It was a packed house at the Funk Heritage Center Thursday afternoon as the museum celebrated both its 20th birthday and the opening of a new exhibit to help tell the story of the Cherokee people.
“Resistance & Resilience: The Cherokee Trail of Tears” was officially opened to the public Thursday, with a number of special guests in attendance to join in marking the occasion.
“It was so heartwarming to see the turnout we had for this event,” Funk Heritage Center Director Jeff Bishop said. “I think it speaks to the love people have for this special place, and the work here that everyone has done together.”
Among the guests at Thursday’s event were not only faculty and administrative members of the Reinhardt staff, but also Troy Wayne Poteete, the executive director for the Trail of Tears Association and a former justice of the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation, as well as members of the Fourkiller family, whose ancestors lived on land next to what became Reinhardt University before they were removed to present-day Oklahoma.
“We’re a designated interpretive site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and Troy Wayne Poteete is the national director for the Trail of Tears Association, so it was fantastic to have him here as our keynote speaker,” Bishop said. “And of course, it meant so much to have representatives from the Fourkiller family here. Paislee and Melanie represent two different branches of the Fourkiller family, but they both have their roots here.”
After welcome remarks from Bishop and Dr. Kina Mallard, president of Reinhardt University, along with an invocation from John Bennett, Tony Harris introduced Poteete as the keynote speaker. Poteete began his conversation Thursday by explaining that the Trail of Tears is possibly the most researched and studied time in Cherokee history, similar to how U.S. History courses devote as much time as they do to the dividing line of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Much of the story Poteete told Thursday surrounded the members of the “Treaty Party,” those Cherokee who signed the treaty with the United States that led to the forced removal to Oklahoma and what was, according to Cherokee law, an illegal treaty and their signing it being punishable by death. While there may be those who see those who signed the treaty as being villains with no redeemable qualities, Poteete said the argument can also be made that these men were doing what they thought was best for the overall survival of the Cherokee.
Possibly the biggest figure in the story was Major Ridge, who spent much of his earlier life arguing strongly against giving tribal land away to the encroaching Americans. For example, when a Cherokee named Double Head was giving away land and improving his financial standing as a result, Major Ridge was selected to kill Double Head in the hopes this would help stop any future cessions of land. Initially, Major Ridge shot Double Head in the jaw with a rifle, but Double Head survived and escaped. Major Ridge then tracked Double Head down and finished the job by burying a hatchet right between Double Head’s eyes. When another Cherokee named Black Fox was elected as the leader of the Cherokee nation and behaved in much the same way that Double Head had, Poteete said Major Ridge spoke out strongly against Black Fox in the tribal council, which led Black Fox to be un-elected as chief.
As citizens of Georgia began migrating further west and into Cherokee land, and especially after gold was discovered around Dahlonega, the state appealed to Washington and recently-elected president Andrew Jackson for assistance with its “problem.” The Supreme Court of the United States eventually ruled in favor of the Cherokee, but Jackson and the government of Georgia ignored the ruling, with Georgia arguing the Cherokee were “unqualified” to hold the land they lived on and began holding lotteries where citizens could enter their names into a drawing to receive parcels of property in Cherokee territory. Realizing the dire situation the Cherokee were in, Major Ridge realized a treaty would have to be signed, eventually agreeing to one he and others in the Treaty Party felt was not entirely terrible. Stating that, following the removal, the Cherokee have become a stronger people and have thrived into today, Poteete ended his talk by asking the question, “What would have been the outcome had no treaty been made?”
Following Poteete’s talk, he and the members of the Fourkiller family joined museum staff in cutting the ribbon to the new exhibit. They were then allowed a few minutes in the exhibit before the rest of Thursday’s crowd was admitted in to explore for themselves. Although the Trail of Tears and many of the factors that led to the forced removal of the Cherokee was one of the focus points of the exhibit, it also presented information about the Cherokee in the era before removal, as well as information reiterating Poteete’s statement that the Cherokee people are thriving today.
Part of the new exhibit is interactive as well, with a spinning wheel listing the names of the seven Cherokee clans, a table with wooden blocks carved with the Cherokee syllabary allowing visitors to practice making words in the Cherokee language, a large wooden tumbler to demonstrate how the lottery that carved up Cherokee land for Georgians to settle worked and a large map showing every main route of the Trail of Tears with informational facts about each route.
“I was very glad to be here today,” Poteete said following the ribbon cutting, adding he enjoyed sharing such a special event with Bishop and the rest of the center’s staff, and he believes Bishop is a good example of those who want to help share the story of the Cherokee people.
“I was so pleased with the opening of the exhibit,” Bishop said. “Our goal was to highlight aspects of what was really a national tragedy. But, many people don’t realize it played out right in their own back yards. We didn’t want to do another generic Trail of Tears exhibit. We wanted it to have local significance as well as tell a larger story.”
As part of the Funk Heritage Center’s birthday celebrations, there were two large cakes for guests to enjoy, while a short film documenting the history of the center was playing in the theater. A handful of volunteers who have been serving at the center all 20 years were recognized and honored, while former director Dr. Joe Kitchens was named Executive Director Emeritus.
“He set the pace, established many of the exhibits and programs, and hired the staff,” Bishop said. “In so many ways it is his legacy that we are continuing. We are very grateful to Joe for his many years of dedicated service to the Funk Heritage Center, and he continues to serve the mission of the center as a dedicated volunteer.”
Now that “Resistance & Resilience: The Cherokee Trail of Tears” is open to the public, Bishop thanked the many partnerships that helped make the exhibit possible, while also expressing gratitude for the support seen from the community and encouraging the public to visit the Funk Heritage Center and see all the new exhibit has to offer and teach its guests. While he said there may be certain aspects that will be improved upon moving forward, Bishop said he heard nothing but positive remarks from those in attendance on Thursday.
“I hope people come away with a better understanding of the Cherokee story, and a greater awareness that the Cherokee nation has survived and is thriving,” Poteete said.