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Franklin board hears feedback on Nikwasi’s future

Betty Wallace speaks in opposition to the town transferring the Nikwasi Mound deed to a nonprofit group. Jessi Stone photo Betty Wallace speaks in opposition to the town transferring the Nikwasi Mound deed to a nonprofit group. Jessi Stone photo

Tensions ran high at Monday night’s Franklin Town Council meeting as the board sat before a packed room of residents there hoping to sway the town one way or another on the future of Nikwasi Mound. 

Some residents held signs asking the town to “honor the deed” from 1946 that granted the town ownership of Nikwasi Mound while others were there to convince the town to transfer the deed to Nikwasi Initiative, a local nonprofit with the mission of preserving and promoting the region’s culturally significant sites.

With so many accusations and assertions being made on social media in recent weeks regarding the sacred Cherokee mound, it’s been perhaps the most hotly debated issue in Macon County since 2014 when the last controversy over the mound was being discussed. 

Before allowing public comment, Councilmember David Culpepper thanked everyone for caring enough about the issue to appear at the meeting and asked everyone to remain civil. 

“Everyone in this room are good people — no one has malicious intent — they’re here for the betterment of the community and the town,” he said. “Let’s keep that in mind tonight as we talk to each other.”

Mayor Bob Scott had to strictly enforce the 3-minute time limit on speakers since 19 people were signed up for public comment regarding the mound.

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First to the podium was Gloria Owenby, a seventh-generation Maconian and also one of the five plaintiffs that filed for an injunction against the town to keep the board from transferring the deed from the town to the Nikwasi Initiative. She spoke about the history of the mound and how it was saved from development in 1946 after Macon County residents raised $1,500 to buy it and deed it over to the town for safekeeping. 

Owenby also read from Councilmember Barbara McRae’s book about Nikwasi history.

“The back cover says Nikwasi is the largest and best preserved mound in North Carolina and is the only one that is publicly owned,” she said. “I find it disturbing she’s now proposing to give it away.”

McRae also serves as the co-chair for the Nikwasi Initiative and brought the deed transfer proposal to the town council at last month’s meeting. Nikwasi Initiative currently has a seven-member board of directors representing a joint partnership between the town of Franklin, Macon County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust. McRae and other supporters of the deed transfer have said a joint ownership between all stakeholders is needed for the Nikwasi Initiative to move forward with its plan of revitalizing East Franklin where the mound sits. The nonprofit, utilizing the many resources of Mainspring, has already made major headway on a number of projects. 

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. 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. 

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 depiction of the 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.

Ben Laseter, deputy director of Mainspring and a Nikwasi Initiative board member, read a letter from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina during his public comment time. The Community Foundation has already granted the nonprofit funds to begin its work and were encouraged by the partnership between all the stakeholders involved. 

 

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Bob McCollum (below) with Cowee School Heritage Center, speaks in favor of Nikwasi Initiative ownership. Jessi Stone photo

 

“The town was the logical recipient of the mound in 1946 and the town has done a good job of basic maintenance,” he said. “But in 2019 we need to consider a new model for the benefit of future generations. The mound deserves the management, stewardship and resources made available by the partners.”

Still, opponents say the 1946 deed leaves no room for interpretation. Betsy Gooder, publisher of the Macon County News, read from the deed Monday night. Written by lawyer Gilmer Jones, Gooder said the deed was clear the mound had to be preserved for Macon County citizens in posterity and that it shall not be used in any way for commercial purposes. 

“Gilmer Jones was a wise man and he certainly foresaw what was going to happen — that’s why he made this ironclad deed,” she said. 

Betty Wallace, another defendant in the injunction, agrees the language in the deed makes it clear the town must maintain ownership of the mound. She also claimed McRae has a conflict of interest in her roles as a councilmember and the co-chair of Nikwasi Initiative. 

“She’s compromising her duty to the residents of Franklin,” she said. 

Even though Town Attorney John Henning Jr. told McRae she doesn’t have a conflict of interest because there’s no opportunity for financial gain, Wallace disagrees with that assertion. 

“But in any context, that advice is ill conceived and untrue,” Wallace told McRae at the meeting. “And you, Barbara, should recuse yourself from any such vote about the mound that involves both your giving it away and handing it to yourself in any manner that adversely affects the people of our town and county,” Wallace said.

