white communities that fit the low-tech subsistence farmer stereotype?
August 29, 2017 2:43 AM   Subscribe

You've seen this movie opening: a jeep full of white explorers, missionaries, etc. bounces along a dirt road, heralded by a pack of kids running alongside. As the jeep pulls into the village, the inhabitants put aside their work to greet our heroes. They were engaged in handicrafts, food preparation, herding, or subsistence farming. Maybe even hunting and gathering. Electricity and fossil fuels are not unknown, but draft animals and human muscle are a major part of the energy supply. They are a simple, hard-working, joyful people. Possibly with a problem only our heroes can solve. They are invariably people of color. Are there any remaining communities where this scene could plausibly be filmed with white people?

By plausibly, I mean not necessarily that it would be realistic, but that a theatre audience in the U.S. would be able to suspend disbelief.

The closest candidates I can think of are rural Appalachia and the Amish/Mennonite/Hutterite crowd. Neither quite fits. Appalachia has white people doing subsistence farming, but nowadays I associate it more with opioid abuse and dependence on state benefits. And the Amish/Mennonite/Hutterite crowd has a degree of prosperity and selective adoption of modern technology (e.g., their dairy barns are fully modern), which doesn't quite fit either.

This question comes out of a discussion where someone claimed that due to the unequal pace of development around the globe, we are passing through a time when all the remaining communities with this sort of lifestyle are inhabited by people of color.
posted by d. z. wang to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, much of Central Europe has areas that are still very low technology but are tightly knit. It's important to remember what is organised "for the camera" and what exists when "the director is not present".
posted by parmanparman at 3:10 AM on August 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I could suspend my disbelief if this was a long-established "planned community" or commune, started by white hippies in the 1960s and now in its second and third generation.
posted by cilantro at 3:13 AM on August 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

Maybe Roma villages in Bulgaria or Romania?
posted by fluttering hellfire at 3:20 AM on August 29, 2017

Historically, one of the prerequisites for earning "whiteness" -- not the only one by a long shot, but one of them -- has been entering the mainstream economy as workers and giving up ethnically distinctive livelihoods, which include herding animals or gathering in a traditional way in a specific region, or farming a traditional crop with traditional methods on traditionally-held land.

Which means that there may be groups who would count as examples of this, but who have been excluded from whiteness on even-more-arbitrary-than-normal grounds.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:30 AM on August 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

(For instance, I'd argue that those Sami people who still herd reindeer should count. Then someone might object that they don't see Sami people as white. But one of the reasons that Sami people can be read as nonwhite is that a decent number of them still practice an "indigenous" herding way of life, unlike Finnish people whose whiteness is more secure in part because we associate them with "modern" city life.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:37 AM on August 29, 2017 [14 favorites]

They were engaged in handicrafts, food preparation, herding, or subsistence farming. Maybe even hunting and gathering.

I had basically two thoughts on reading this: One, if you want things that traditionalist, you need to look at where white people are actually something like native, which means Europe, not the US. And two, you're being selective yourself: why is some use of fossil fuels and electricity okay but dairy equipment isn't? Why that particular list of traditional industries but not others? My first thought for the setting for this sort of scene with white people would be some kind of remote European fishing village, possibly something on an island that would involve arriving on a boat instead of a Jeep.

I mean, there's a pretty good chance that those Africans have cell phones, even if they aren't actually waving them around during that particular camera shot.
posted by Sequence at 6:42 AM on August 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

As others have pointed out, even those people in Africa aren't as "untouched by civilization" as the documentaries would want you to believe.

But, if you want an example of a community whose experiences and interests are more aligned with other indigenous people worldwide, yet would read as "white" to American audiences, I think the Sami people of Northern Scandinavia/Finland definitely would qualify.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:08 AM on August 29, 2017

Frankly, there are areas in Belgium that are so poor that I could suspend my disbelief.
posted by 256 at 12:19 PM on August 29, 2017

There are a number of communes in the midwest that are pretty remote, often (deliberately) somewhat off the grid, relatively small tight-knit communities, and spend most of their time on more or less subsistence activities like farming. So, not exactly what you outline but pretty close as a deliberate choice.

Just for example, a recent newspaper article about a small commune in the Ozarks.

Another possibility are communities dominated by polygamous sects in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, etc. Example. They deliberately choose to live in remote areas and somewhat or completely off the grid. They probably won't have flocks of kids running down to meet your jeep, however, as most typically part of their objective is to avoid contact with outsiders.

I would say that there were tons of these types of isolated communities across the Great Plains & western U.S. say 100-200 years ago. My own family history is rife with examples of situations like "son's head was run over by a wagon wheel and we're 18 hours by wagon away from the nearest doctor, so dad said a prayer, squashed his skull back more-or-less into shape, mom wrapped it up, and he spent the next 3 months in bed recovering. And his head had a slightly peaked shape from that day forward."*

But through the mid 1990s paved roads were built pretty much everywhere throughout the U.S., so that even the most remote outpost tends to be just a few hours drive from major metro areas (or at least areas big enough to have a hospital, etc). So in looking for these types of places you are probably mostly looking at countries that don't have that type of infrastructure development yet.

*And no, I am totally NOT making this up. Family history has literally hundreds of this type of story. The stated point of these stories is usually "faith and prayers carried us through" but my takeaway is they were typically living in a place so remote from trained medical care and basic supplies that faith, prayers, and their own resourcefulness were their only available options. It's a wonder that any of them survived at all, really.
posted by flug at 3:50 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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