The Importance of the Melungeon Community to Turkish-American Relations
by David Arnett
June 9, 2006
I would like to begin by expressing heartfelt greetings to all of you from the great people of Turkey. I am a proud American, of course, and a career Foreign Service Officer of the United States, but I have also spent nine years of my life in Turkey, and I know the tremendous affection that Turks feel in their hearts for all of you. In fact, Turks are much more likely than Americans to know about you, the Melungeons, or Meluncanlar in Turkish.
Of course, not all Melungeons trace their roots to Turkey. We come from many ethnic backgrounds, but I promise you that the Turks embrace you all, just on the chance that some part of your genetic makeup may also be Turkish or perhaps traced to one of the areas that was a part of the Ottoman Empire.
One of the most heart-warming aspects of the Turkish character and tradition is the love of family. Another is the extraordinary sense of hospitality. When these two are combined—family and hospitality—you can begin to understand why Melungeons receive such a warm welcome in Turkey. That welcome is very similar to what you will find in Tennessee, or in my father’s home state, Kentucky, when relatives, kinfolk, return to their homes. Nothing is too good for such visitors. The best food is served, the best china is used, and the host will sleep on the floor if he has to so that his guests can have the most comfortable bed. In Turkey, the poorest villager will offer whatever he has to a visiting stranger, particularly a foreigner, out of a time-honored sense of hospitality and honor.
That sense of honor also still links the Turks with the Melungeons and the people of Appalachia. As a former Army officer, I learned to esteem the ideals of “Duty, Honor, Country.” They are still the highest ideals in the Armed Services of both the United States and Turkey, and I believe that they are still most alive in the general population in this region of the country, where the Melungeons are most prevalent. Of course, a noble sense of honor can sometimes evolve into something destructive, such as with the blood feuds that still existed in my grandfather’s day in Kentucky and still exist today in some of the remote parts of eastern Turkey. The phrase in Turkish is almost the same—“kandavasi” or a “blood matter.”
But a genuine sense of honor is to be admired, and honor and pride are both alive and well today in Turkey. Where we have only one word for honor, there are many such words in Turkish, and those same words are also used for people’s names. Certainly for me, it has been an honor to live and work in Turkey, and an honor also to be among you today.
I have served in Turkey three times, from 1983 to 1987 as the Press Attache at the American Embassy in Ankara, the capital of Turkey; from 1995 to 1997 as the Counselor for Public Affairs at the Embassy in Ankara; and from 2002 to 2005 as the Consul General, or the head of the American Consulate, in Turkey’s largest city and the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul.
I would like to tell you a little story, a true story, about my introduction to Turkey and the strong connection that I have felt to the country from the very beginning. It happened in 1983, when I first arrived in Ankara. On my first night in the city, I stepped out on to the balcony of my high-rise apartment and looked out at the lights of the city twinkling within the bowl-shaped area in which it lies and up in the surrounding hills. It was a beautiful evening, and, when I lifted my eyes from the city lights to look at the early night sky, I was truly surprised to see in perfect clarity the crescent moon and a single star that lay just to the side of it. That crescent and that star on a field of red comprise the Turkish flag, and I had thought that they were only symbolic. But there in the sky above me lay that same crescent moon and star together, and I had the feeling that I was being welcomed home somehow, that the country’s flag had been planted above me somehow as a sign of welcome and return. I never again saw the moon and star aligned so perfectly.
I had not heard of Melungeons at that time, and I had no idea at all that I might also trace my roots to Turkey. It was during my second tour in Turkey, in 1995 or 1996, when I first began to hear a fascinating legend about the crew of a Turkish ship that had found itself on the eastern coast of the United States centuries before and had worked its way inland and settled in the broad Appalachian region. I have heard two versions, (1) that the ship foundered off the coast, and (2) that the ship was captured by the British from the Spaniards after the battle of Lepanto and brought to the New World. In any case, I found the story interesting, but I did not focus on it, because I thought that it had no direct bearing on me. I was pleased, though, as an American diplomat stationed in Turkey, to learn that Americans with possible Turkish heritage were coming to Turkey and being very warmly received.