Later in the meeting, Henning clarified that McRae does not have a conflict of interest as there is no chance for financial gain by transferring the deed to a nonprofit entity. He called comments from Wallace and others “way out of bounds.”

“Given you don’t have a legal conflict of interest as a government official, North Carolina laws say you’re compelled to vote,” he said. 

Henning also said he was very comfortable with the deed he drafted for the town to consider conveying the mound to Nikwasi Initiative. He said the draft still gives the town enormous control over the future maintenance and preservation of the deed. It includes a reversion clause in case the nonprofit ever dissolves or if it violates the deed. The new drafted deed also still includes all the restrictions of the 1946 deed, which means it can’t be used for commercial purposes or be altered in any way. 

“I don’t read the deed to constrain the property ownership,” Henning said. However, he said the  newly drafted deed does observe and would honor restrictions outlined in the 1946 deed.

Robert Siler, a lawyer in Franklin, said he disagreed with Hennings’ opinion on McRae’s conflict of interest as well as the interpretation of the language in the 1946 deed. He said the deed makes it clear the mound can’t be used for commercial purposes yet supporters of the deed transfer claim the joint ownership agreement would result in a financial boon for East Franklin. 

“I respectfully disagree that you (Barbara) don’t have a conflict of interest — I don’t think it’s limited to financial gain,” he said. “Nikwasi Initiative is only two years old and as far as I can tell they’ve done nothing. I suggest council table this until further research is done. Maybe enter into a contract with Nikwasi Initiative to maintain the mound for a while and see how they do.”

Of the 19 people who spoke during public comment, nine spoke in opposition to the deed transfer and 10 people supported the joint ownership approach under the Nikwasi Initiative. 

Mark West, a member of the Macon County Folk Heritage Association, spoke in favor of the transfer on behalf of the organization. 

Bob McCollum, with the Cowee School Heritage Center and a recent appointee to the Nikwasi Initiative board of directors, also expressed support for the deed transfer. He said the people in 1946 that helped save the mound were the children and grandchildren of families that lived among the Cherokee. Those people better understood the spiritual and cultural connection between Cherokee people and the mound, he said. 

“In 1946 this wasn’t all about the people of Franklin. They had to know the connection of the Cherokee to the land and that was on their mind as well. We’ve had 73 years to lose that connection and the understanding of that connection,” McCollum said. “To us it’s a relic — this thing we grew up with — to Cherokee it is a real-time part of their culture and spirituality. Nothing is going to happen on that mound. We’re trying to offer our friends an equal voice in stewardship of the mound — 1946 was a starting point, not an end point — here’s our chance to finish saving the mound.”

Chris Brouwer said Mainspring does have a track record of conserving and preserving land in Macon County. He said Mainspring and the EBCI have resources the town doesn’t have to clean up the blight that side of town has become.

Fred Alexander said he hoped the future of the mound is determined by hopes and not by fears. He’d like to see a vision carried out for the mound that would make residents and visitors more aware of its history and cultural significance. As for questions of McRae’s integrity and motives, he said no other person has done more to honor and preserve Macon County’s history.

Juanita Wilson, a tribal member and co-chair of the Nikwasi Initiative, said her ancestors didn’t believe in owning land — they simply inhabited it and took great care of it. The same goes for Nikwasi and other Cherokee mounds in the region that have been saved and preserved through joint efforts between EBCI and private landowners who understand their importance. 

 

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Juanita Wilson, an enrolled member of the ECBI, tells council members about the importance of savings Cherokee mounds. Jessi Stone photo

 

“We all want what’s best for the mound,” she said.

After hearing everyone’s input, the town council went into a closed session for 20 minutes to discuss pending litigation. Once the board returned to open session, they voted unanimously to retain legal representation to defend the town in the lawsuit filed by five Macon County residents. 

At the recommendation of Councilmember Joe Collins, the board decided to take another month to digest public input and review the draft deed Hennings prepared before taking a vote on the matter at the May meeting. The draft deed is a public document and will be available to the public at town hall for review. 

Scott said he’d also like to see a more formal explanation of the partnership agreement between the entities that make up Nikwasi Initiative. While McRae claims she’s the town representative on the Nikwasi Initiative board, Scott said that was never voted on by the board. 

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