Endangered U.S. culture: what remains underdocumented?
February 10, 2015 6:48 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about what cultures, cultural practices, arts, religions, languages, lifestyles, hobbies, habits, fashion, unconventional individuals/families, or any other aspects of human life in the U.S. still remain severely underdocumented; or are at risk of fading away before they can be properly or meaningfully documented.

The Gullah/Geechees are an example of an at-risk culture (but are relatively well documented at this point, compared to many others).

Likewise, the English Restoration-descended dialect that many residents still speak in isolated Tangier Island, Virginia.

Your suggestions and examples don't have to be like these, per se; I am keeping this open and broad to avoid the kind of exclusionism that often leads to the endangerment of such cultures.

I'm interested to learn about as many "micro" examples as I am "macro" - not just cultures or languages at large, but individual musicians, artists, inventors, teachers, revolutionaries/leaders/etc and the scenes that they occupied. And anything else I could possibly be leaving out. What and who are we at risk of losing soon?

To emphasize: I am looking specifically for examples of human culture and behavior that are still 'alive' in some way - in other words, there are still living people, or likely to still be living people (if unknown/uncertain, that's fine), engaging in these cultural practices. They should be endangered, but not extinct.

If any resources/research/reading do exist on the topic, however minimal they may be, please feel free to make mention of them and/or provide links.
posted by nightrecordings to Human Relations (40 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Texas German, for starters.
posted by ocschwar at 6:56 PM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Men who have walked on the moon...

Very few remain
posted by bartonlong at 7:25 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Portuguese-American community in the U.S. is pretty interesting. There was a mass immigration about 100 years ago when the economy was bad, and a majority of the immigrants at that time came from the Azores (current population <250,000).

They were a tight-knit community so they formed fraternal groups, which offered a social and financial safety net and often were a way to get group insurance, etc. (The insurance is often how they subsidized the groups). There are parades for Catholic feast days, girls are chosen to be festival "queens" and then march in parades all across the region. There are whole Portuguese marching bands, huge traditional meals following the feasts, etc.

It's a pretty resilient community that is also Catholic enough to self-sustain, but there's a decrease in involvement as the need for these groups decreases. The groups have had to merge to retain viability with reduced membership, and I think their scope and size will continue to decrease in all but the biggest central cities with high concentrations like Providence, RI and San Jose, CA.

(Am half Portuguese-American, now part of the not-involved watered-down diaspora.)
posted by JauntyFedora at 7:29 PM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Are you familiar with the Foxfire Books? They were compiled by high school students about vanishing rural Appalachian skills starting in the 1960s. I think that it would be interesting to re-visit those people today. Perhaps the books would serve as good inspiration -- they are packed full of fascinating info.

Tom Brown Jr? He runs a Tracker School that teaches wilderness, survival and spiritual skills. He's also famous for his many books. He's documented his own life in his books and presentations, but he's also controversial in some circles. It would be a fascinating and lengthy project to document his life/stories independently.
posted by Ostara at 7:35 PM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

I was astounded to find the Eva Mountain diary online. She was married to my grandmother's cousin. He was raised by her parents, because of her older sister having been divorced, so Eva's husband Clifford was raised at home like my grandmother's little brother. When I was a child, I used to visit them a lot. There are some instances of my parents visiting them when we were children, but mostly, it is her daily life.

I have a ton of ephemera from another family, but I haven't scanned it in yet. If you're interested, let me know.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:41 PM on February 10, 2015

People that attended one-room schoolhouses, where one teacher taught multiple grades. They were common in rural areas before schools were consolidated.

Farmers, in which the farm had both livestock and crops and the family lived on the farm. Now if you look at an aerial view of the American midwest, you are likely to see the circle pattern from a center pivot irrigation system, and a little manufactured home squeezed into a corner if there's one at all. Most modern farmers live in town. Farming has largely become a monoculture and the days of having horses, cows, chickens, and various crops and outbuildings are largely gone.
posted by Ostara at 7:41 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

One room schoolhouses themselves! There are still a very few going, teaching kids; a relative my own age taught in one a few years ago, although hers has now closed.

Foodways! Look into open pollinated heirloom seeds (and apple varieties, esp in New England) and smalltime agricultural practices (and foraging, local knowledge of which mushrooms in our woods are ok to eat, that kind of thing). Once upon a time, every small community had its own varieties of the food crops they grew - so every holler in Appalachia might have its own particular bean. But with fewer people growing their own food, and these varieties not ever having been picked up by commercial producers, once the last person in the family dies, those seeds just go bad in a drawer. Traditional food crop varieties are in danger all over, and with them go the expertise that might be needed to grow, preserve, or prepare a plant. There is a tremendous amount to read on this but one starting place is NativeSeed/SEARCH, a project to preserve the agricultural heritage of the US Southwest native population for example. Seed savers and ethnobotanists have a ton of stories of meeting the last person in a town who had seeds of a certain variety, and there's a reasonably well-mobilized network of people who are interested in this now who can find you a place to help out, if that's what you're aiming for.