In 2004, in Istanbul, I was invited by the Turkish-American University Association to attend a lecture on Melungeons, and I was fascinated to learn that one of the families associated with the Melungeons is the Crow family, since my father’s mother was a Crow. I then remembered that my father’s father was rather dark-skinned with blue eyes and that both of them came from southern Kentucky. My father was born, in fact, within a hundred yards or so of the Tennessee border. The photographs that I have of my grandfather show a man who could easily be Turkish.
In 2005, with that information in hand, I began to mention to my Turkish friends that it might even be possible that I too shared in their Turkish heritage. I mentioned this also in an early farewell speech and said that although I could not be at all sure that I had Turkish blood in my veins, I would definitely carry Turkey always in my heart. The next day, the possibility that I might be partly Turkish was carried on the front pages of the national press and on the television news channels. Given the huge interest that had been generated by the media, I arranged to have a DNA test conducted through the labs in Oxford, England. To my great pleasure, the results indicated that I share my genes on my father’s side with a full 25% of the Turks. And that is in part why I stand before you today.
The other reason is to emphasize the very great importance of Turkish-American relations and the role that the Melungeon community can play in strengthening and improving those relations.
Turkey is important to the United States. Like the United States, Turkey is a remarkable melting pot of civilizations and cultures. It lies at the heart of nearly every regional issue of concern to the United States. Whether one discusses current events in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, or Europe itself, Turkey is an important key to both regional and world stability. Turkey and Israel have long been the only real democracies in the Middle East region. And Turkey’s ties to Israel are important factors in the search for lasting peace in the region.
The United States strongly supports Turkey’s entry into the European Union, and we view its success as a secular democracy as an essential element in the prevention of any potential “clash of civilizations.” Turkey is one of our strongest and most reliable NATO allies. It is the only Muslim-majority country in NATO. We can boast of over fifty years as NATO allies and as many years of joining hands around the world to bring peace and security to troubled regions. We used to say: “From Korea to Kosovo.” Now we say: “From Korea to Kabul.” Add to that two centuries of commercial interaction and a century and a half of educational exchange, and our countries are linked as allies, trading partners, and friends.
The primary focus of American policy in Turkey is to support Turkey’s efforts to achieve the ambitious economic and political goals that the Turkish people have set for themselves. By becoming an official candidate for membership in the European Union, Turkey has signaled strongly that its place is in Europe. Just as important, all Turkish citizens will benefit from an open, transparent, democratic system that respects their individual rights and freedoms. Turks are justifiably proud of what they have achieved over the past few years, and the United States will continue to support the process of reform.
Inflation in Turkey is lower than it has been in a generation, and real interest rates have declined sharply. Turkish companies are exporting at record levels. Total annual trade between the United States and Turkey is at a level of some 9 billion dollars.
With nearly 12,000 Turkish students enrolled in U.S. universities, Turkey sends more students to the U.S. than any other European country. Turkish students are currently enrolled in all fifty U.S. states.
We are also engaged together in many places around the world to achieve solutions to regional conflicts. Turkey’s role in Afghanistan is a case in point. Turkey has successfully commanded the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul twice, and participated in the initial training of the Afghan National Army. Turkey is an important donor for reconstruction. The inauguration of the Kabul-Kandahar highway, built by U.S. and Turkish companies, is a good example of our common approach.
Turkey can certainly serve as an example of a country with a large Muslim-majority population that is also democratic and secular. We refrain from saying that Turkey is a model, but rather an example, because it has its own unique history and a founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. We also do not speak of our own country, the United States of America, the oldest continuous democracy in the world, as a model for the rest of the world, because we have our own unique history. There is no perfect democracy, because people are not perfect. But the genius of democracy is that it accepts that people are not perfect and provides for peaceful change.
The U.S. and Turkey have worked together closely to address our various interests over the Iraq issue. Turkey has legitimate regional security concerns, and we have sought to address them. We have repeated very often that we stand firm on maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq, that we are opposed to a separate Kurdish state, and that our vision is of an Iraq where all ethnic groups, the Turkomen certainly among them, will have their rights, representation and access to the nation’s wealth protected.
