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Macon County revisits Parker Meadows plans

Discovery of a Cherokee gravesite on the soon-to-be ballfield complex at Macon County’s Parker Meadows property will likely mean that the county has to tweak its design. Though no final decision has been made, a series of meetings between county and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians leaders has made it clear that the tribe wants the gravesite to stay right where it is. 

“One of the things that I’ve asked them to do is to consider all options as it relates to an avoidance of the site,” said Chief Michell Hicks as he emerged from a closed-session meeting with tribal and county representatives Monday at the Cherokee council house. “That may mean making it smaller, shifting the site.”

Parker Meadows is a 48-acre property that Macon County plans to make into a tournament-level softball and baseball complex, complete with eight ballfields, a soccer field, courts for tennis and pickelball, picnic shelters, hiking trails and a nine-hole disc golf course. The property alone cost $500,000, and development is expected to cost more than $3 million. The county’s already sunk its teeth into the project, with bids awarded and ground broken. 

As of now, the plans call for a ballfield at the place where the remains were found. The N.C. Office of State Archeology recommended several options, including moving the grave, burying it deeper so construction wouldn’t interfere or rotating the fields so that the baseball diamond wouldn’t have to cover the site. 

“I think we’re going to look at rotating the fields to put it between two fields, because now it is definitely in a cut area,” said Seth Adams, the county’s parks and recreation director. 

Moving a gravesite is entirely legal, but deciding on a solution is a consensus-driven project, and Macon County is searching for an outcome that will win the approval of the Eastern Band. 

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“The State Archeologist’s Office can make a ruling and that’s probably all you have to go by, but Macon County is rich in the Eastern Band heritage,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “When it’s a grave we’ve always tried to take the extra step.”

“I want to thank them, first of all, for being cooperative in this scenario,” Hicks said. 

Beale and County Manager Derek Roland, who have both been attending ongoing meetings with tribal leaders, will relay those conversations to the other commissioners during their August meeting and likely make a decision then. 

“We’re pretty much taking back that is the stance the Eastern Band has, and we’ll respect that,” County Manager Derek Roland said after Monday’s meeting.  

Though reconciling construction needs with proper honor for Cherokee history can be a difficult process, it’s not uncommon. Historically, Cherokee did not bury their dead in designated graveyards. Instead, they made graves in individual, unmarked sites. 

“When people died they tended to bury them in the vicinity,” said Steven Claggett, state archeologist. “A mile away, but near the houses or other buildings.” 

Because flat land is at a premium in the Smokies, Cherokee villages — and gravesites — tended to be in the same areas that are most desirable for construction today. So, it didn’t surprise anyone when an archeological survey at Parker Meadows turned up a gravesite. What may have been more surprising was that there was only one. 

“I think we were a little surprised and pleased that only the one was encountered there at Parker Meadows, but there’s almost no predicting. Sometimes there may be many more,” Claggett said, citing the Macon County airport expansion as an example. That project turned controversial when more than 300 gravesites were discovered on the property. 

But whether it’s one site or 300, a gravesite is something that deserves enough reverence to be left alone, Hicks said. 

“Our belief is when you bury a Cherokee, they are to remain in that location for perpetuity,” he said. “It’s a cultural significance, it’s a historical significance to our beliefs. As tribal leaders we’re doing our best to make sure that that memorial to the life of an individual remains intact.”

Editor’s note: In the July 16 issue, The Smoky Mountain News incorrectly reported that State Archeologist Stephen Claggett visited the Parker Meadows site. A representative from the N.C. Office of State Archeology’s Asheville office actually made the visit. 

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