Share Button

Spread across four continents, shaped by similar geography, socioeconomic conditions and hard-fought tragic wars live five communities to be christened the Global Highlanders; nations-within-nations, often misunderstood yet remarkably influential, these enigmatic peoples have guided the paths of their respective countries from below rather than above for centuries.

Within the Global Highlander nations reside a people who are intensely religious yet undeniably vibrant and animated, and whose proven martial abilities have been honed by eons of emphasis on individual prowess and courage, along with competitions of skill. Those who find themselves as leaders of these communities have done so by aggressively proving themselves to their followers over and over by “leading from the front”, often on the battlefield. When Global Highlander communities do migrate, they do so more as roaming nomads than profit-focused imperialists, and frequently welcome newcomers of all backgrounds, so long as they assimilate while in the respective regions. This indifference to class and background is only matched by their passion for soulful music and vivid storytelling, producing such works as “Copperhead Road” and the famed Brazilian novel Grande Sertão: Veredas.


The Anglo-Nepalese War

Nevertheless, the relatively unchanging lifestyle of the Global Highlands has had drawbacks. The fierce independence and geographic isolation of many of the Highlander communities resulted in their regions habitually being cut off from full participation in the global economy and left behind from the educational advancements of their more cosmopolitan neighbors. This ironically compounded their misfortune, as each community experienced a terrible war to haunt their cultural memory, in which the superior technology of outsiders bested the tactical skills,  brawn and determination of the simple backland soldiers. These memories often turned to resentment, creating a vicious cycle where education, collective action/unions and participation in a global community were seen as characteristics of the more technologically advanced interlopers. These resulting cultural and psychological barriers to educational, infrastructure and technological advancement continue as challenges for many Global Highlander communities into the modern day.

There can be no doubt that through the comedies and tragedies of the Global Highlanders, these peoples have been instrumental in shaping the militaries, music, art and frequently the very fabric of their respective countries. From the Sertanejos’ War of Canudos which molded the cultural and economic psyche of Brazil, to the Appalachian’s enshrinement of marksmanship and personal self-defense becoming integrated into the national Constitution of the United States in its 2nd Amendment, the Global Highlanders continue to play vital roles within their nations that is impossible to ignore.


Appalachians of the United States

While the names are colorful and numerous that describe the Highlander community of the United States, the best and most neutral term, coined from anthropologist Colin Woodward, are Greater Appalachians or simply Appalachians. Primarily descended from the Scots-Irish from the Ulster province, their soldiers formed the decisive Pennsylvania Line during the American Revolution and forged the villages and culture of the backcountry stretching from West Virginia to northeast Texas. Contrary to popular belief, large numbers of Appalachians fought on both sides of the Civil War, but were ultimately “adopted” in an iniquitous and uneven cultural alliance with the elite coastal planter class that exploited racial differences between impoverished Appalachian Whites and newly-freed African-Americans so as to keep the two groups from uniting in a shared economic struggle.

The tension of being adopted into the same cultural “team” as the wealthy plantation elites while still being considered unequal to the planter class themselves has been a running hallmark within Appalachian history and literature since the end of the Civil War. The “official” accounts of the war were expeditiously rewritten by the planter class in the Deep South to devise a Lost Cause ideal that never truly existed in history. Simultaneously, a number of Appalachian leaders and activists saw through the planter veneer and attempted to agitate for better social and economic conditions, often alongside their poor African-American, Indigenous and Latino neighbors. These social movements were met with mixed success in the postwar South.

The Lost Cause narrative served two insidious purposes. First, it allied Appalachians with their own economic and political exploiters. Second, it encouraged reform-minded activists of the “Yankeedom” region to write off Greater Appalachia for social and community organizing, or to outreach in a condescending and culturally imperialistic way. This legacy is still visible today in the U.S. presidential elections, where coastal pundits and magazines openly mock Appalachia instead of empathizing with and including the region in progressive economic policies, while Donald Trump plays the angle of lost cultural pride combined with promise of an economic turnaround to ignite broad support among the Greater Appalachian community.


Sertanejos of Brazil

The people of the Sertão, whose fierce conflict with government forces at the town of Canudos during the advent of the 20th Century was enshrined in the book Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), has become emblazoned into the national consciousness of Brazil. Shortly after the nation’s founding, the people of the backlands were mostly forgotten or scorned by the majority coastal population; life in the Sertão was rough and violent, dominated by competing planter interests. Nevertheless, it developed its own distinct culture, musical style, and outlook that continues to shape the essence of Brazil.

From the first years of European development in the 16th Century, even the elites of the Sertão region and Bahía state had a stronger streak of independence than those in the major coastal metropolitan cities. Sugarcane became the dominant economic driver, with plantation owners depending on, and often playing off, the commoner Sertanejos who possessed much needed skills. Upon the abolition of the monarchy, a military force was sent to crush a religious-inspired independence movement in Bahía state. This conflict, known as the War of Canudos, had all the characteristics of a pivotal Highlander lost-war. The aggressing forces, needlessly underestimating their opponent, were promptly routed in many of the opening battles, only achieving victory with overwhelming numbers and superior technology. This conflict continues to play into the consciousness of many Brazilians, as questions of economic inequality, independence and the nature of justice are at the forefront a national constitutional crisis.