On June 12, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a message to the City of Istanbul at the opening ceremony for our new Consulate there. These are his words: “The United States and Turkey are great nations. As Ataturk said, we have both been inspired by democratic ideals, and this experience indeed deepens our friendship. Both Turks and Americans are focused on the future, a future that will be a very bright one for the Turkish people despite the many challenges you face today. It will be bright for the same reason that my country’s future is bright: because innovative people freed to use their creativity and initiative can produce wonders.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans visit Turkey every year. At the Consulate General in Istanbul alone, we processed more than 65,000 visas for Turkish citizens each year, and many thousands of Americans have made Turkey their permanent home. Turkey is a beautiful country with spectacular tourism sites, enviable weather, great cuisine, and people whose hospitality is known throughout the world.
We want the great and sovereign Republic of Turkey to remain exactly what it is—a strong secular democracy that is perfecting the democratic rights of its people and moving ever closer to full integration with Europe.
Just as the Ottoman Empire once extended from Central Europe through the Middle East and North Africa to the Arabian Gulf and the very borders of South Asia, Turkey today forms a bridge between Europe and Asia, a bridge between the ancient and modern worlds, and a bridge between Islam and the West. It is also one of the most beautiful and interesting countries in the world.
So, what problems could possibly exist between us? Unfortunately, there are some. Most of them began with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Our government believed that the Turkish Parliament would approve the movement of our 4th Infantry Division and Turkish troops through southern Turkey and into northern Iraq as a major part of the battle plan. In fact, both governments expected approval, and so did both militaries. However, on March 1, 2003, despite the yes votes outnumbering the no votes, the small number of abstentions meant that the motion to approve did not have the support of a majority in the Parliament that day. In fact, Turkey did approve the dispatch of many thousands of troops to Iraq on October 7 of that year, but that offer was eventually declined because of the opposition of many in Iraq itself.
The March 1 decision came as a shock and disappointment to many in Washington. Although our relations later improved, they have not been as close as before. Today, there are other concerns in Washington, focusing on high-level Turkish contacts with Syria and Hamas, at a time when unified world opposition to their activities in Lebanon and Palestine has been sought, and there are questions about Turkish policy in regard to Iran.
On the Turkish side, the fears that led to the rejection of the March 1 motion never materialized. There was no influx of Iraqi refugees into Turkey. The Turkish tourism industry and the Turkish economy as a whole have boomed since that time, although it was feared that both would be badly damaged.
However, on July 4, 2003, an event occurred that poisoned the relationship on the Turkish side. A small contingent of Turkish soldiers in the northern Iraq city of Sulaimaniye was arrested by American troops who were acting on reports that they were planning destabilizing actions in the region. As is customary with such arrests, they were handcuffed and bags were placed over their heads while they were transported to American facilities. Within a day or so, they were released, and high-level meetings were held between our two militaries in order to discuss the incident and avoid anything similar in the future.
That might have been the end of it, but reports were leaked to the Turkish media, and the entire country became inflamed by what was perceived to be a serious breach of Turkish honor. All of the polls in Turkey continue to confirm that the institution held in the greatest esteem by the Turkish people is the military. To dishonor the military is to dishonor the entire nation. To this day, many Turks believe that the Turkish uniform was dishonored that day, although their soldiers were actually in civilian clothes.
Nevertheless, that single incident has grown in the Turkish consciousness into a huge black mark against the United States. That has been coupled with a widely accepted but decidedly false belief that the United States supports the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which might tempt Turkish Kurds to demand their own state within the current boundaries of Turkey. That combination of beliefs has led to several popular books and films in the last year and a half in Turkey that have depicted the United States in very ugly terms and undermined the friendship between our two countries.
So, yes, there are some problems. And what does that mean for the Melungeon community, and how can we help?
There are at least two major points of convergence between Melungeons and the Turks. The first is the search for identity and a longing to belong to a wider community. The second, of course, is the genetic link in many of us and a shared physical heritage. I would like to explore both for a few minutes.
I believe it is true that nearly all of the world’s peoples are of mixed race and ethnic heritage. One of the differences with Melungeons is that we are well aware of that. And there is no doubt of that really with the people of the United States and Turkey. We are a land of immigrants, and modern Turkey is the heir of probably the greatest empire that the world has ever seen, the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed vast territories in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, and a great mixed population drawn from all of those areas.
