Cherokee sets sights on Nikwasi mound, but Franklin leaders reluctant to let go
The 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.
“I just want to say that this mound is, to us, simply not just a mound,” said Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band. “The mound belongs to the Cherokee people, and it needs to be back in our title.”
The tribe and town have been at odds over the mound for more than a year, with the tribe questioning the town’s stewardship of this ancient spiritual and cultural site on the outskirts of present-day downtown Franklin.
Franklin leaders are reticent, however, to give up the Nikwasi Mound completely and may be more inclined to approve a mutual care agreement.
“I do not want to see the mound deeded to the tribe,” said Franklin Alderman and mayoral candidate Bob Scott. “I am open to exploring ways that would benefit the town, the tribe and the protection of the mound.”
Scott said he would be more interested in some sort of understanding where the town would maintain ownership, but both parties would care for it.
However, tribal and town leaders have yet to sit down and actually discuss any possibilities regarding the mound’s ownership and future care.
Instead, Hicks went over the town’s head last week when he attended a Macon County Board of Commissioners meeting and appealed to the county commissioners for their blessing in his effort to acquire Nikwasi Mound.
The county does not own the property; the town does. It will ultimately be up to town leaders whether to let the tribe have ownership of the mound.
“I know that there are some jurisdictional issues probably between the county and the town, but I humbly ask for you all to give consideration and help us,” Hicks said during the meeting. “We are willing to talk about trade opportunities. We are willing to talk about value, but it is time for it to come home.”
The mound spraying
The tribe’s desire to acquire Nikwasi Mound, which sits just outside downtown Franklin, is no secret. A little more than a year ago, the town sprayed the mound with herbicide to kill all the existing grass, so town workers could then plant naturally low-growing “eco” grass and thus eliminate the routine mowing.
Members of the Eastern Band called the move culturally insensitive and said the town desecrated the sacred mound, which served as the spiritual and political gathering place for Cherokee villages.
Hicks wrote a letter to town leaders asking for a formal apology, and in the same letter, he broached the idea of town deeding the mound to the tribe.
The majority of Franklin aldermen voted not to formally apologize, however, and no official discussion was had about handing over the mound. Only Scott and Mayor Joe Collins wanted to apologize. When Collins later issued an apology anyway, the town board moved to censure him for going against the majority of the board’s decision not to apologize.
After the spraying, both Eastern Band members and Franklin residents briefly talked about working together to care for the mound. Some also called for the town to hand the mound over to the Eastern Band. But nothing came of either option.
‘Burden on my heart’
The mound-spraying incident doesn’t have anything to do with Hicks’ recent request though, he said.
“That is water under the bridge. No issue there,” Hicks told Macon commissioners last week.
The Eastern Band simply wants to ensure the preservation of the culturally significant mound, he said. There is a series of mounds along the Little Tennessee River valley marking the site of Cherokee settlements, he said.
Hicks publicly reaffirmed his desire to gain ownership of Nikwasi Mound in June when he spoke at an event celebrating the conservation of another ancient mound site in Macon County, namely the Cowee Mound.
“I have a burden on my heart for this community. This is not the end of the land that needs to come back to our tribe. It’s not. There is a mound in this town called Nikwasi Mound that belongs to the Cherokee people, and it’s not because the issue that we’ve dealt with the last couple years,” Hicks said in a speech at the event. “That mound needs to come back to our people.”
But town officials have not talked to Hicks since May when Town Manager Warren Cabe said he visited with the chief to update him on the care and maintenance of the mound.
“I wanted to make sure communication was clear with us before we did anything,” Cabe said, adding that he had hoped the meeting would open the lines of communication with the tribe, but the town hasn’t heard from Eastern Band leaders since then.
‘A poor call’
Town leaders were surprised find out that Hicks went to the Macon commissioners when they have no official say in the future of the mound.
“Obviously, the board of aldermen need to be informed, or they need to be the ones approached,” Cabe said. “That was obviously a surprise to the town of Franklin.”
The biggest problem Franklin officials have is that no one from the tribe has even approached the town board since last year.
“I am not quite sure why this went before the commissioners because no one has come to the town,” said Alderwoman and mayoral candidate Sissy Pattillo.
Pattillo said the decision about whether to transfer ownership of Nikwasi Mound should lie with Franklin residents.
“It is not our mound. It is owned by the people. It would be up to the wishes of the townspeople,” Pattillo said. “It is just as much a part of their heritage.”
The townspeople of Franklin scraped money together to save it from being developed in the 1940s. The town has owned Nikwasi Mound ever since.
“The tribe did not preserve the mound; the people of Franklin preserved the mound,” Scott said.
He, like other town officials, was shocked to hear about Hicks’ visit with the county commissioners.
“The big question in my mind is ‘Why did he not come to the town?” Scott said. “(Town officials) have reached out to the tribe before, but nothing.”
Pattillo said Hicks’ decision to meet with county commissioners and not first try to reach out to the town was “a poor call.”
“I was just surprised when I heard this,” Pattillo said. “To me, there is professional respect and principles. I am a stickler for those.”
It is unclear when the town board will meet with Hicks to discuss the future of Nikwasi Mound. Though some Franklin residents have previously called for the town to give up the mound, it seems more likely that the town would sign a mutual agreement with the Eastern Band.
“Right now, there is a sentiment that we not give it to the tribe, but a sentiment that maybe we can work with the tribe,” Scott said.
During his address to Macon commissioners, Hicks said he would be willing to talk about options other than purchasing the mound.
“Maybe this is even an opportunity to create a treaty,” Hicks said, or a memoriam of understanding. He also added that the tribe could start a fund to pay for the care and maintenance of Nikwasi Mound as well as other properties with distinct Cherokee ties in Macon County.
After his speech, the Macon County commissioners voted unanimously to urge the town board to start a dialogue with the tribe about Nikwasi Mound.
“We would be happy to encourage the town in anyway we can,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “I think that is probably the best we can do.”
However, the Franklin aldermen argued that the town has tried to engage tribal leaders in conversation without luck.
“Mr. Cabe reached out, but there has been nothing. It hasn’t been reciprocated,” Pattillo said.
Franklin leaders also wondered why the county should even have a place in the conversation since the mound is outside the commissioners’ purview. However, Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin commented that the board oversees the whole county.
“Technically, it is not our place to get involved in negotiations,” Corbin said. “But I think any issue the happens in Macon County, the commissioners have a responsibility to voice an opinion.”
The commissioners also said they were willing to weigh in because they want to continue to strengthen the county’s relationship with the tribe.
“It would benefit everybody if we could have a better relationship,” Beale said.
Given that this year is an election year for the town board, Beale said that the town leaders might be more willing to work with the tribe. However, Pattillo said the future of the mound is a separate issue from elections.
A video recording of the Macon County Commission meeting posted on thunderpigblog.blogspot.com was used in the reporting of this article.