Anchored at Kituwah: After 138 years, Cherokee will reclaim its Mother Town as sovereign territory
A restless autumn wind ripples through the valley, passing over green fields, across turned-up garden plots and through tall rows of dried corn stalks. Their raspy skeletons rustle in the breeze, which exits the field to send a few glimmering strands of gossamer sailing over the gravel path that leads past Kituwah Mound.
“For me it’s like coming home, every time I come down here,” says Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal member Juanita Wilson, standing under a blue November sky.
Wilson has been “coming home” regularly since the spring of 2020, when the tribal government’s pandemic-induced shutdown meant that Wilson, who manages the training and development program within the EBCI Department of Human Resources, suddenly had a lot more time on her hands. She used that time to prioritize her health, getting on a bike for the first time since she was 12. Kituwah Fields, with its safe network of flat, gravel roads and prevailing pastoral calm, became the setting for this new ritual.
Quickly, the bike rides transcended exercise. Wilson, who co-chairs the board of directors for the Nikwasi Initiative , which holds the deed for Nikwasi Mound in Franklin, has cultivated a fascination and reverence for Cherokee mounds ever since she became involved in the conservation of Cowee Mound about 15 years ago. As the bike rides became a regular ritual, she took it upon herself to start learning everything she could about Kituwah and its history . Soon, she felt a close connection to the place and to the people who came there before her.
Since the pandemic struck, visits to Kituwah have become a regular part of life for tribal member Juanita Wilson, who also co-chairs the Nikwasi Initiative Board of Directors. Holly Kays photo
“When I come down, I often say, ‘Shiyo, ancestors,’” said Wilson, using the Cherokee word for “hello.” “I will acknowledge them, and it’s just such a good feeling when I’m biking. It’s easy to put a good 10, 15 miles on it, just going all through and knowing that the Cherokee presence is everywhere, all throughout.”
A testament to perseverance
Resting along the banks of the Tuckasegee River just a couple miles east of modern-day Bryson City, Kituwah has a history far older than any of the written accounts that seek to describe it. Archeologists date the site back to nearly 10,000 years ago, and all three federally recognized Cherokee tribes consider it to be the origin place for the Cherokee people.
It is the Mother Town, the Cherokees’ most sacred place, the site of a mound that once stood some 15 to 20 feet tall, and the burial place of at least 15 people — and probably many more.
According to James Mooney’s much-referenced book “Myths of the Cherokee,” first published in 1900, mound construction began by laying a circle of stones on the ground, with a fire built in the center and the body of a prominent chief or priest who had recently died placed near it, together with various objects of spiritual importance. A priest then conjured the objects with disease, ensuring that even if an enemy did manage to destroy the town, he would never make it home. The women brought soil in baskets to build up the mound, leaving an open place at the center in which a hollow cedar trunk was fitted around the fire. Once the mound was complete, the townhouse was built atop it, and a man known as a fire keeper stayed there always to ensure that the fire continued burning.
Once standing 15 to 20 feet tall, Kituwah Mound is now a gentle bump on the landscape — but it still holds sacred importance to the Cherokee people. Holly Kays photo
“The townhouse was always built on the level bottom lands by the river in order that the people might have smooth ground for their dances and ballplays and might be able to go down to water during the dance,” Mooney wrote.
The Cherokee heartland held many mounds — a 19th-century survey from the Smithsonian Institution recorded about 40 in Western North Carolina — but the one at Kituwah was special. Before European contact, the Cherokee territory was immense, spreading across the Southern Appalachian region to cover parts of eight states. Kituwah was the tribe’s political and spiritual center.
“This was the area where we came back to hold Grand Council, where we came back to have large meetings and have celebrations, the planning of war,” said Brandon Stephens, the EBCI’s director of realty. “It was all those things.”
With European conquest came a massive loss of life and cultural connection for the Cherokee people, and Kituwah was one casualty of that. The tribe lost ownership of the village area in an 1883 land cessation treaty with the United States.
By the 1990s, the site was a farm known by most as Ferguson’s Fields . Stephens remembers seeing corn, tobacco, tomatoes and all manner of crops grown on the flat bottomland during his childhood in the 1970s. The once-towering mound had been plowed so many times it was little more than a bump on the landscape.
But in November 1996, under the leadership of then-Principal Chief Joyce Dugan, the tribe reclaimed ownership of its spiritual heartland, purchasing the 309-acre parcel from the Ferguson family.