We have generally celebrated our mixed ethnic heritage in the United States, but modern Turks have not yet done the same. Against all odds at the end of the First World War, the great Turkish general and statesman Ataturk, himself a man with blond hair and blue eyes from Salonika, rallied his countrymen from the heart of the Turkish homeland, Anatolia, and beat back the Western powers that had tried to divide the country with the Treaty of Sevres and defeated the various minority groups that tried to secede and establish separate countries on what remained of Turkey. With the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, Ataturk and his followers achieved their hard-fought independence and established the modern Republic of Turkey.
But it was held together by the will of Ataturk and a strong nationalism based upon pride in being a Turk. The most famous of so many revered statements by Ataturk is this: “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk.” Minorities have been viewed as threats that might fracture the unity of the new country. In addition, Ataturk disbanded the Caliphate, or the spiritual leadership of Islam that had been vested in the Sultan in Istanbul until 1923, and he also outlawed various religious orders in the country, in a successful attempt to steer Turkey toward the modern West and away from what he considered the backward ways of the traditional Arab world. He also championed the emancipation of women, Western dress, the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic, and a series of other reforms that thrust the country into the 20th century and headlong toward the West.
And today, 83 years later, there is a national identity crisis in Turkey that is also being played out in the political world, because the reforms certainly changed the shape and practice of the state, as well as the surface of Turkish life throughout the country, but they left several unresolved questions to this day. For example, if the country is truly secular, then why does the government regulate religious practice and expression? In a true democracy, should the military have the right to intervene in political affairs? Should the country really fear the differences expressed by minority groups as threats to national unity, or should it not embrace those differences as they enrich the wider society? These and many other similar questions are being debated in Turkey today as a government with Islamist roots faces a skeptical military establishment and resistance from the secular establishment.
As Turks struggle with their internal identity, they are also compelled to re-examine their external or international identity. Turks will point to the map to help people understand their strategic situation. For example, during the Cold War, they were surrounded by the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Warsaw Pact-member Bulgaria and NATO-ally but traditional rival Greece. The situation is better today, but relations are mixed with Russia, rather tense with Armenia, uncertain with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and still not warm with Greece. The current government of Turkey appears to believe that Islam can be the unifying force that will create good relations with its Arab and Persian neighbors, but history does not provide much support for that view, and the Arabs have not forgotten that they were ruled by the Turks for centuries. At the same time, whenever Turkey reaches out to regimes considered totalitarian or terrorist or both by the West, it risks losing the friendship of Europe and the United States.
The U.S. has long supported full Turkish membership in the European Union and continues to do so, in the strong belief that such membership will anchor Turkey firmly and finally in the West and complete Ataturk’s vision of a country with a strong secular, liberal democracy that can proudly take
The polls in Turkey used to indicate that nearly 70% of the population supported Turkish membership in the EU, but that support has been steadily declining as new opposition to their membership has arisen in Europe, while some conservative forces in Turkey fear the loss of their traditional privileges if Turkey should become a member of the EU.
At the moment then, there is both a personal and national search for identity taking place in Turkey, and a genuine longing, I believe, to find or to create a wider sense of community and belonging. And isn’t that what we are doing here today as well—searching for identity and creating a sense of community?
In their search, Turks embrace anyone with Turkish roots. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey reached out strongly and vigorously to the Turkic people of Central Asia in the newly independent states of Azerbaizan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. They expected that their ethnic connections would lead to enormous growth in trade and an economic windfall for Turkey. Indeed, many Turkish companies have done well in Central Asia, but the huge windfall never materialized.
Turkey has championed the Turkomen people in northern Iraq following the fall of Saddam, in part from a genuine sense of brotherhood, and in part because the Turkomen provide political leverage for Turkey in the Kurdish region of Iraq, a region that continues to haunt Turkish policy-makers.
The Turks have even claimed kinship with Native Americans, pointing to Turkish words in tribal languages, identical carpet designs, and other cultural and social similarities. And here, of course, we are back with Melungeons and the research of Brent Kennedy and many others. We do not have to speculate, as I have heard some Turks do, about a land bridge from Siberia and a crossing by Turkic peoples from Asia thousands of years ago, because there is a simpler and more convincing explanation known to all of us here—that Turks entered the country a few centuries ago from the east, not thousands of years ago from the north.
