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Cherokee supports Nikwasi grant effort

Nikwasi Initiative Director Elaine Eisenbaum (left) and Co-Chair Juanita Wilson embrace following Tribal Council’s passage of a resolution supporting the nonprofit’s grant application. EBCI video image Nikwasi Initiative Director Elaine Eisenbaum (left) and Co-Chair Juanita Wilson embrace following Tribal Council’s passage of a resolution supporting the nonprofit’s grant application. EBCI video image

Tribal Council voted Dec. 9 to support the Nikwasi Initiative’s  efforts to land $5 million in grant funds for a cultural corridor around the Nikwasi Mound in Franklin, but the precise details of the tribe’s involvement have yet to be determined. 

The grant in question is offered by the U.S. Economic Development Administration with American Rescue Plan  funds, but it requires a 20% match. The Nikwasi Initiative wants the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to transfer ownership of the 0.59-acre property adjacent to the mound, known as the former site of Dan’s Auto Service, and to contribute $50,000 to address environmental concerns with the building. 

Donation of the property, which the tribe bought in 2017 for $400,000, could be counted as an in-kind contribution toward the $1 million match. That donation would combine with other pledges to bring the Nikwasi Initiative up to $1 million, said Executive Director Elaine Eisenbaum. 

“This is an opportunity to do it real big, to make it a model for what we do with other mounds, and attract economic development where we can get the money and not come back to Tribal Council every time we need it, to be self-sufficient,” said Juanita Wilson, a tribal member and co-chair of the Nikwasi Initiative Board of Directors . “That’s really what our grand vision is.”

Grant funds would be used to consolidate more properties into the triangle surrounding the mound and to remodel the former Dan’s Auto Service building, the resolution says. 

Most Tribal Council members liked the concept, but the idea of transferring ownership met resistance. 

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“I’m not going to turn over any kind of ownership to someone else,” said Yellowhill Representative David Wolfe. 

His fellow Yellowhill representative T.W. Saunooke agreed. 

“As far as the Initiative itself, I love the fact that we have taken ownership back of the mound and everything,” he said. “The preservation of the area I’m totally in support of. The means about how we’re actually getting there on this of the piece of property actually leaving the tribe’s hands and any other acquisition not being in the tribe’s hands, I don’t think I can support that piece.” 

However, Wilson said, there is another option — instead of transferring ownership, the tribe could issue a long-term lease and become a co-applicant on the grant. Either way, the tribe would not be able to pursue putting the land into trust for some time. The grant requires that the applicant be the fee-simple owner of the land for 25 years. 

Attorney General Mike McConnell advised Tribal Council to pursue the lease option, saying that he had “concerns” about giving up a tribal real estate asset. 

While Tribal Council was leery of transferring the deed, most of its members were enthusiastic about the project itself. 

“We want the world to know that you are on our land, you are in our home, and because of that we’re going to show you how to respect the history of this tribe,” said Big Cove Representative Teresa McCoy. 

If Tribal Council opts not to transfer the land as an in-kind donation, she said, she’d be more than willing to support a cash contribution to the grant match. 

“Protecting a mound, when you do that, you honor your history, your ancestors — you honor them by that,” she said. “I think they would smile down upon us today and go, ‘You finally have the revenue needed to take back what you already have.’”

“I think every mound, every bit of property that we own, Tennessee, Georgia, needs to have a story behind it,” agreed Vice Chairman Albert Rose. “It helps us educate the senators at the state and federal level on who we are.” 

Once the spiritual, political and cultural centers of Cherokee towns, mounds are scattered throughout the tribe’s aboriginal territory. For many tribal members, reclaiming and honoring these sites is a high priority. 

As passed, the resolution states that Tribal Council “may” transfer ownership, but that the Business Committee — which is composed of six of the 12 Council members — may instead decide to approve a long-term lease if it determines that an outright transfer is not advisable. If the Nikwasi Initiative does not get the grant, the resolution states, the property will return to tribal control. 

Ultimately, nine of the 12 Council members voted in favor of the resolution. Yellowhill Representative David Wolfe and Painttown Representatives Tommye Saunooke and Dike Sneed were opposed. It now awaits a signature from Principal Chief Richard Sneed. 

“Council, I can’t tell you how much this means to us,” Wilson said following the resolution’s passage. “Thank you. Sgi. We’ll do right by you, I promise.” 

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