First-time visitors at the Funk Heritage Center at Reinhardt University in Waleska may feel as surprised as an archaeologist hitting pay dirt.
It’s hidden away in this smidgen of a north Cherokee County town about an hour away of Atlanta. But this concentrated bundle of Southeastern Native American information and artifacts plays like a historical documentary in tangible three dimensions. Guests step inside a clay-colored Iroquois-style longhouse and receive a blast of history and culture primarily focusing on Cherokees and Creeks. They see dioramas of native life and the items these people left behind — pieces of pottery, arrow and spear points, tools and game pieces. Other artifacts from the period when European settlers began trading with the Cherokee are also on display.
Adjacent to the museum is a reproduction of an Appalachian-inspired settlement.
“We’re hot right now,” said the center’s executive director, Joseph Kitchens, who regularly shares his colorful knowledge and sense of humor with guests. “We’ve done so many things right.”
Already Georgia’s official frontier and Southeastern Indian interpretive center, the Funk Heritage Center recently became certified as a National Park Service interpretive center for the Trail of Tears. It’s receiving grants to beef up the presentation and is on the verge of scoring access to a much-lauded collection. The more than 100,000 Cherokee artifacts in the Hickory Log collection, uncovered in the area nearly two decades ago in digs along the Etowah River, will likely call the Funk Heritage Center home.
In the meantime, Kitchens and his crew are catching their collective breath after the annual onslaught of visiting school groups. The summer is the center’s “slow season,” arguably a good opportunity for potential guests to avoid crowds, and take their timeto soak up the surroundings, Kitchens said.
It’s also a great bargain and way to spend a day with out-of-school children.
An eyeful of artifacts and imagery
Projectile points and pottery shards are among the Southeastern Native American artifacts encased in glass. The focal point in the museum’s Hall of the Ancients is a 5-ton granite boulder dubbed with petroglyphs that include carved crosses, swirling circles and other shapes and patterns. . Measuring 1 1/2 feet thick, 11 feet long and 4 feet wide, the boulder was found on a nearby farm close to the Etowah River. Although the meaning of the carvings remains a mystery, experts say they were created by Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago.
Surrounding the boulder are life-size dioramas depicting the day-to-day activities of Southeastern Native Americans. Some feature weapons, tools and crafts, giving guests a glimpse of regional history spanning some 12,000 years. Display panels and interactive electronics help explain different periods.
Kids often dive into history at Warluskee’s Corner, a spot in the Hall of the Ancients where they can read books about Native Americans and play with puppets. Although museums are often look-don’t-touch environments, this area gives children a hands-on opportunity to explore deer antlers, animal skins and gourds.
A pair of art galleries primarily showcase post-1930s contemporary Native American art. The Rogers Contemporary Native American Art Gallery houses sculptures, paintings and other creations donated by Clarence and Margaret Rogers. The adjacent Buffington Gallery culls together various collections, including an array of ceremonial masks.
Tools of the Trades
Although it doesn’t necessarily flow seamlessly with the Native American theme, Kitchens said the center’s collection of historical hand tools, titled Tools of the Trades, is likely the largest display of its kind in the country. He jokes that when a family sees a sign on the road advertising the tool exhibit, the wife and kids quickly shoot it down.
“The dads are always interested,” Kitchens said, “but when the women get there, they’re fascinated by it, too.”
That fascination sometimes comes from the wide range of tools displayed, which span three centuries. Most of the items were used for crafts using wood and other natural materials. Tools used for somewhat lost arts, including shoemaking and bookbinding, can be seen. More than 100 panels explain how these things were put to use.
Put it on the calendar
The Funk Heritage Center is using a grant from the Georgia Endowment for the Humanities to host an event tied to the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears. The program, scheduled for Sept. 21, will focus on archaeology related to the removal of the Cherokee people from the Southeast. Professional archaeologists who’ve been involved in excavating sites will be sharing information they’ve uncovered about the Trail of Tears and explain how Cherokee people lived on the eve of removal.
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays; 1a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. $6; $5 ages 65 and older; $4 ages 17 and younger. Funk Heritage Center, 7300 Reinhardt Circle, Waleska. 770-720-5970, www.reinhardt.edu/funkheritage/.