Just as Turks have reached out to other Turkic peoples around the world, they are indeed reaching out to you. What better way could there be to help mend the frayed edges of Turkish-American relations than to celebrate Turkish-Americans and welcome long lost relatives back to the ancestral fold?
The exact number of Turkish-Americans in the United States is not known. I have heard estimates ranging from 75,000 to 400,000. But that is before Melungeons are taken into account. There are some 100 Turkish-American Associations that I am aware of in the United States, and I believe that all of them would be very pleased to welcome any of you as members. The two largest federations are the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) and the Federation of Turkish American Associations, and both can be located easily through the Internet.
Most Americans, in fact, know very little about Turkey, and that is partly because until now there have been relatively few Turkish-Americans, as opposed to other much larger hyphenated American ethnic groups. There are no Turkish-Americans in our Congress, for example, although there is now a substantial Turkish caucus comprised of Members who are well aware of the importance of Turkish-American relations and the importance of Turkey to global peace, as well as the peaceful integration of Islamic traditions and the modern world.
Turkish-American organizations are backing the campaign of a Turkish-American running for Congress this fall in Maryland. I expect that there will be many more such candidates in the future. And I anticipate that many of you will be asked for your support in the future in regard to Turkish-American issues and concerns as word of the Melungeons and their numbers spreads in the American consciousness.
Regardless of your political beliefs, however, and regardless of whether you have any ancestral connection to Turkey, I hope that as many of you as possible will travel to that great country and experience the homecoming that will be offered to you as soon as you reveal that you are a Melungeon. Your very presence in Turkey and your interest in Turkish culture, history, and tradition can do wonders for the Turkish-American relationship.
Finally, I would like to say a few words about the genetic connection. In many cases, it is impossible to know exactly how or when other influences were added to our genetic makeup. In my own case, I thought that perhaps there would be indications that I had ancestors from the Mediterranean and even the eastern Mediterranean. But the DNA results came back with specific mention of Turkey. However, it is known that Turkic peoples also made their way as far north as Finland, and there appear to be similarities between Turkish and Finnish, particularly in sentence structure and grammar. That might help explain why my own DNA results also mention 20% Norwegian and a full 40% from the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, the Sami. Arnett is actually a Scottish name, and it seems reasonable that the Vikings of Scandinavia brought my own bloodline to Scotland along with the Turkish element. It is known that the Vikings visited Istanbul, or as it was known then Constantinople or, as it was known to the Vikings then, Miklegard. In fact, Viking mercenaries served the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople for over two centuries. Did Turks return with the Vikings on their ships up through the Black Sea and the rivers of Russia back to Scandinavia? Did some Vikings establish themselves in Turkey (Asia Minor) and return many years later? Or am I related to that substantial part of the Turkish population that came from Central or Eastern Europe perhaps, or another part of the Ottoman Empire? It is probably impossible to know, and I am simply content in the knowledge that my own mixed heritage includes a strong connection to modern Turkey.
For those of you with Turkish genes, I recommend strongly that you visit the modern Republic of Turkey and help solidify the important links between our two great countries. For those fellow Melungeons who do not have Turkish genes, I recommend that you also visit the modern Republic of Turkey and help solidify the links between our two great countries. Both groups will be rewarded by extraordinary beauty, unbelievable historical riches, fascinating archaeological discoveries, warm hospitality and friendship, unmatched cuisine, and the knowledge that you are playing an important role in bridging differences between cultures and religions and avoiding the threatened “clash of civilizations.”
The contacts and the friendships that you make will be lasting, and you personally can play an important role in strengthening and deepening Turkish-American relations. And you will know, as I know, that the Turks are perhaps the most warm-hearted and friendliest people in the world.
In closing, there is a Turkish proverb that I would like to bring to your attention. I think it speaks to us both as individuals and as nations. I quote: “Ayrilikla olumu cekmisler, ayrilik agir gelmis.” In English: “They weighed separation and death on the scales, and separation was found to be heavier.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the Melungeons are together here in Kingsport. We are bringing together the elements of our own lives and ending the separation that has been felt in our families. I can think of no other group that is better qualified to lead the way in helping all people and all nations lose their sense of separation. I am very proud to be among you. Thank you very much for your time and attention today.