Just behind the Foutch Alumni House, passersby may notice the newly constructed Indigenous Garden brightening the shaded space.
The garden was commemorated on Oct. 10. The ceremony featured speakers and faculty who wanted to educate the Belmont community about the relationship of Indigenous Americans’ land and its intersection with the history of the campus.
“A garden with all native materials would be a great place of acknowledgement, tribute, a place of meditation more than a memorial,” said Dr. Annette Sisson, co-committee chair of the project.
In 2020, Belmont’s faculty senate passed a resolution to do more on campus to teach the history of the land's predecessors. The senate sought to acknowledge and appreciate the history of campus, highlighting how it has been significantly shaped by the presence of Black and Indigenous peoples.
This project was put into motion by a sub-committee composed of members of faculty senate and additional volunteers motioning to tell a more complete history of Belmont’s past, Sisson said.
Savannah McNabb, one of the committee members, is a Belmont alum and a part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. She has been an instrumental part of pushing this project forward into reality, Sisson said.
Another figure who played a significant part in the process of developing the garden was President Greg Jones’ wife, the Rev. Susan Pendleton Jones.
“She has come to many of our meetings and been there while our architect has been around. We wanted to speak to them about plaques and things like that and Susan loved the garden. She was the one who said, ‘Couldn’t we expand it this way,’ there has been so much hospitality on both sides,” Sisson said.
This resolution was approached with three prongs, the first being to acknowledge that the Belmont Mansion was a summer home for Adelicia and Joseph Acklen who owned slaves. Former Belmont sub-committee chair Andy Watts said they chose to address this with the dedication of Freedom Plaza as a memorial to the slaves who built the Belmont property.
The current goal of the committee is to educate Belmont’s visitors, students and staff about the history of the university. Prior to the construction of the Belmont Mansion by the Acklen's, Belmont was a hunting ground for at least four tribes of Indigenous American people, as well as grounds for agriculture and cultivation.
Many of the details and small dedications amongst the foliage and flora of the garden have been put into consideration, said Watts. The committee's efforts were to seek out native-owned florists and plant nurseries around middle Tennessee. The plants were chosen to best flourish in the garden and best represented traditional indigenous ways of life.
“We picked plants that we knew would flourish in that environment. We wanted to grow River Cane, which was very meaningful and useful to the Cherokee; it’s what they wove their baskets from,” said Watts.
Regarding the purpose and direction of these dedications, Watts said the garden is just one more step in honoring the relationship that Indigenous Peoples have with nature and natural ways of life.
“This garden, to me, is one small little action of respecting peoples who were thoroughly disrespected by Eurocentric cultures for hundreds of years.”
There is hope Belmont will do better to acknowledge the institutions and exclusive practices predating the founding of the University, Watts said. While Sisson and Watts said that the committee has not decided exactly how to best address this, they said that their committee is moving to have the new Jack C. Massey building share the history of Belmont's land and the groups affected by its exclusive practices in the past.
Watts hopes the garden will be more to the university’s population than just another manicured collection of flowers and bushes.
“It’s not an apology because there’s nothing that can be apologized for anymore. It's not a reparation because there's nothing repaired. It’s not a proper land acknowledgment because we can’t offer anything certain about that,” Watts said. “It’s a tangible and concrete sign of respect for the tribes in this area who’ve been disrespected by these practices and a celebration of the land we enjoy the bounty of today.”
This article was written by Aidan Mellor