Professor speaks of journey to Tangier Island tonight

Tyler Prochazka

There is one pocket of the United States that is almost trapped in time, isolated from the rest of America, without a McDonalds or Walmart. Very few know of its existence.

Katherine Pennavaria, the coordinator of WKU’s visual and performing arts library, will attempt to change that by discussing her own experience on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The presentation will be Thursday at 7 p.m. in Barnes and Noble.

Pennavaria discovered Tangier by watching a documentary that included the island in the 80s. However, she was not able to actually visit the island until a couple of years ago.


“It has been 25 years before I was able to make a trip there,” she said.

Year-round residents of the island have been there for hundreds of years and have created a unique culture, Pennavaria said.

“I think they make an interesting contribution to the diversity of American culture. They are Americans whose ancestors have been here longer than other’s ancestors who have been here,” Pennavaria said.

Brian Coutts, WKU’s head of library services, said he decided to ask Pennavaria to share this story after she told the library staff last year.

“We thought it was so fascinating we asked her to share her story with a larger audience,” Coutts said.

Some of the unique aspects of the culture is their deep devotion to their religion and the emphasis on crab fishing in the economy.

One of the main elements that interested Pennavaria was the unique accent of the island, which sounds as if residents are from England, not America.

“The preservation of the accent is directly related to the isolation of the island,” Pennavaria said.

Despite her desire to hear the accent, Pennavaria did not actually hear it spoken during most of her stay on the island.

“I realized I was not going to hear it because I was not speaking with natives who were in the crab fishing trade,” she said.

After an entire day of staying on the island, she finally heard a maid speak to her in the accent.

“Just an hour before I left I heard someone speak in that accent,” Pennavaria said. “It was the oddest sounding accent I’ve heard in the United States.”

When making the trip to Tangier, there is only one ferry available and it takes 45 minutes to get there from shore. Once there, tourists must wait at least 24 hours for the next ferry to get off the island.

“It was not an easy thing to arrange,” Pennavaria said.

In addition to having almost no cars on the island, one distinct feature Pennavaria did notice was a huge population of cats.

“Every street and every yard has hundreds of cats,” Pennavaria said.

However, with the introduction of the internet onto the island, some of the younger population have begun to leave the island altogether.

“There is not a lot of options for employment there and the internet lets them know what they are missing,” Pennavaria said.

One other change on the island has been the influx of tourists during certain periods throughout the year who come to see the residents’ unique lifestyle, temporarily expanding the otherwise small population of 500 year-round residents.

People from Virginia and Maryland come to the island during the tourist season to help run the businesses for tourists, Pennavaria said.

“There are far more people on the island during the height of the tourist season,” Pennavaria said.

Even with these changes, the residents of Tangier Island are intent on not allowing their way of life to change any time soon.

“They don’t want the tourism to change the traditions the tourists came to see,” Pennavaria said.

Beyond the cultural challenges, Tangier is also dealing with dwindling space. Pennavaria said erosion of the land has caused water to creep further onto shore.

Something as simple as burying the dead is complicated by the limited land and by the fact that the island is only three to four feet above sea level, forcing residents to bury their loved ones on their own property.

“You can’t really bury and not expect graveyards to be flooded,” Pennavria said.

In spite of this, Pennavaria said residents are determined to continue to preserve their way of life.

“I think for the people who are there they are going to stay there as long as they can,” Pennavaria said.