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Much of Western North Carolina’s native history is hidden in plain sight along the Tennessee River Valley from Otto to Bryson City.

op nikwasiBy Bob Scott • Guest Columnist

In a letter to the editor published in the Nov. 5 edition of  The Smoky Mountain News, Rachel Truesdell wrote that as mayor, I “have a lot of explaining to do because most of the arguments in the media from the Town of Franklin are horribly invalid and definitely culturally insensitive.” She was speaking of the Nikwasi Mound.

Of the shoppers polled while coming and going from the Bi-Lo parking lot in Franklin on a recent Thursday, none had to be told what Nikwasi Mound was, and nearly all were aware that the town of Franklin and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are currently at odds about the mound’s future. 

Franklin leaders made their intention to keep Nikwasi Mound in town possession clear this week, rejecting a formal call from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to hand over the property. 

The resolution, passed unanimously, declares that the mound will continue to stay in town possession but that Franklin is open to working out an agreement with the tribe for them to maintain the site.

Cherokee leaders have formally asked the town of Franklin to turn over Nikwasi Mound, the latest turn of events in a two-year controversy swirling around the cultural and historical site.

The town owns the prominent landmark at the edge of downtown, but Cherokee claims the town isn’t taking care of it. 

“The town of Franklin is being issued a vote of no confidence for their failure to provide upkeep of the Nikwasi Mound,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks wrote in a resolution presented to tribal council last week.

The resolution called on the town to hand over the property deed for the mound, citing the Cherokee people’s “cultural affiliation with our historic homelands.” It passed unanimously by tribal council.

But Franklin leaders countered their town also has a strong attachment to the mound, which has become part of the community fabric.

“We have a lot of people in Franklin who have a strong feeling for the mound as well,” said Franklin Mayor Bob Scott. “Both sides — the town of Franklin and the Eastern Band — have ties to the mound, so why can’t we work together jointly on preserving this mound?”

Scott said he understands Chief Hicks’ position, and might feel the same way if he were in Hicks’ place. But Franklin residents cherish the mound, too, and Scott doubts the people of the town would want to give up ownership.

“The mound would not even be there if it wasn’t for the people of the town raising the money to buy it back in the ‘40s,” Scott said.

The mound would have been bulldozed by a private property owner, but the community raised $1,500 for the town to buy it.

The primary point of contention for Cherokee leaders seems to be the grass on the mound — or rather lack of it — dating back to an ill-fated brush with weed killer almost three years ago. 

Mowing the mound was time-consuming for town maintenance workers, so the town manager at the time decided to kill all the existing grass and replant a low-growing variety that doesn’t need mowing.

Once the mound was denuded, getting the new grass to grow didn’t go too well, however. The new grass is uneven and spotty, with bare patches in some places and weeds growing among it.

Chief Hicks brought pictures of the mound to the tribal council meeting last week. The council members weren’t pleased with the unkempt appearance.

“The tribe’s expectations are higher than the town of Franklin’s, I think. There is no reason for that mound to be in that condition,” said Cherokee Tribal Council Member Albert Rose, from the Birdtown community.  “We can do a better job than that.”

David Wolfe, a tribal council member from Yellowhill, agreed.

“We would certainly take better care of it than what’s being done now,” Wolfe said.

Franklin leaders agree on one count.

“Yes, I know the mound got messed up and, yes, it does not look its best,” said Joyce Handley, Franklin town board member. “We don’t like the looks of it either — none of us do.”

 

Competing versions

But portraying the town as uncaring toward the mound is inaccurate, according to town leaders. They, too, want to rectify the appearance, but have been in a holding pattern awaiting direction and coordination with the tribe.

The town has reached out multiple times to Chief Hicks asking for a meeting to discuss the way forward, but to no avail, according to Handley and Scott.

“We have tried to get in touch and say to them ‘Please, if you are unhappy, tell us what you are unhappy with,’” Handley said.

“It is not like we’ve said we don’t want to do anything. We’ve said we want to work together and want to know what it is you want us to do,” Scott added.

The town even started sending certified letters to prove that it had attempted communication on its end.

“We had sent several certified letters that were received on their end but got no response. Whenever someone called him there were no phone calls back,” Handley said.

Hicks could not be reached for comment, however, the resolution he presented to tribal council portrays a different version of events. The tribe offered to help with maintenance of the mound to no avail, according to the resolution.

“The town of Franklin board of aldermen has disregarded the upkeep of the mound and ignored the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians offers of assistance and has failed to demonstrate respect to the Cherokee people through the disrespect of the Nikwasi Mound,” the resolution states.

Scott and Handley said the opposite is true — the town has offered to work together, but the tribe, or at least Hicks, were unreceptive.

After months of missed connections, Hicks and tribal representatives finally met with Franklin leaders last week.

But instead of collaborating as the town leaders had hoped, Hicks told the town he wanted them to turn over the mound.

“I told him ‘Really, I don’t think we can do that right now,’” Scott recalled.

