On Sunday, June 20, West Virginia will celebrate the anniversary of its statehood. With its official motto “Montani Semper Liberi” (“Mountaineers are Always Free”), it’s little surprise that the Mountaineer was selected as West Virginia University’s official mascot. But the Mountaineer’s popularity goes beyond WVU; author Rosemary Hathaway notes in her introduction that “West Virginians identified with the Mountaineer in ways that went well beyond sports fandom.” But despite the Mountaineer’s continued popularity among fans, his image has not remained static throughout the years. In Mountaineers Are Always Free: Heritage, Dissent, and a West Virginia Icon, Hathaway discusses in depth the evolution of the Mountaineer and how it reflects the state’s changing self-image.
To understand what is it that makes the WVU mascot so relatable to its community, author and folklorist Hathaway traces the figure of the Mountaineer from some of its earliest (and often conflicting) depictions in literature. She argues that “the Mountaineer has its roots in two long-standing American icons: the hillbilly and the frontiersman.” Though there are overlapping qualities between the two, such as “fierce independence [and] plain-spokenness,” the frontiersman is a “gentleman of the backwoods,” while the hillbilly is a “barely civilized rabble-rouser.” When the two combine to form the Mountaineer, the figure emerges as a cultural hero and trickster.
Though “trickster” might call to mind someone who causes trouble for trouble’s sake, Hathaway assures that in the context of folklore, the trickster is meant to “uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.” Therefore, the Mountaineer is the trickster of West Virginia’s mythology, asserts Hathaway: he is a principled, self-sufficient, and hospitable pioneer who also lives “by his own standards and acts accordingly.” Sometimes this may put the Mountaineer against social norms or the status quo, but he is nevertheless a cultural hero because has a great many laudable qualities and sticks to his guns (often literally).
As a combination of the hillbilly and the frontiersman, the Mountaineer has fluctuated between the two depending on which interpretation was more prevalent at any given time. In the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, the WVU Mountaineer was portrayed as a hillbilly and dressed in flannel shirts, overalls, and slouch hat. In popular culture, the hillbilly “reached its zenith in the mid- to late-1930s and held sway through the end of World War II.” Though Appalachians typically hold mixed opinions about the hillbilly figure, it is perhaps not hard to imagine why the rabble-rousing cultural figure might have gained popularity among college students. In some ways, the hillbilly version made sense for a mascot who was tasked with riling up fans with their antics and “intimidating” the opposing team.
The WVU administration, however, was less than pleased with the hillbilly aspects of its mascot, and Hathaway notes that over the course of the 1950s the “frontiersman Mountaineer became the officially sanctioned and…tamed version” of the mascot. Instead of hillbilly garb the Mountaineer was given a woodsman kit: a buckskin outfit, a coonskin cap, and a rifle. Hathaway summarizes: “if the 1940s and 1950s witnessed a shift in the Mountaineer identity from the upstart hillbilly to the rugged frontiersman, the late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed yet another shift…the Mountaineer’s inherently rebellious and anti-authoritarian nature made him an ideal model for student activists in the 1960s.”
Subscribe to Weelunk
In an effort to keep the Mountaineer out of anti-war rhetoric and away from hillbilly imagery, WVU continued to tout the frontiersman version of their mascot throughout the 1970s and onward. In addition to fulfilling the typical duties of a mascot, Hathaway argues that the idea of the Mountaineer was also used as a way to police students. By pushing a romanticized and nostalgic version of the Mountaineer and the state’s history, the administration hoped students would rein in antics in order to emulate their stoic, principled mascot. However, this interpretation of the Mountaineer came with its own issues: by making a backwoodsman the official representation of the Mountaineer, the mascot failed to represent and include female students, students of color, and non-West Virginian community members.
The concept of the Mountaineer continued to be tested and altered over time, particularly when women began trying out (and twice succeeding) to serve as the Mountaineer mascot. Natalie Tennant became the first female Mountaineer in 1990 and Rebecca Durst the second in 2009, each time causing a stir. Many both inside and out of the WVU community protested the decision, citing the women’s inability to grow a beard as one of many hindrances to her portrayal of the mascot. Others applauded Tennant’s and Durst’s bravery and argued that each fulfilled all the necessary duties of the mascot, which was all that should matter. In short, the subsequent backlash both women faced served as further evidence the rigidity of the mascot and its limitations in representing all students.
By tracking the school’s rebranding efforts in 2015, Hathaway considers how WVU kept the Mountaineer as its mascot while expanding its media representation to include its diverse student population. Hathaway notes that WVU’s “Let’s Go” rebranding “shifts Mountaineer identify away from a specific, bodily incarnation and toward a more abstract set of characteristics.” The last two chapters deal with this in-depth, as well as the ever-evolving conception of West Virginia in popular culture.
The daughter of two WVU alumni, Hathaway was born and raised in Ohio and moved to West Virginia in 2007. As a non-native with West Virginian parents, Hathaway is able to analyze the state and the Mountaineer from a largely outsider’s perspective that is nevertheless informed by her parents’ stories and experiences as well as Appalachian literature and scholarship. The book, available at the Wheeling Artisan Center, is well-suited for any diehard WVU fans or anyone interested in the state’s folklore. With the book’s emphasis on scholarship, I would personally recommend Mountaineers Are Always Free to college-aged students interested in Appalachian studies.
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.