An ancient Native American burial mound sits on private property now owned by Atlantic Distributors Inc. on Amnicola Highway in Chattanooga.
The mound could date back as far as 900 B.C., local experts said, and is considered by some to be one of the oldest human structures in Chattanooga.
Although the fenced-in sacred site—located on the 25-acre industrial property—was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, decades of tree growth and uncontrolled invasive vegetation left the native mound unmanaged, inaccessible and, some say, disrespected.
When the property changed hands to ADI in 2009, new conversations began with property and business owner Kenny Wilhoit, representatives with the Tennessee Ancient Sites Conservancy and the Advisory Council on Tennessee Indian Affairs.
Access was granted to the Native American community and, since the fall of 2010, volunteers have cleared away privet, poison ivy, wisteria vine and about 30 large trees from the sacred mound.
Wilhoit will be honored by the volunteers in a small ceremony on Sunday morning in recognition of his respect for the site and his willingness to work with the community to protect it.
Wilhoit said he respects the local heritage and doesn't feel he has done anything special. When he bought the property and started renovation, he and his crew happened upon the mound and became interested in learning more about it.
After discovering what the site meant to local Native Americans, he said he knew granting complete access was the right thing to do.
"The history is right here that 99 percent of Chattanoogans don't even know exists. I haven't done anything but give them access to this property for their heritage rights, which they are entitled to," Wilhoit said.
It is thought that high-ranking individuals would have been buried in the mound, which is much larger than similar burial sites found on Moccasin Bend, according to Dr. Nick Honerkamp, UC Foundation professor of archaeology at UTC.
No official scientific investigation or study of the site has taken place, Honerkamp said, so conclusions on who was buried there are based on what was typically found during the same time period. Honerkamp, who is not Native American, said although much of the archaeological remains at the Chickamauga mound were looted long ago and the topsoil has been disturbed by years of development, it is still significant and positive that the local Native American community is now able to visit and express themselves at an important sacred place.
And although Wilhoit feels he has done very little to deserve recognition, simply allowing access is a major step, Honerkamp said, especially when heritage sites sit on private property.
"Some private property owners might see it as a nuisance that doesn't help their bottom line. This current owner seems very sensitive to the significance and has allowed access, and that is the first step," Honerkamp said.
Tom Kunesh with the Advisory Council on Tennessee Indian Affairs and volunteer worker on the mound said that, prior to 2010, the area was completely off-limits.
"We would stand outside the fence, pray, offer tobacco and look forward to the day when we would be allowed access to it," Kunesh said.
To praise and publicly thank Wilhoit for his ongoing cooperation, Kunesh said Wilhoit will be given a handmade wooden bowl made from one of the large trees removed at the site by Tennessee archaeologist Mark Norton.
"As long as I have this property, it will always be accessible to their needs," Wilhoit said.
The public is invited to attend the small ceremony for Wilhoit on Sunday at 8 a.m., which is being held in conjunction with National Days of Prayer to Protect Native Sacred Places. The event will be held at 3701 Amnicola Highway.