Speaker gives WKU a look at a disappearing island

Aaron Mudd

When Katherine Pennavaria visted Tangier Island a few years ago she first thought she found a paradise.
“There’s no real street crime,” Pennavaria said. “Well there’s no real streets.”
The small streets on the island look like bicycle paths compared to standard streets. The island itself is only six-and-a-half miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide and shrinking because of water erosion.
“It is a unique part of America,” she said. “And it is disappearing.”
Pennavaria, an associate professor at WKU, spoke at Barnes & Noble Thursday evening about her visit to Tangier Island. The presentation is part of a continuing series sponsored by the WKU Libraries called “Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names”. Brian Coutts, head of public services, said the series is in its fourteenth year.
“We do six or seven events a year,” Coutts said.
The island sits just four feet above sea level, and it’s home to between 450 and 500 permanent residents.
Tangier’s residents have developed a unique way of life because of the island’s isolated location in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The island lacks many things that are normally found in an American city including jails, police stations, fast food, Wal-Marts or large vehicles.
“You don’t even really feel like you’re in America,” Pennavaria said. “There’s nothing there that reminds you of what country you’re in.”
Buying or selling alcohol on the island is illegal. Pennavaria said that if someone brought alcohol and gave it to local kids they would probably be asked to leave the island. However, Pennavaria said that leniency is given to tourists who bring alcohol with them for personal use.
The resident’s religious faith is something very important to them.
“The people on Tangier island are very conservative religiously,” she said. “They were approached, offered a lot of money, to host a film crew and have a film done on the island, and they refused because the script had immoral things in it.”
Pennavaria was inspired to visit the island when she watched a documentary that featured the local accent.
“I made up my mind right then and there I had to go there someday and hear it for myself,” she said. “It wasn’t until the very last hour on Tangier Island I finally actually heard one of the natives speak.”
Most of the men make their living as “Watermen,” the local name for fishermen, and “Crabbers.” Most women work in restaurants, as teachers, post office workers or cleaners.
Crab is very important to Tangier island, and it has been called the soft-shelled crab capital of America,
Pennavaria said.
“Being in a Tangier Island restaurant is like being in that Monty Python spam skit,” she said. “It’s crab, crab, crab and crab.”
Space on the island is limited, and it is only four feet above sea level. This has caused residents to adopt a unique burial practice.
“Most of the cemeteries are in people’s yards,” Pennavaria said. “They’ve always done it this way.”
After her presentation, Pennavaria took questions from the audience and students received prizes for coming.
Ryan Dowell, a 23-year-old WKU alumni, was one the people in the audience to win a T-Shirt. Dowell designs promotional fliers for the Far Away Places series.
“I’ve been doing the fliers for a year or two now,” he said.
Bowling Green junior Celeste Jackson came to the event because of her interest in Tangier island.
“I’ve been there once or twice and my interest was piqued,” Jackson said. “It definitely looks like a project for folk studies.”