It’s a question I get a lot considering most people are unaware that the Ozarks exist, or if they do know about the area they lump it in with other surrounding Southern cultures. The Ozark region is huge, with most of the mountains being located in Missouri and Arkansas, and pieces in Oklahoma and Kansas. Most of the people that would go on to call themselves Ozarkers or hillfolk came into the area in the early 1800’s as hunters and trappers. Most of them were of Scots-Irish or German descent, from the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and most came to the Ozarks as familial clans. It was rare to have entire towns moving to the area. Because the terrain of the Ozarks was is so similar to the Appalachian Mountains the people quickly made themselves at home in its hills and hollers.
Ozark culture has always been a culture of clans. Even today, when the population of people living in towns and cities outnumbers those living out in the woods, Ozark people tend to keep to those they know and are generally weary of strangers. This is partly because of the clan structure, where you could only really trust your family, and the fact that because of the rough terrain of the Ozarks many of these clans were isolated from each other. While the area has changed immensely over the years, this underlying culture has stuck with Ozark people, even the young folks.
Most of my family has been from the Ozarks for generations, at least on my dad’s side and my mom’s dad’s side. Those that didn’t immigrate in from Germany and Ireland in the 1800’s came from the Appalachian Mountains before settling to the area. I’ve always considered this place my home, although I haven’t always accepted it. Growing up it was nothing nice to be from the Ozarks or Arkansas in general. We’ve always been seen as a backward people, and maybe to some extent that’s true, but coming to hate yourself because of where you’re from isn’t good for anybody. Growing up gay and poor in the South is rough, some of you can relate I’m sure, and because of the hard time I had it got to the point that I wanted nothing to do with this place and I couldn’t wait to get out. Then something changed. I don’t know whether it was myself becoming more accepting of who I am, or maybe it was just starting at the University, but something shifted and I started getting more and more interested in where I came from and what was the culture of my “people.”
So what is that culture exactly? Well, it’s hard to nail down, and I think that’s what makes Ozark people so unique. When you look at our culture, or stories, folkways, folk magic, you can see Ireland, you can see England, Wales, you can see Germany, you can see Italy, you can see Osage, Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, you can see Africa. You can see all these folk traditions because Ozark people are mutts, the rejected children of poor immigrants, slaves, and the marginalized indigenous peoples. You can see it in my family tree. One of the most interesting parts about doing genealogy work for my family was seeing how much of a mutt I really am. Just in probably six generations I’ve found ancestors from Germany, France, Norway, Finland, Mexico, Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and of course those who have been wandering around the South for generations. I’ve also been able to put names to my Jewish, Romani, African, and Native American ancestors as well (much to the shock of most of my family.)
I went through a stage in my life, around the time when I wanted nothing to do with the Ozarks or the South at all, where I wanted to incorporate the traditions of my ancestors into my life. I went back to England, Ireland, and Germany, but every time I would do research I would hit a wall. “Well,” I came to think, “I’ve never been to any of these places, I don’t speak the language, and I can’t really relate to a lot of these beliefs. So what do I do?” I recognize that for a lot of people this is not a struggle. I’ve met quite a few Reconstructionist pagans who are very happy with their path. I wasn’t, though. It became even more complicated when I started doing genealogy work on my family. Looking at the traditions of my ancestors became almost laughable, as in, “Which of the twenty traditions do I want to choose from today?” So I had to find another way, and that way became looking into the traditions of my more recent ancestors, which brought me back to the Ozarks.
I consider myself an Ozark healer, what does that mean? It means I try and work with the traditional healing practices of the Ozark people, my ancestors. In Ozark folk magic you can see influences from the Appalachian Mountains as well as European, African, Native American, and Latin American traditions. The tradition is as much of a mutt as its people are. That’s why I like it, though. It never gets old. Whether they are from old collections by folklorists like Vance Randolph, Otto Ernest Rayburn, or Mary Celestia Parler, or from storytellers and healers still alive today, I’m always finding new and interesting folkways to incorporate into my life. The problem that we’ve been facing for years now is a dying culture. Stories and folk traditions are lost on a daily basis when our old folks die off. If the traditions aren’t dying completely they’re being fetishized, idealized, and completely misinterpreted by so called “experts” on the area. I started this project, and this entire blog in general, with the hopes that I could somehow help clear up a lot of the confusion that’s surrounded this area for years and years. Every time I sit down to write I remember who I was as a kid, and wish that I could go back and hand my younger self the things I’m writing today. I write for those people who grew up hating their culture and hating themselves. I hope that in some small way I can be a voice for my people and my ancestors.