Echoes of Chattanooga’s Early Artistic Heritage

When we think about Chattanooga’s artistic heritage we think back to early performers like blues empress Bessie Smith or you may even know about jazz musician Valaida Snow or more recently actress Dixie Carter, actor Jim Nebors and of course Samuel L Jackson, Dennis Haskins and Usher. And we’ve in previous blogs learned about Chattanooga’s current street scene. We often think of these as recent productions and forget that these build on a long legacy begun here by the Native Americans who once lived on this land.

We can find ancient traces in the Coosa Mounds found off of today’s Amnicola Highway and more modern reflections on this heritage in the reliefs and medallions found along the Aquarium Plaza. Those waiting in line to see the sharks and jellyfish often miss the river scene medallions that circle the Aquarium walls. These scenes represent the story of the river and the land from the myths and legends of Native Americans, the 16th century explorations of Europeans and the following displacement of the natives, all the way the development of new industries and transportation. The work also addresses the creation of the TVA to deal with these modern issues, the river now and alludes to its future. They follow a timeline of the rich history and culture of the area. According to Dr. Nicholas Honerkamp (who assisted in the project) “Its is the best kept secret in Chattanooga.”

They exist as exterior motifs on the building and tell the story of the river. The medallions begin by telling the story of the river as it was known by the Cherokee, Yu nwi Gunahita, meaning the long man. The first Medallion tells the story of how the Cherokees understand the birth of the Tennessee River through the flapping of a Buzzard’s wings. The Cherokee always chose to live by the river because of its life giving properties and its immense beauty. Chattanooga has sprung out of a Cherokee village and Ross’s Landing is where the Trail of Tears began. 

After following the Motifs around the outside of the aquarium, follow the steps beside the aquarium down to Ross’s Landing. As you take the steps down, look to your left and notice the beautiful clay disks that are carved into the west wall of the aquarium. These represent powerful Cherokee symbols designed by 5 Cherokee artists in 2004: Bill Glass, Ken Foster, and Gary Allen, Knokovtee Scott, and a steel water Spider at the bottom of a shallow pool designed by Demos Glass. The disks all represent symbols found at prominent mound sites from this area. The first three represent the Hixon site and are the oldest cultural symbols depicted here with the sun circle (sacred fire sent by the creator) and the Four Journey directions (journeys taken by the Cherokees in their migrations), and Warrior Birds (the two mountains facing each other on the Tennessee River). The next disk, Connections (Intertwining roads Native Americans must take), comes from the Dallas site. The Last two disks, Strength of Life (Cherokee Stomp dance and the orbit or the Earth around the sun) and Coiled Serpent (Winged mythological creature from Mississippian period representing all 3 worlds) come from the Citico Site. The Water Spider is depicted from the Dallas site (1250 AD) comes from a myth about a water spider bringing fire to the native people. 

Next time you visit downtown and walk by the aquarium; be sure to notice the exterior motifs available to admire and pick up a copy of a river scenes guide at the aquarium so you can read the story behind each medallion. Stroll down to Ross’s landing by taking the water steps next to the aquarium, admire the large disks that serve as a reminder of the art and creative energy that has been part of Chattanooga for thousands of years and continues to flow through the city today.

Marie Meranda is a student at UTC. 
“Those waiting in line to see the sharks and jellyfish often miss the river scene medallions that circle the Aquarium walls.”