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Montani Erant Liberi.

Montani Semper Liberi

Mountaineers are always free.

I thought about this phrase as I ventured south, towards the gold dome that marks my state’s capitol. Mountaineers “are always” free. This phrase, which dominates the mindset of the state, has been free from scrutiny and universally adopted. Mountaineers have always been, are, and will be free, and it’s pointless to argue otherwise, at first thought. But as I drove through the serpentine valleys that wind through the bottom half of the state, I take issue with the concept of being perpetually free.

It’s been the eternal curse of the human experience that there has always been someone imposing their will upon another. We’re haunted by an inexplicable urge that a fraction of us feel to make another submit to their demands and way of life. Tyranny, luckily for Americans, is a foreign concept. Tyranny, a concept that was bucked by the forefathers of the constitution. And a concept that split the nation when half opted to continue a practice of the worst kind while the other half elected to destroy it. Also, and most recently, a concept that led to the decimation of a people and ravaged a continent. I viewed the memorial at the capitol with the names of brave West Virginians who paid the ultimate price to fight it. Mountaineers have always risen to fight tyranny in every form it’s ever morphed to take.

That is, until recent history. It is hard to say when.

A hundred years ago, families of native mountaineers mixed with immigrants of every nationality and people of every color to fight for fair wages and safe practices in mines. People stood side by side, sometimes in the face of extreme violence, to take a stand against a tyranny at home. Rich mine owners and out-of-state private security forces abused, evicted, beat, and killed the leaders of the movement. These leaders persevered and agitated and encouraged miners to seek a fair wage, to refuse to be shortchanged, and to work in, by the standard today, decent conditions. These people lived harder than any of us in 2021 can imagine. Yet, with a common ideal, they rallied to take a stand and demand to live on their own terms. Freedom was earned, gradually, as they fought for it.

These people, a century ago, fought until they received what they believed mountaineers should be entitled to. A fair wage, a place to live, life on their own terms, where they’d see their dreams and aspirations achieved with some hard work and luck. When did Mountaineers decide, seemingly statewide, that we would be fine with less?

Montani Semper Liberi. It reads almost like a guarantee, to “always be free”. It should come with a stipulation, a qualifier. Mountaineers are always free, only if they will fight for it.

Perhaps it’s death by a thousand cuts. How many times can one be called stupid, uneducated, backward, until they believe it? Apathy doesn’t take a state in a day. It takes a state by changing one mind to the next that things have always been this way. The state has always been poor. There is nothing here for young people. Education is lacking. Like a parasite, the indoctrination process infiltrates our communities, spreading despair. Our people believe they should always be poor. No one here has been smart. No opportunities exist for West Virginians. Why even try?

Through the century, our natural resources are ravaged by out-of-state capital and our people are left to pick up the mess once they moved away all the money. We stand there, empty handed, as we always have. Left to define ourselves by labor done for those who never cared about the freedom of mountaineers, just of the profit generated by them.

We don’t fight it, not anymore. It’s always been this way. Hasn’t it?

As we watch our classmates drop out, drugs run rampant through communities with grandmothers and grandfathers raising grandchildren, job prospects dry up, I ask again, are mountaineers always free?

Just as apathy takes a people a mind at a time, fighting to take them back will begin the same way. Until West Virginians decide they are no longer satisfied with the status quo, no longer satisfied with politicians who lecture from yachts about minimum wage, no longer satisfied with executives and job makers who undercut and leave stranded the people who made their organization great, will they be able to stand shoulder to shoulder like their ancestors did one hundred years ago. It takes many to make a change, to ask for a newer, better deal.

But maybe the fight is over, and we are beaten, left to make the most of a raw deal for those of us who remain here. So, I’ll ask again, are mountaineers always free?

Maybe it is time we adopted something more accurate for the times the state is in, for our collective apathy.

Montani Erant Liberi.

Mountaineers were free.

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