Twenty-five years later, the tribe is celebrating a new, more permanent milestone for the site’s protection. In October, Principal Chief Richard Sneed signed an agreement to convey the land into federal trust for the EBCI, meaning that Kituwah will soon become part of the tribe’s sovereign territory. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has already issued its decision to approve the tribe’s request — barring any unforeseen complications from a recently completed public comment period, all that remains is to gather the necessary signatures and file the final paperwork to make the change official.
“We have persevered for centuries through hardship and fought to perpetuate our lives, language and culture,” Sneed said in a statement issued after the signing. “Taking this land into trust will ensure this most sacred site will be preserved and honored in perpetuity. This land will never again be taken from our people.”
Since the day the tribe bought the property in 1996, said Stephens, it desired to see it become part of the tribal trust lands, but the process was long, complicated and bureaucracy-ridden. The fact that the tribe has now proven itself capable of walking through the complex 16-step process says something important about the tribe’s growing capacity and organizational sophistication.
“It gives us a greater sense of identity for what we were and knowing who we are and what we’re going toward — just being able to control our own destiny and knowing that we have the resources to do that,” Stephens said.
Expanding the Boundary
Kituwah is not the only site that the tribe anticipates adding to its sovereign territory soon. The D.C. BIA office recently decided to push decision-making on fee-to-trust applications to its regional offices, Sneed said during an Oct. 11 Annual Council session, and that change has sped up the process “significantly.”
On the same date in 2014 that the tribe submitted its initial application to place Kituwah into trust, it also applied for the same action at a 345-acre tract located nearby at Cooper’s Creek. That process is “a couple of baby steps” behind the one for Kituwah, said Stephens — about two weeks ago, the tribe received the BIA’s notice of decision agreeing to take the land into trust. Pending results of a public comment period currently underway, the official paperwork will likely follow.
The EBCI is also in discussion with the BIA over the process to reclaim an 18-acre field in the center of the Qualla Boundary, currently held by the BIA. In the mid-to-late 1800s, Stephens said, Cherokee families gave the land to the tribe to build a school, and from there it went into trust for the BIA to provide those educational facilities. The building eventually fell into disrepair, and when the Cherokee Central Schools were built in the 2000s, the school became surplus property. It’s now an empty field that lies along Tsali Boulevard between the BIA’s local offices and the commercial strip at the intersection with U.S. 19.
Eventually, the building was demolished, and the BIA agreed to transfer it back to tribal control — but years later, there’s still disagreement as to how to make that happen. In a phone call last week, Stephens said, the central office in Washington, D.C., said it wanted the parties to go through the same fee-to-trust process used for other properties like Kituwah or Cooper’s Creek, while the Eastern Regional Office of the BIA pushed for a simpler avenue, because the property is already in federal trust — just not for the EBCI.
Finally, the tribe is seeking sovereign ownership of six tracts near Vonore, Tennessee, currently owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority but held in easement by the EBCI. They total about 180 acres and are home to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, the Chota Memorial and the Tanasi Memorial. The property borders Tellico Lake, whose creation inundated the sites of several ancient towns — including Tanasi, for which Tennessee was named — as well as the gravesites of thousands of years of Cherokee ancestors.
During the Oct. 18 Annual Council, Tribal Council voted unanimously on a resolution authorizing Sneed to submit a fee-to-trust application to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
Simultaneously, a bill now before Congress seeks to take 76.1 acres of that site — the portion containing the museum and two memorials, as well as some support acreage — into trust through legislative action. The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 407-16 on Nov. 1 — all North Carolina and Tennessee representatives voted in favor — and on Nov. 17 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the matter, with Sneed testifying.
A similar bill introduced in 2019 and another in 2018 also passed the House but never received a vote or committee hearing in the Senate. Efforts previous to 2018 made even less progress. The Nov. 17 hearing marks the bill’s furthest advance to date.
When the federal government takes land into trust for a tribe, it holds the land title for the benefit of that tribe, effectively extending the boundary of the tribe’s sovereign territory to include that property. The land in question ceases to be under state control or subject to county property taxes and becomes part of the tribal nation.
While the tribe seeks the same legal status for all four properties — Kituwah, Cooper’s Creek, lands near Vonore and the old elementary school site — it has different intentions for each area.