Languages - There was an article recently about how New York City is home to the greatest number of languages anywhere on earth, and many of them are endangered. NYC would be a good place to look for neighborhoods and similar tiny cultural enclaves of all sorts that are endangered by the city's becoming much more expensive.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:47 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

lgbt elders. how many people like, say, sylvia rivera are there out there. when they die unnoticed what they know and have seen dies with them.
posted by thug unicorn at 7:52 PM on February 10, 2015 [12 favorites]

The Rainbow Family of Living Light.
posted by bac at 8:02 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

The intersection between Deaf culture and minorities (ie being a Deaf Latina/Latino) may qualify here.
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:04 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Basque people of Oregon are an interesting bunch.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:15 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Irish Travellers
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:22 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Due to industrialization (and soon global warming) the family farm is disappearing. Most farms are now run by corporations and have thousands of acres or thousands of animals rather than the small model family farm. Another factor is the new generation doesn't want to farm.
posted by littlewater at 8:40 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

John McPhee's great book on the Pine Barrens of New Jersey documented the small group of people who lived there at the time - not sure how many remain.
posted by sallybrown at 9:29 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Mono Indian tribes of California (and other tribes, I'm sure). Also, fruit tramps. My dad's grandparents were fruit tramps who ended up settling in the California's Central Valley near Bakersfield.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:33 PM on February 10, 2015

Chesapeake Bay Watermen
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:57 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mississippi Hill Country Blues --probably the only extant non-tourist blues scene left in the US.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:03 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are many fewer men peddling produce from horse-drawn carts along the streets of Baltimore, but they do still exist.

Baltimore Arabbers ("AY-RABB-ers"):



Sorry for links, am on mobile.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:03 AM on February 11, 2015

I was also going to say Irish Travellers. I have been doing a little project surveying their appearances in American newspapers. Nowadays they have acquired a reputation for cultural criminality that I think is undeserved -- the only film I know to have addressed them as a group was 1997's Traveller, starring Mark Wahlberg and Bill Paxton, and essentially superimposed stereotypes of the Romany people atop Irish Travellers -- that they are part of a system of itinerant con artists. This is how they are represented in English media as well, including Snatch and Peaky Blinders.

Travellers have their own language, Shelta (sometimes called Cant) and have a long history here and in Ireland of working as peripatetic horse traders and tinkers. They are identified as being a genuine ethnic minority in Ireland -- perhaps having been uprooted during the "to hell or Connacht" era, and have been the victims of extraordinary bigotry in Ireland. There's actually an Irish word, rahoonery, to describe anti-Traveller violence.

There's no clear documentation on how many of them live in the United States; it may be a larger population than in Ireland, which would be consistent with general immigration patterns from the country. They seem to have managed to maintain a distinct identity in the United States, and it may be their obscurity that has helped them. But I have not yet spoken to a contemporary Traveller, and do not know whether they would be amendable to modern investigation.
posted by maxsparber at 2:28 AM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, and Chicago Hillbillies.
posted by maxsparber at 2:29 AM on February 11, 2015

I know the last native speakers of Aramaic live in the Chicago burbs (Skokie, I think) but not sure if that's what you mean.
posted by deathpanels at 4:41 AM on February 11, 2015

We've got a few Norwegian bachelor farmers still in Minnesota.
posted by Elly Vortex at 5:21 AM on February 11, 2015

Persian/Iranian immigrants in the 50s-60s. Our then-rural suburb's pediatrician was from Iran & became part of the community with his family.

War tends to overshadow stories that conflict with mass media.

