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Nikwasi ownership sparks more debate

  Franklin Town Council is considering approval of a deed to transfer the Nikwasi Mound property over the Nikwasi Initiative. File photo Franklin Town Council is considering approval of a deed to transfer the Nikwasi Mound property over the Nikwasi Initiative. File photo

The Franklin Town Council was in agreement to move forward with plans to deed over the Nikwasi Mound to new nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative during its March 4 meeting, but controversy over who should own the historic site has once again heated up in the community.

The debate over the mound’s ownership last came to a head about five years ago when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — under the leadership of then Principal Chief Michell Hicks — formally asked for the deed from the town of Franklin. The request was ultimately denied by the town board.

However, that request helped launch the Nikwasi Initiative, which sought to bring together all stakeholders involved in the process of preserving the Indian mound that is located right in the heart of downtown Franklin. The Nikwasi Initiative is a community redevelopment nonprofit with a board of directors made up of representatives from Cherokee, Franklin, Macon County and Mainspring Conservation Trust.

Barbara McRae, who serves as co-chairwoman of the Nikwasi Initiative and vice mayor for the town, asked the town council to consider deeding the mound property over to the nonprofit. Nikwasi Initiative co-chair Juanita Wilson of Cherokee also spoke to council about the importance of having a joint venture with the Cherokee people to preserve the mound.

Though a couple councilmembers had concerns on what the specifics would be, the decision was unanimous to direct Town Attorney John Henning Jr. to draw up a deed for consideration.

However, in the last couple of weeks the issue has been vigorously debated on social media and in the Franklin community. National media outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post have also picked up the story. Headlines claim the transferring of the deed will finally give control over the property back to the Cherokee after 200 years, but organizers say that’s not the case.

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“We’re not giving the mound away as some have suggested — we’re just sharing it,” McRae said.

 

Nikwasi history

Nikwasi —or Nequassi —Mound has been around for 1,000 years or more. Situated near the Little Tennessee River in Franklin, many passersby probably miss the small formation completely unless they’re looking for it.

Businesses and roadways now surround it on all sides and there’s no fencing to protect it from potential damage. There’s only a historical marker giving a brief history of the mound, but the Nikwasi Initiative would like to change that by making it more of a cultural attraction.

McRae said the residents of Franklin raised $1,500 in 1946 to purchase the mound and save it from being developed. The mound ownership was then turned over to the town for safekeeping.

“But the town has never been in a financial position to do more than keep it mowed and cleaned,” McRae said. “It’s surrounded by development and not much has been made of it.”

Those who oppose relinquishing ownership to the nonprofit claim the town has no right to deed over the mound.

“The 1946 Nequassi deed is written to hold the mound in trust for the Citizens of Macon County in perpetuity. It could not be spelled out any more clearly than this, and the Franklin Town Council has no right to deed away our most historic property in violation of this Deed of Trust. It is ours, forevermore. Simple as that,” said Betty Cloer Wallace.

According to the 1946 deed, the mound “shall be preserved for the citizens of Macon County and for posterity.”

“People don’t understand the wording of the deed — they think it says ownership will always remain with the town but that’s not what it says. It says it must be preserved for the citizens of Macon County and that’s what we’re trying to do,” McRae said. “And all those same restrictions outlined will go in the new title deed as well.”

Wallace and other Macon County history buffs are arguing that the Cherokee don’t have rights to the mound because it wasn’t Cherokee people that built the mound. Wallace said it was the Creek Indians that populated the Little Tennessee River Valley prior to Cherokee and European immigrants.

“Creek descendants might want to have a say in any proposed disposition of the Mound. In fact, the Creek Nation named numerous locations throughout the watershed with Creek names still used here today,” Wallace said.

While it’s true the EBCI didn’t exist a thousand years ago, McRae said the native people that inhabited the land back then didn’t consider themselves to be separate tribes like the U.S. classifies them today.

“The best current research says it was ancestors of Cherokee that built the mound,” she said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about that time in history but we do know that it wasn’t us that built it and the Cherokee lived here several hundred years before we grabbed up the land from them.”

 

Board support

Aside from the vocal opposition on social media, McRae said the response she’s received from the public has been overwhelmingly in favor of a joint ownership through Nikwasi Initiative.

“Most people I talk to say, ‘how can anyone be against it?’” she said.

Councilmember Brandon McMahan also said he supports the decision to transfer the deed, adding that he’s only heard from four residents who are opposed to it compared to the majority of people who think it’s the right thing to do.

“I do support transferring the deed, because firstly, I feel it’s morally the right thing to do — to return the land, at least in part, to the people who hold it in the highest regard, spiritually and culturally,” he said. “Secondly, because I genuinely believe that the Nikwasi Initiative will be good stewards of the mound, and see that it is well cared for, maintained, beautified, and given the place of honor that it deserves.”