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad bisects the property, which continues up the hill on the opposite side of the road. Holly Kays photo
The elementary school site and Cooper’s Creek could be developed to help bring the tribe toward its future, Stephens said. Cherokee leaders have long discussed using the Cooper’s Creek property to address the critical need for new housing. Meanwhile, tribal leaders are discussing development ideas to transform the old elementary school site into a commercial destination capitalizing on the ever-increasing demand for outdoor experiences, products and services.
“It’s something we really need to put back into our ownership, because it is probably one of the most valuable pieces of retail property in town,” Stephens said.
Meanwhile, the Vonore lands would be places of cultural — not commercial — importance. The legislation currently before Congress explicitly prohibits gaming on the 76 acres described in that bill.
For Kituwah, too, the goal is preservation. It is and will continue to be a place where Cherokee people go for ceremonies, dances and celebrations. A quiet place of connection with those who came before. A place whose rich soil tribal members cultivate into food for their families and blessings for their neighbors.
Kituwah won’t become a commercial development, said Stephens. And should any tribal leaders in the future second-guess that decision, they’d find that most of the property is in the floodplain, and therefore unbuildable. Kituwah’s own form of self-preservation, perhaps.
Value of place
The fee-to-trust process is an important tool for Native American tribes to grow their boundaries and exercise their sovereignty, but it’s not a skeleton key.
“Just because we buy property doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to just press to have it put into trust,” Stephens said.
The solution depends — on how close the property is to the tribe’s existing boundaries, its specific cultural value and the economic implications of maintaining it as deeded land versus trust land. For many of the tribe’s business ventures, deeded property makes more sense. The obvious exception is that of the tribe’s extremely lucrative casinos in Cherokee and Murphy. Those facilities reside on trust land and would not be allowed to exist were they built on deeded land.
“There’s value, obviously, in property,” said Stephens. “They don’t make any more of it, and in time land appreciates. Not everybody can own trust property, but most people can own fee-simple property.”
A quick search of county land records shows that tribal LLCs own at least 24 acres in Haywood County, 9 acres in Jackson County and 20 acres in Swain County. Meanwhile, the tribal government owns about 744 acres in Jackson County and 204 acres in Macon County, in addition to considerable lands in Swain County — including the more than 600 acres at Kituwah and Cooper’s Creek.
Out of all that property — some of which the tribe has held for decades — Cooper’s Creek and Kituwah are the only tracts the tribe is currently seeking to take into federal trust.
“For us to own fee-simple property without putting it into trust, I think it builds good political capital for us with the counties and the state,” said Stephens.
Many of the newer acquisitions are the result of activity at Kituwah LLC , the company the tribe created in 2018 to diversify its revenue streams. Because Kituwah LLC and its subsidiaries are revenue-driven operations, the inherent economic value in deeded land is typically advantageous for their purposes.
“Those are long-term investments, and that’s something that the tribe needed,” Big Cove Representative Teresa McCoy said during a Nov. 4 discussion on the LLC’s activities. “Ela Campground, for instance, is deeded property. That’s an asset. When we put land into trust, we remove the value of that property.”
The value McCoy spoke of was assessed real estate value, but trust land has its own kind of value — a value that stems from the comfort of knowing that land will always be a place where tribal sovereignty and self-determination have the last word.
The tribe encourages members to adopt garden plots and grow food on their ancestral land at Kituwah. Holly Kays photo
Walking the paths of Kituwah, where her ancestors once laughed, cried, worked, played and worshipped, Wilson can see that value clearly through the lenses of her Prada sunglasses.
The glasses are a symbol of the overwhelming change the tribe has seen in her lifetime, and of the need to stay grounded in the eternal amid those seismic shifts. Wilson was raised by her great-grandparents, to whom it never would have occurred to even dream about owning designer sunglasses. But soaring casino profits and the resulting per-capita payments to tribal members have opened up previously unimaginable opportunities for travel, education and the occasional impulse purchase.
“It’s really cool, but yet keeping your mind at home, keeping your mind on where you come from, it’s real important,” Wilson said. “And for the young people, even more important. They’ve got to lead. They have to carry on.”
The fields of Kituwah will help them shoulder that load.
“It’s a sense of place,” she said, “and it anchors you back to the good things.”
November is Native American Heritage Month
Learn more about the legacy this month seeks to recognize — and the stories of tribes scattered throughout the nation — at nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov.