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Seeking the Alternative: Native American Appalachia


Photo Courtesy of David Hall

Article Written by David Hall


Images of Native Americans permeate our culture from sports teams to movies, but according to juniors Megan O’Neill and Leah Weinstein, they are often forgotten about in conversations around social justice, especially in Appalachia. It is for this reason that they decided to lead an alternative break trip into Appalachia to learn more about this disenfranchised group and contribute to some of their well-being.


“All of the time we forget that Native Americans have some of the highest rates of poverty,” said O’Neill.


O’Neill is correct on this point. At 28.8%, Native American’s have by far the highest poverty of any race group according to statistics from the United States Census Bureau. The national average is 15.5% according to that same census. The group will travel about 4 hours by car to Maryville, TN to visit and experience the eastern band of the Cherokee Nation.


O’Neill was originally inspired by her interest in Native American culture, as well as her initial partner junior Alex Wegley’s interest in conservation, to design a trip that was a happy marriage of both. After something came up and Wegley could not come on board, Weinstein took her place. Weinstein said that although previous alternative break trips have ventured to Appalachia and have been successful, she notes the differences between those and the trip she will lead next week.


“They talk about the side-effects of coal-mining and coal-mining communities and what happens to those communities when coal is no longer a part of it,” Weinstein said. “But this is talking about another community in Appalachia that is not recognized or talked about. I did not know there were Cherokee in Tennessee. I knew they were in Georgia, North Carolina, but I did not know they were farther in.”


The group will conduct their trip with help from Once Upon a Time in Appalachia, a Breakaway approved site for conducting alternative break trips. According to their website Breakaway is a nonprofit devoted to supporting alternative break programs and building a society of active citizens.


Ben Vester is a freshman and participant of the trip. He said that being from West Virginia, he knows the woes of coal-mining communities well, but is eager to spend his spring break heading to somewhat unfamiliar territory.


“[Native American disenfranchisement] is something that I do not know know a whole lot about but I recognize it is an area I want to learn much more about and reach out to people who are informed and gain their expertise,” said Vester.


All three, ONeill, Weinstein, and Vester, emphasized the importance of working with an organization in the community for its educational value. Weinstein said that although much of American philanthropy does a lot of good work, she believes it is important to not be too intrusive and to make a real connection with those who she helps.


“You can go in anywhere and rebuild houses which is great,” Weinstein said. “The big point about alternative break trips is that you are going down for a week to invest in a community not only by the work you are doing, but by meeting people, talking to people and understanding their stories and their way of life. And understanding what type of injustices they face on a daily basis.”