Power of Place: NEH 2018 Summer Institute

Power og Place: Land and Peoples in Appalachia


“Appalachia’s story is the American story—writ more intensely.”
            Ron Eller

Our NEH Institute’s Format

If you are one of our NEH summer scholars, you will become a member of a vibrant and engaged learning community. You will attend lectures by leading scholars and readings by some of the region’s most accomplished authors. You will participate in classroom discussions, analyze primary sources, complete reading assignments, watch documentary films, visit historic sites, and develop curricular materials using the materials, ideas and approaches explored in the institute.

The acclaimed PBS Series APPALACHIA: A History of Mountains and People will introduce topics and give a framework for the activities. The film series gives an incisive overview to key Appalachian Mountains Fallissues of Appalachian history as well as a model for integrating primary materials and scholarship from a variety of disciplines. In recent years, many outstanding studies have appeared in the field of Appalachian history that challenge the traditional notion of an isolated homogeneous Appalachian culture, and we will delve into many of these. Each week we will have several distinguished scholars lead sessions. Classroom seminars will explore topics using a variety of media and materials, including much original source material—from sixteenth century maps to farm ledgers to twentieth century films. In addition, field trips and cultural offerings will provide you with a firsthand knowledge of mountain people, landscape and culture.


A Rich and Complicated Region

The Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest and most complicated geologic forms on the planet. The biological diversity and the complexity of the landscape are mirrored in the diversity and variety of cultures found there. These cultures include one of the largest tribes of Native Americans east of the Mississippi, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee as well as long-standing communities of African Americans, represented by great American intellectuals as Booker T. Washington and Henry Louis Gates. In Appalachia’s coalfields, Ukrainians and Hungarians have worked alongside Italians and Irish. It is a complicated place with a rich history.

From the beginning the vast natural resources of the mountains have played a crucial role in its story. Forests full of wildlife provided a valuable hunting ground for the earliest humans. Much later British colonists came to the same forests seeking masts for the ships of the British Navy. Commercial profits derived from its furs led to major political upheavals in Europe, triggering the Seven Years War there and the French and Indian War in America. Repeatedly in Appalachia, we see how new ways of looking at nature, along with new tools, lead to radical alterations in the landscape and the lives of its peoples.

Environmental History and Humanities Themes

Environmental history presents fresh questions for discussion of past events, encourages a collaborative approach with other disciplines, and enhances our understanding of cultural and biological diversity. The Power of Place will employ this perspective with our scholars to explore the many cultures of the region across time, to examine the ways those cultures engaged with the landscape as well as with each other, and to illuminate the conflicts created by differences in cultural assumptions.

In exploring Appalachia’s story, The Power of Place will address these major humanities themes:

1) how the Appalachian Mountains have shaped the people of the region and, in turn, how humans have shaped the mountains,
2) how the story of Appalachia relates to the larger American story and
3) the role cultural and biological diversity have played in the region.

Teachers from our previous institutes commented that this led them to a “deeper understanding of the big picture of American history” and underscored the value of “honoring diversity in the classroom.”

Understanding the environment in which we live— its role in our past and our present—is one of the most important educational challenges of our time. The institute’s environmental history approach brings nature into the human story, offering a fresh perspective on traditional humanities themes. This is a particularly fruitful approach when applied to the history of Appalachia where the region’s dramatic landscape and rich natural resources have been crucial in shaping its economy, its politics, its art, and most of all, its sense of itself. In the Appalachian region, the relationship of humans to the land they inhabit has been an ongoing source of debate for centuries just as it is across the United States today.