Five plaintiffs who filed for an injunction against the town claiming it was in violation of a 1946 deed to the mound — Gloria Raby Owenby, Betty Cloer Wallace, Mary Ruth Byrd, Edgar Burton “Bud” Shope and Judith B. Dowdle — have decided the cost to fight the legal battle would be too high.
“Our legal counsel advises that many months of discovery and exorbitant expense will be required for us to continue our legal case at this time against the Franklin Town Council regarding their giveaway of the Nikwasi Mound on May 6, 2019, complicated by the Council’s alleged entanglements with several private corporations and the sovereign Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” a press release from the plaintiffs stated.
They have requested that the injunction be dismissed without prejudice by the court, which would give them the option to renew legal action in the future if they discover more information about the Town Council’s transfer of ownership of the Nikwasi Mound. The plaintiff said they need more time to research the “convoluted and questionable relationships” among the many partnering agencies that make up the Nikwasi Initiative, which include Mainspring Conservation Trust, Women’s History Trail and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The town of Franklin and Macon County are also NI partners that have financially contributed to the organization’s mission of preserving the mound and developing a cultural corridor through the region to bring attention to the mound and other historic sites.
Despite Nikwasi Initiative being a public nonprofit organization, the plaintiffs insist on referring to the group as a “private development” organization. They see the deed transfer as the town privatizing the property that was deeded to the town for safekeeping in 1946. While the 1946 deed does specify that the mound “shall be preserved for the citizens of Macon County and for posterity,” Town Attorney John Henning Jr. told the town council he found nothing in the deed language prohibiting the town from entrusting the mound to another entity.
The plaintiffs interpret the deed differently and wanted the town to maintain the property for future generations.
“We appreciate the outpouring of citizen support for our efforts up to this point in trying to prevent privatization of the mound, and we encourage you to remain diligent in oversight of future actions of our local government officials, both municipal and county, both elected and employed, to ensure their legal and ethical duty to represent the citizens of Franklin and Macon County rather than their own opportunistic undertakings,” their press release stated. “We also encourage you to join us during the upcoming elections in working toward the removal of the six Franklin Town Council members who have betrayed the trust of Franklin voters and Macon County citizens in this matter, four of whom can be unseated in 2019 and two in 2021.”
The issue definitely caused a rift in the community between people who wanted to see something more done to preserve and promote the cultural and educational benefits of the mound and those who didn’t trust the Nikwasi Initiative’s intentions for the property.
Henning tried to relax those fears by including the same restrictions in the new deed that were outlined in the 1946 deed that would prevent any kind of development of the mound property. The deed does not absolve the town of ultimate responsibility of the mound — if the Nikwasi Initiative doesn’t live up to its promises or dissolves as a nonprofit, the mound ownership would revert back to the town of Franklin.
For those leading NI, the town’s unanimous vote to turn over the deed was a monumental moment in history. The mound is the only physical remnant of ancient Nikwasi village and is considered one of the most sacred of the Cherokee places remaining in Western North Carolina. After 200 years of not having any control over an ancient indian site located in the middle of downtown Franklin, the EBCI will finally have a voice in the future of the mound. With the mound under a joint ownership agreement, NI partners will move forward with plans to redevelop the parcels surrounding the mound to offer more educational opportunities about its significance.
“I am very pleased that the Franklin Town Council voted unanimously to convey Nikwasi Mound to the Nikwasi Initiative,” EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in a press release. “The vote by the Town Council solidifies the partnership between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Town of Franklin, and the Nikwasi Initiative. We are very excited about what the future holds for all the partners in this venture.”
Once the official transfer of the deed is complete, Nikwasi Initiative will coordinate with EBCI’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office regarding mound maintenance. EBCI has purchased a property adjoining the mound, which is proposed as an annex to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. A study to determine the feasibility and scope of the proposed museum is under way. Pending results of the study, the Initiative’s members will bring stakeholders together to ensure that the greater project moves forward with a common vision.
“This project has enormous potential for the town and the region,” said Barbara McRae, vice-mayor of Franklin, who serves as the town’s representative to Nikwasi Initiative. “Its history is fascinating and unique. It has meaning to all of us in Macon County, as well as the Cherokee, and is a treasured part of our heritage. And, it has national significance. We look forward to the opportunity the coalition offers to tell this story and create a beautiful public place around it.”
Juanita Wilson, a member of the EBCI and co-chair for NI board, was also pleased with the council’s decision despite the small but vocal opposition.
“My heart skipped a beat. I could hear my ancestors sigh. In my mind’s eye I can see the Nunnehi, the ‘Immortals,’ who historically protected these lands, and the people, nodding in approval,” she said. “I felt the winds shift, bringing a sense of renewal and unity across Western North Carolina. I woke up to a new day.”