Nation’s history behind your neighbor’s attitude

The man in the tighty-whities living on Morristown Pike, pointing a handgun at me and appearing more than a little frazzled that I disturbed him at dusk in his home asked me what I wanted.

There was a long pause.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m stubborn or because the good manners my parents insisted on trumped my flight response, but I actually engaged him in conversation. I told him I was canvassing.

Then I left — unharmed, you’ll be pleased to know.

Who we are can be traced back way further than our parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents. According to Colin Woodard, who wrote “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America,” our regional character was formed by immigrants of bygone centuries.

Southern Indiana felt the long reach of the Appalachian nation. These settlers were fiercely independent, prone to violence, distrustful of anyone outside their clan and hailed from Scotland and Ireland, where they lived subsistence lives of persecution.

They put no faith in accumulation of wealth, worked on an as-needed basis, placed a high premium on leisure and some lived off the land in an aboriginal way. Though mostly associated with the mountain states, their influence was far and wide. In Indiana, these Kentucky emigrants called themselves Hoosiers.

My guess is the Hoosier in the tighty-whities with the pistol pointed at me is a descendant of the Appalachian nation.

The Midlands regional nation is considered by Woodard to be the most prototypical American of all the 11 rival nations. The Midlands includes north-central Indiana in its large geographical and cultural swath.

The early Midlands, primarily Pennsylvania, was populated by tolerant middle class families. They were generally fleeing hardship and just wanted to be left in peace. William Penn set the tone for these Midlanders, emphasizing religious freedom and a pacifist mindset.

As this often German-speaking population spread west into North-Central Indiana via the National Road, they created a “center of moderation and tolerance, where people of many faiths and ethnicities lived side by side, largely minding their own business,” the book states.

This explains why I met so much resistance when I went door to door explaining the environmental, health and community degradation of large-scale industrialized livestock production, namely CAFOs and CFOs. My neighbors, who would be just as harmed as me by the expansion of one of these near our city, let a live-and-let-live attitude direct their lives, even at their own economic and personal peril.

Learning Woodard’s theory of the 11 nations makes it easier to understand why this mindset exists with such tenacity. Incidentally, the “mind your own business” attitude spills over even into the mundane, as waves or nods to passing cars and pedestrians generally don’t yield reciprocation.

This took some getting used to, as Southern ways are different. I hail from Alabama. Southern hospitality is a real thing. There are many negative remnants emanating from the Deep South nation, as Woodard is quick to point out. But kindness to strangers also prevails, and, for that, this Southern girl is forever grateful.

If you want to better understand Indiana north and south of U.S. 40; if you want to better understand why the United States has such striking differences within its borders; if you want to better understand yourself, I suggest reading “American Nations.”

The history is well-researched, and it provides a lot of food for thought.

Donna Steele of Greenfield is a member of a variety of community organizations aimed at bettering the city, including Greenfield Main Street and the Greenfield Coalition.