McRae said she knows she has the support of the other five members of the board.

However, Franklin Mayor Bob Scott has expressed his opposition to transferring the deed over the Nikwasi Initiative — the same stance he took when the issue came up several years ago. He would rather see a joint maintenance agreement for the mound instead of a joint ownership agreement.

“I cannot understand why — if the Nikwasi Initiative is so set on owning the Nikwasi Mound in a loose-knit partnership — they will not honor the town’s deed to the Mound and allow the Town to be a partner without deeding the mound to them,” he wrote in a letter to the editor. “The town has maintained the mound for 73 years. It was placed on the Register of Historic Places in 1981 further protecting it. The relationship of the town with the mound is extensive. This move by the Initiative seems to be based more on emotion than practicality.”

McRae said it’s not hard to understand why the Cherokee people would want to be more involved in preserving such an important part of their history and heritage. She added that it would be insulting to not allow EBCI to have part ownership of the mound but want them to help maintain it. 

“We have something that is very dear to them that they want — there’s no price we can put on this,” she said. “It’s technically just an acre of dirt with grass on it, but to them it’s priceless and they are our neighbors —why can’t we let them have part of this?”

McRae also pointed out that EBCI also has more resources than the town to invest in revitalizing that area of town. With ownership under the joint nonprofit, there would also be more grants available for future projects.

 

Partnering projects

Nikwasi Initiative, a collaboration with the town, county, EBCI and Mainspring Conservation Trust, has already resulted in a number of projects to improve the appearance of East Franklin and historical recognition of some of the counties most important cultural assets — something McRae said the town hasn’t had the financial resources to accomplish on its own.

“The town has a lot to do —a water and sewer system to maintain, streets to clean, neighborhoods to monitor and keep happy, laws to enforce — we can’t devote our entire lives to urban renewal,” she said. “But through Mainspring and EBCI, we’re moving toward a new chapter for Nikwasi and that whole area.”

Mainspring purchased the former Duncan Oil site next door to its office on East Main Street in 2015 and completed a brownfield cleanup effort on the site to remove the contamination caused by the old underground oil tanks. The $300,000 cleanup was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mainspring also purchased the Simpson Gas and Oil Company located at 544 East Main Street to clean up and redevelop into green space.

Then EBCI purchased the former Dan’s Auto property on the other side of the mound with plans to invest over half a million dollars to construct a visitors center and an annex for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The tribe is also working with a designer to plan for what exhibitions will be located in the museum.

McRae also works with a Folk Heritage Association of Macon County committee that developed a Women’s History Trail through Franklin with plans to raise enough money to install a sculpture somewhere close to the Little Tennessee River and the mound on East Main Street. The artwork will be a 7-foot bronze sculpture depicting Cherokee woman Timoxena Siler Sloan, an African American woman Sally (last name unknown) and a white settler Rebecca Morris to represent the three different cultures of women that make up the history of the region.

Lastly, Franklin and Macon County are working on a joint project to construct a trail under the new town bridge to connect to the greenway.

“I see these developments and the transferring of the mound as potentially life changing for East Franklin and the whole town and the county,” McRae said. “We really want to revitalize and beautify the area.”

Though the mayor doesn’t get a vote unless the board is ever tied on an issue, Scott warned in his letter that the town stands to lose control of the mound and doesn’t feel the town will have say in its future.

“As the mayor, I believe that this controversy can be settled if the Nikwasi Initiative would allow the town to be a partner without having to give up the deed. For years I have advocated the revitalization of East Franklin. I have not changed my mind,” he said.

 

Next steps

The Nikwasi Mound issue will most certainly be discussed at the town’s next board meeting at 6 p.m. April 1 during public comment.

Though he currently supports the transfer of ownership, McMahan said he’s going to keep an open mind when hearing from constituents on the issue. The town attorney has not yet drawn up a proposed deed, but McMahan said he trusts that Henning will produce a document that covers all the bases and ensures the mound will be protected.

“The only stipulation that I have as far as the deed transfer goes, would be something to make sure that someone will take responsibility for the care and preservation of the mound in perpetuity, and that the mound will be cared for and preserved, should anything ever happen to the Nikwasi Initiative,” he said.

People opposing the deed transfer are focused on why the town should have to give up ownership, but McRae is focused on the why not. The decision to put it into a joint stakeholder ownership will not only be a momentous gesture to heal old wounds with the Cherokee people, it will mean more recognition and preservation for a mound that is treasured by everyone tied to Macon County’s past.

“The mound is on the National Register for Historic Places — hardly any towns have a mound of that stature right in the middle of town,” McRae said. “It’s been there 1,000 years. I’m thankful Franklin people saved it in 1946, but I hope to put up a welcome sign there for our Native American neighbors.”

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