The next day back in Cherokee, Hicks went before tribal council with the resolution. Franklin leaders said they first heard of the resolution on WLOS television news.

“We were caught completely off guard,” Scott said.

 

Mutually exclusive

Hicks has been at odds with Franklin ever since weed killer was sprayed on the mound three years ago. Hicks publicly voiced his disappointment on behalf of the tribe and demanded an apology.

But the majority of Franklin board members didn’t want to apologize. When the former mayor apologized anyway, the board censured him for apologizing out of school.

Scott, who wasn’t mayor yet but was an alderman at the time, also went rogue by reaching out to the tribe after the weed killer incident. He made a trip to Cherokee to apologize personally and “see what we could do to make it right.”

Scott said the whole situation was “very unfortunate.”

“It happened. I don’t deny it, but it is over and it is past, so let’s look at what we can do to work together for what is best for the mound, the Eastern Band and the town of Franklin,” Scott said.

At times, it seemed that was happening. Representatives from Cherokee and Franklin met once or twice last year to discuss what should be planted on the mound, how to go about it, and the best practices for maintaining it.

But discussions were preliminary, mostly brainstorming in nature, and never arrived at a plan. Follow-up meetings never happened.

Franklin leaders were then thrown a curve ball late last summer. Hicks asked Macon County commissioners to pass a resolution urging Franklin to work with the tribe — and specifically to engage in discussions over mound ownership and maintenance.

That seemed unnecessary and even insulting to town leaders, who claim they were more than willing to work with the tribe and the lack of discussions wasn’t their fault.

The stalemate seemed to take a positive turn in the spring, when Chief Hicks came to the Franklin town meeting to talk about the mound.

“Everything was cordial, it was a very amenable productive meeting. We were going to be working together I thought, and all of a sudden this thing blows up again,” Scott said.

To Cherokee Tribal Council members, the appearance of the mound sends a message that the town didn’t care as much as they do.

“There was just a bunch of dead spots on it and there were vines growing on it,” said Bo Crowe, a tribal council member from Wolfetown. “We think it should be taken care of better than what they are doing. We thought it was really disrespectful.”

Crowe said he isn’t sure the tribe can force Franklin to do it, but “Hopefully, it will put a little pressure” on them.

Scott countered that the town has simply been waiting on input from the tribe before doing anything. 

The mayor said the town’s interests are ultimately the same as the tribe’s.

“The mound needs to be here 500 years from now,” Scott said. “We want to be good stewards of the mound.”

But with Cherokee angling for ownership, and Franklin refusing to give it up, any hope of middle ground remains elusive. 

 

 

What are mounds?

Man-made earth mounds, some quite large, were the spiritual and geopolitical center of prehistoric Cherokee towns.

People gathered on the mound for celebrations, religious services and social occasions. Tribal affairs were conducted in council houses built on top. 

The mound was like a church, town square, town hall and auditorium stage — all in one.

Dozens of major Cherokee towns once lined the banks of the Little Tennessee River and surrounding river valleys before white people destroyed them and took the land. The mounds are the only surviving record on the landscape of the vast network.

There were once around 25 mounds in the seven western counties, but there are only about 16 mounds left, estimated Tyler Howe, the tribal historic preservation specialist.

“Not all of those are in existence any longer,” Howe said. They’ve been farmed over, bulldozed to build on, flooded by dams and dug up by archaeologists.

There were far more towns, but not every town was marked by a mound, Howe said.

The tribe has made an effort in recent years to inventory the remaining mounds. The location of most was retained in the collective cultural memory, passed down by Cherokee elders, but some have been rediscovered in modern times.

“The mission is really re-establishing the Cherokee world,” Howe said.

The tribe has even bought two mounds — Cowee Mound in Macon County and Kituwah in Swain County. Many still remain in private ownership, however.

The Nikwasi Mound in Franklin is owned by the town, after residents raised $1,500 back in the 1940s to save it from being leveled by a private property owner. Deed stipulations prevent the mound from being altered, a measure put in place at the time to ensure continued protection by future generations of town leaders.

art nikwasiThe saga of Nikwasi Mound in Franklin being sprayed with potent weed killer more than a year ago continues to unfold.

fr nikwasiThe chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants the town of Franklin to relinquish ownership of the historic Nikwasi Mound, but town leaders may not let it go.

fr nikwasigrassMembers of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and some Franklin townspeople would like to see the Nikwasi Indian Mound back under Cherokee ownership.

Franklin could face a state penalty for spraying weed killer on an ancient Cherokee mound site because the town workers who did it weren’t properly licensed to use the herbicide.

The state could fine the town as much as $2,000, according to Pat Jones, pesticide deputy with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Or, the state could simply issue a warning and not fine the town. Jones said the case is still under review. He was uncertain when a decision would be made.

The Franklin Board of Aldermen censured Mayor Joe Collins this week for making a personal apology to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after the town sprayed Nikwasi Indian Mound with weed killer.

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