Afrikaners of South Africa

A people of prolonged tragedies, unholy victories, and a recent rebirth to forge a brighter future, the turbulent history of the Afrikaans-speaking people of South Africa is a captivating saga. Their story began as a diverse assemblage of individuals brought to work a refueling station for Dutch East India Company ships, with the motley crew of the Cape Colony known as Burghers or Cape Dutch. At this stage the settlement resembled more a rowdy pirate haven or small boomtown in the American West than the developed colonial capitals of Batavia or Havana. Laws were enforced sporadically, protests and brawls were common, and interracial relations were ubiquitous. By the time of the British invasion and conquest of the Cape Colony in 1795, most of the inhabitants of all classes were in the process of gradual assimilation into a dominant “frontier Dutch” culture, complete with distinct words and phrases, localized economic practices and a fluid social hierarchy involving Company representatives, Burgers and Boers, servants, slaves and indigenous Khoisan tribesmen. The first thirty years of the newly-British rule inflamed tensions in the predominantly Dutch-inspired Cape, sparking the Great Trek east across the veld and the subsequent formation of two Boer republics in the 1850s.

The following decades saw the discovery of diamonds in Kimberly and gold in Witwatersrand, precipitating British initiatives to annex the Orange Free State and Transvaal into the Empire. Skirmishes between Boer and British inhabitants of South Africa escalated until war was formally declared in 1899. The drawn-out guerilla campaigns of the Anglo-Boer War, coupled with the scorched-earth tactics and concentration camps used against Afrikaner fighters by the British resulted in a cultural regrouping among Afrikaners when the new Union of South Africa was established. Through Broederbond-led agitation of working class Afrikaners and promotion of the idea of “volkskapitalisme”, the 1948 elections put the Afrikaner-dominated National Party in power. Determined to solidify control in South Africa that was previously lost after the defeat in the Boer War, the National Party instituted a system of racial separation and disenfranchisement known as Apartheid.

It was not even twenty years after the implementation of Apartheid that voices from the bottom to the top of the Afrikaans-speaking establishment began loudly criticizing its immorality and unsustainability. While growing internal dissent and international sanctions further pressured the National Party’s regime, the violence following the fall of Rhodesia combined with U.S. support of the regime’s anticommunist stance extended the lifeline of Apartheid into the 1980s. However, by the time of F.W. de Klerk’s presidency the support for Apartheid was in free-fall, and the 1992 white-only referendum reaffirmed commitment to the negotiations working on ending the oppressive Apartheid institution. Two years following the referendum, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s president in the country’s first multiracial election

The legacy of the Great Trek, the Anglo-Boer War and the Apartheid years begot a conflicted and emotion-filled history for the post-1994 Afrikaner community. The political and socioeconomic roller-coaster beginning with a group of farmers and company assistants who achieved nationhood in Africa, only to be defeated and interned at the hands of the British, then to re-ascend to power at the cost of becoming the oppressor instead of the oppressed, and finally seeing that power given up to ensure a fairer and more just South Africa has now arrived at a crossroads that will shape Afrikaner identity for decades to come.


Chhetri of Nepal

The only Highlander people to maintain stable control of their own region’s national government for an extended time, Chhetri influence in Nepal was expanded in the last three hundred years due to their ties to the Shah and Rana dynasties. As Nepal is near-completely mountainous, it is not surprising that a warrior caste and Highlander people were able to dominate the central government for such a lengthy period. Upon the defeat of the Gorkha kingdom in the Anglo-Nepalese war, the combat proficiency of the Chhetri was recognized by the British and thousands of Chhetri men have been incorporated into the British Army as Gurkha regiments from 1816 into the present day.

Following Nepal’s independence from the British, the Chhetri-influenced government had remarkable similarities to those of the most famous Highlander/Appalachian President of the United States, Andrew Jackson. A civil service spoils system was implemented, and until recently many posts in the civil service, army and police were held by members of the Chhetri caste. While this group maintained political power until 2008, the matters of economic development and comprehensive, universal access to education continued to pose challenges for the Chhetri during their period of governance.


Degar/Montagnards of Vietnam

The Degar, also known by the French word Montagnard or “mountaineer” are the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Throughout Vietnam’s history, the Degar found themselves caught between the influence of the Kinh majority on the central coast and northern regions and the Cham to the west. The loose boundaries around the Degar homelands were further enclosed by the Kinh Vietnamese’s Nam Tiến campaigns, translated as “southward advance” from the 11th to 18th centuries. During these campaigns, the word Mọi or “savage” was used to describe the Degar communities by the lowland inhabitants, and much of the Central Highlands region was shunned for both outreach and development by the Vietnamese imperial dynasties, with contact mainly restricted to occasions when the lowland Vietnamese moved to make war. This constant neglect punctuated by open hostility from the Kinh majority led them to side with both French and U.S. forces against their more hostile neighbors closer to home at the onset of the wars in Indochina.

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the communist government in Hanoi secured control over the whole of the country and launched purges and persecutions of those believed to be opposed to their rule, including the Degar. This crackdown forced many to become refugees and produced a small but growing diaspora outside of Vietnam, most notably in Greensboro, North Carolina. Unfortunately, costs and processing times for Degar asylum-seekers remain steep, with refugee resettlement persisting as a primary issue within Degar communities both in Vietnam and abroad.