
Apparently, "Binyah Binyah" is the local word for "pesticide runoff mutation."
Lots of people have visited (or at least momentarily panicked while peering out an airplane window at) the Grand Canyon at some point in their lives. But only the intrepid few have placed their faith in the surefootedness of a stubborn ass and journeyed all the way down to the bottom. The waterfalls and all that are nice, sure. Whatever. But what really makes the trip worthwhile is getting the opportunity to stop in at Supai, home to one the smallest Indian nations in the United States, and a great place to load up on supplies, souvenirs, and presumably a wide selection of hemorrhoid medications.
The only locality in the world whose entire economy is based on topical creams.
That caption isn't too far from the truth, considering that selling tchotchkes to tourists is pretty much the only thing keeping the village (population: a whopping 200) afloat. And since you're not likely to do much in the way of comparison shopping while stuck at the nadir of America's lowest point, try to keep that fact in mind before you grumble about the jacked-up prices on turquoise bolo ties and whatnot.
The Walmart imagery at the bottom should give you an idea of what you're in for.
But every weeping-sore-laden trekker who makes it all the way to Supai should really be grateful for the opportunity to empty out their wallets in the first place. And that's because it's a wonder and testament to their fortitude that the Havasupai are still there at all, since over the years, they've had to overcome numerous and protracted legal battles with the National Park Service simply for the right to live on their own native lands (and deal with all the pesky scientists traipsing down there to suck out their DNA).
But luckily for all those weary, ointment-starved hikers, the tribe has overcome all obstacles and can now rejoice in the fact that they get to live in the closest thing America has to a bottomless pit, where there are no cars and all mail is delivered by those aforementioned jerky mules. And if one of those pieces of mail happens to contain a gift card to Bed Bath & Beyond, you'd better know somebody with a helicopter if you want to redeem it before it expires.
Or if you're one of the unlucky few who experience seizures due to scenic grandeur overdoses.
Kalaupapa Leper Colony, Hawaii
Back in the day, if you were diagnosed with the hideous, infectious condition known as leprosy (also known as Hansen's disease, but without any of the pleasant connotations of natural, delicious juice), you were usually either shunned right out of the village and wound up living in a cave, or forced to ring a bell so people would know to turn right the fuck around before they had to deal with your revolting, Shia-Labeouf-like grotesquerie. Some lepers were even compelled by the authorities to live in remote "colonies." And while being forced to live sequestered from society might seem like an unfortunate fate, at least a lucky few found themselves occupying some prime Hawaiian beachfront real estate.
Where many of them were solemnly "lei'd" to rest. Hey, don't blame me. I didn't make up the stupid tradition.
Most people who vacation in Hawaii never bother to visit "The Friendly Island" of Molokai. In addition to being the birthplace of the Hula, the island used to be known for cattle ranches and pineapple farms. Nowadays, the economy sustains itself by aggravating hippies with a Monsanto seed production facility. But most importantly to this conversation, Molokai was also famous for being the place where Hawaii housed its lepers. The grave in the image above is the final resting place of Father Damien, the patron saint of leprosy and outcasts, who spent his holy career ministering to the needs of those unfortunates compelled to live under state-sanctioned quarantine in the far-flung community of Kalaupapa. As proof of the man's commitment to the cause, he died after his eyebrows (and other assorted body parts) fell off.
As reflected in the Vatican-themed line of Potato Head toys available in the gift shop.
The colony at Kalaupapa still exists, and a few of the now-elderly folks who were once banished so that they wouldn't cause surfers to lose their luau poi still choose to reside there, even though medical science has long since eliminated the need for their isolation. Meanwhile, developers are champing at the bit to turn the area into the same type of "paradise" filled with hotels, restaurants, and outlet stores which convince so many Japanese day trippers to spend $20 on a Mai Tai in Waikiki. It's now up to the National Park Service what will happen to the area once the last of the inhabitants, all native Hawaiians, pass away. And since one can never underestimate the allure of tourist dollars, you'd better get a move on if you'd like to take a simultaneously uplifting and depressing look at "one of the last few truly untouched places in Hawaii" (and a "sacred" reminder of the way we used to treat sick people) before it's presumably turned into another Honolulu.
All you'll need is an invitation and, again, a willingness to travel by goddamn mule.
Keep in mind that complaints like "I've been riding so long it feels like my ass is falling off" probably won't go over very well at a leper colony.
The Ramapough Mountain People
The members of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation used to be referred to as "The Jackson Whites," which is a term they now regard as offensive and ill-advised as dropping an n-bomb in the middle of an Oprah Winfrey free car giveaway. The origin of that particular combination of words is believed to have come from an even more confusing amalgam: "jacks and whites." But things start to clear up a bit when you learn that "jack" was once slang for "slave." And then it goes right back to confusing again when you come to find that they consider themselves Native Americans.
According to the cover of this book, they're basically "that Deliverance kid with the banjo, all growed up."
And they are in fact Natives -- at least, mostly. But because they lived in seclusion way up in the mountains, a variety of old-timey folks from different walks of life, whose only thing in common was that they were running from something, may have just sort of happened to wind up there. So over time, the tribe reportedly saw a number of the aforementioned former slaves, deserters from European mercenary armies, and West Indian prostitutes settle in and add more ingredients to the genetic bouillabaisse. This led to them looking a bit different from everyone else in the vicinity ("mongrel hybrid" was a term being thrown around). When you throw in the fact that they kept to themselves and rarely associated with outsiders, rumors began to spread that inbreeding had morphed them into mutated monsters. And this unfortunate characterization was in no way helped by the fact that they lived smack dab in the middle of New Jersey.
Or that one of their earliest known tribal leaders was known as "Chief Situation."
And despite living in a part of the country known for its wanton Snookis, modern members of the tribe take issue with the whole "everybody's one-fifth hooker" allegations. They also don't take kindly to how their neighbors used to -- and sometimes still do -- enjoy characterizing them as being freakish, backwoods, The Hills Have Eyes-esque abominations, possibly headed up by a presumably cannibalistic albino queen. But what really stuck in their collective craws (not claws; we've already gone over this) was when Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and a bunch of other Hollywood types showed up to make a movie. It may have gotten mixed reviews on the Tomatometer, but the Ramapoughs felt it deserved outstanding marks for "reinforcing bad stereotypes."
So apparently they're not all cockroach snipers?
Filming of Out Of The Furnace actually took place in Pennsylvania for the most part, but the portrayal of the bad guys in the movie hit a little too close to home as far as several members of the tribe were concerned. First off, the setting just so happens to be in the very same mountains in which they live. They probably wouldn't have cared about that, or even noticed, if it wasn't for the fact that Woody Harrelson plays "the leader of a gang of 'inbreds,' who are depicted as lawless, drug-addicted, poor and violent." Oh, and he also happens to have a surname that's common among their people: "DeGroat."
They were actually angry enough about the situation that they took the matter to court, to the tune of a $50 million lawsuit against the filmmakers. It was subsequently tossed out on the basis that not enough standards were met to prove the claims of defamation. What did they have to do, paint everyone up in albino-face like a broodier version of Avatar? Or perhaps the judge noticed that the star-studded movie only grossed about $10 million, and found the whole matter unnecessarily cruel.
When it comes to the role of "inbred-looking guy named DeGroat," Hollywood's first choice is usually Clint Howard. And next in line is that doofus from Cheers.
Meet the loneliest man in the world in 6 Isolated Groups Who Had No Idea That Civilization Existed, and learn what it takes to integrate into the modern world in I Don't Know My Age: 5 Things I Learned in My Isolated Tribe.
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