Community mediation centers and other initiatives that support the many-doors-to-justice. Confidentiality can be a challenge for getting the story out. Sexual assault crisis centers, too.
posted by childofTethys at 5:59 AM on February 11, 2015

For the people that inform the conflict resolution movements - many Quaker communities are deeply involved, but the process has to be adopted by the local community.
posted by childofTethys at 6:10 AM on February 11, 2015

Not far from where I live there is a large concentration of Chaldean/Assyrian-Americans. They are Middle Eastern, non-Arabic, and primarily Catholic. There are also a number of Arab communities nearby, particularly in Dearborn. The community is probably not "endangered," but it is not particularly well-known outside of SE Michigan.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 6:30 AM on February 11, 2015

There is a group of beekeepers in my area of Vermont who still track and trap wild bees for their hives. I saw a video that was locally produced about these old-timers and how they do what they do, following bees through the woods to get back to their hive. Fascinating stuff and not practiced so much nowadays.
posted by jessamyn at 6:44 AM on February 11, 2015

Practices and signals for railroad workers before everything became more automated. My father worked for CSX for about 40 years, retiring a few years ago. He's told us about a set of hand signals they used for numbers that people up and down the line would show, among other things. I've written CSX about this, but they don't have any specific knowledge of the things that weren't official policies from that time.
posted by bizzyb at 9:23 AM on February 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm sure that mass media is diluting most regional accents. You can hardly tell who is from Maine or Massachusetts anymore.

The Shakers are gone, or nearly so. Not not forgotten due to Handcock Shaker village/museum.

Many Italian immigrants in the late 1800s were fishermen, and lived in tightknit communities. Same with Vietnamese after the war.

Church histories are filled with the records of organizations with one or another purpose. See Girls Friendly Society.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:56 AM on February 11, 2015

Several years ago I wanted to research the communities of women who stepped into manufacturing and other non-traditional (for the time). My specific interests were how child care was managed, as well as how family back home worked with post-war changes shell shock/PTSD.
posted by childofTethys at 11:01 AM on February 11, 2015

Melungeons. The page also has a list at bottom that might interest you.
posted by LonnieK at 11:05 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hobo culture -- pretty much dead, although there are reports of a new generation riding the rails, most of them from the crust punk subculture.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:22 PM on February 11, 2015

The people who used certain technologies developed their own culture... what has happened to the steam train engineers, vacuum tube designers, telegraph key operators, and so on, now that their technology is no longer in common use? There are still some letter press operators, but not so many, now that we use electronic publishing.

(A third-generation AT&T employee once told me that the cables on a telephone switchboard were insulated with woven cotton. There was a species of flea that took up residence in the cotton insulation. Long-time switchboard operators developed a bracelet of flea bites on their wrists. Who documents things like this?)
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:58 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sign Painters! Typography used to be an art that required a very steady hand.

People that fix their own cars. It's rare to find someone who changes the oil in their own car today. Cars have gotten more computerized and technologically advanced, society doesn't necessary value the "working with your hands" skills as much as it used to.

Potluck dinners. Homemade treats at school for birthdays.
posted by Ostara at 9:56 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not strictly U.S. culture, but the Hutterites don't have quite as many reality shows as the Amish.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:38 AM on February 12, 2015

Cursive writing
posted by Room 641-A at 5:42 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Belatedly: small town subcultures. I've got family in small towns in the Midwest and Appalachia, and my sense is that the norms, practices, and attitudes that shaped these small, often distinctive places are fading away.

This may not be what you're after, but this is also true of small, college town subcultures: like soap bubbles, they form quickly, but then disappear just as quickly when central people, institutions, businesses, etc. leave or close up.

Also, bridge clubs (and probably lots of other little neighborhood-level organizations, too).
posted by mr_deerheart at 10:37 PM on February 14, 2015

Saving up huge amounts of loose change.

I thought of this as I tossed a few pennies in my small change jar. I've never had the patience to fill up the five-gallon water bottles, but I realized that I use cash money so rarely now that the change jar has been hovering at a few dollars for a really, really long time. I guess in the future Grandpa Joe will pull a Bitcoin from behind your ear.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:24 PM on February 22, 2015

Yale's Grammatical Diversity Project may interest the morphologists & syntacticians. It may also excite map fans.
posted by knile at 3:42 PM on May 8, 2015

Slightly farther afield, the Rarámuri or Tarahumara people "are a Native American people of northwestern Mexico who are renowned for their long-distance running ability... Originally inhabitants of much of the state of Chihuahua, the Rarámuri retreated to the high sierras and canyons such as the Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Occidental on the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The area of the Sierra Madre Occidental which they now inhabit is often called the Sierra Tarahumara because of their presence.

Current estimates put the population of the Rarámuri in 2006 at between 50,000 and 70,000 people. Most still practice a traditional lifestyle, inhabiting natural shelters such as caves or cliff overhangs, as well as small cabins of wood or stone. Staple crops are corn and beans; however, many of the Rarámuri still practice transhumance, raising cattle, sheep, and goats. Almost all Rarámuri migrate in some form or another in the course of the year.

The Tarahumara language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family. Although it is in decline under pressure from Spanish, it is still widely spoken."
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:10 PM on May 10, 2015

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