Visionary of a Native American interpretive garden

Story by Margeaux Emery

Sustainability weaves like a thread through the career of landscape architect Sam Rogers, FASLA. In Chattanooga, Rogers planned parks and greenways and coordinated environmental inventories and assessments. As a professor at the University of Tennessee for 29 years, he taught students how to design landscape projects that tread lightly on the land. He also worked patiently to help establish a professionally accredited landscape architecture program at the university. Today, it is the only program of its kind in Tennessee. 

Some three years before Rogers’ retirement from UT, a project that required sustainability in a far different way landed in his lap. This effort was to expand upon a plan his mentor and later colleague, Hendrik van de Werken, had developed. The plan, which included the involvement of the head of the UT horticulture department, Don Williams, was a garden of native plants. Its purpose was to protect and complement the UT Institute of Agriculture’s “Indian Mound.” This raised topographic feature sits at the corner of a busy campus intersection. Archaeologists have determined it was a burial mound and date it to the period of the Eastern Woodland Indians (600-1000 AD), precursors to today’s Cherokee.

The Native American Interpretive Garden in full autumn glory. The Indian Mound is at left. Photo by Cameron Rodman.

For Rogers, sustainability had expanded to historic preservation. That included safeguarding the mound from road-widening projects or conversion into parking space. Yet there were also other significant aspects: “I thought of the purposes and intent of this garden. Foremost, it should be a place of respect and even healing, if possible, for what the Cherokee had experienced, particularly during the Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839. I wanted the garden to also be a place of learning for the campus and the community.” From this, the name and mission of a Native American Interpretive Garden seemed fitting.

The idea for the garden caught the attention of distinguished UT anthropologist and archaeologist Jan Simek, who was serving as interim UT president at the time. The project also drew in Joe DiPietro, the chancellor of the UT Institute of Agriculture and current UT president. But Rogers knew others could be interested, too. So he took his early plans to Cherokee, North Carolina. There, he presented them to Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. The band’s historic preservation officer was present as well. They, too, were on board.

Hicks suggested the Eastern Band’s seal at the center of a planned council ring. The president of UT’s Native American Student Association thought signage might identify native plants by their Cherokee names, as well as the syllabary developed for the Cherokee by Sequoyah, who was born along the Little Tennessee River near Vonore. As the garden began to take shape, students in Rogers’ native plants course joined in, along with many others. Financial gifts large and small flowed in, and the project continued to grow. Soon benches of Tennessee fieldstone and sandstone were in place along the garden’s paths. Signs were developed by environmental designer and illustrator Leah Gardner. By 2011, the garden was ready for a ribbon cutting. The Eastern Band’s Chief Hicks addressed the gathering at the ceremony. The tribe’s Beloved Woman, Myrtle Driver, offered a blessing of dedication. Both DiPietro and Simek made brief remarks on behalf of the university. The Native American Interpretive Garden was ready to welcome all.

Three years later, Rogers’ retirement reception took place around a fire in the council ring. “I felt things had come full circle for me to be there.” And so they had.

The Native American Interpretive Garden is a unit of the UT Gardens and is open year round. Find it on the Knoxville campus of the UT Institute of Agriculture, at the intersection of Joe Johnson and E.J. Chapman Drives. The larger UT Gardens, the state botanical garden of Tennessee, are a few blocks away.

Top photo: Agronomy professor Fred Allen, left, joins landscape architect Sam Rogers in the garden. Allen coordinated the finances and was a major booster for the project. Photo by Rich Maxey.

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