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Franklin balks at apology for killing mound grass

Franklin leaders declined last week to offer a formal apology to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for using weed killer on an ancient Indian mound.

“I don’t think we did anything destructive,” said Franklin Alderman Sissy Pattillo. “And I have a problem with the chief or whoever saying we did something disrespectful. That just bothers me.”

Principal Chief Michell Hicks earlier this month said he was “appalled” by Franklin’s use of a weed killer to denude the mound. Hicks called on the town to formally apologize for what he termed a culturally insensitive action and one that demonstrated a marked lack of respect for the Cherokee people.

Alderman Bob Scott was the lone town leader who wanted to issue an apology. He had drafted a letter to the chief expressing regret for what had taken place, and said that perhaps the dustup could serve as a means of opening new dialog between Franklin and the tribe. His call to send the letter received a lukewarm response from fellow town board members, however. The other aldermen pointed out that they had never been formally asked by the tribe to apologize, but instead the demand for an apology had come only through the media.

“I’ve got a question,” Alderman Farrell Jamison said to Scott at a Franklin town meeting last week. “Was there actually a letter or are we just listening to media stuff? Do you have a copy of a letter?”

“I do not,” Scott responded.

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Pattillo made the point that the town didn’t just dump weed killer on the mound out of malicious intent. Franklin leaders have said they were merely trying to cut back on weekly mowing maintenance of the 6,000-square-foot mound, which is located on town property. After the grass was killed off, the town intended to replant it with a low-growing native grass variety that wouldn’t need mowing.

Nikwasi Indian Mound is one of the largest intact mounds remaining in Western North Carolina. Large earthen mounds were built to mark the spiritual and civic center of American Indian towns that once dotted the Little Tennessee River Valley through Macon County and the region. Scholars note that while its precise age is uncertain, Nikwasi Mound pre-dates even the Cherokee.

Pattillo defended the town’s stewardship of the mound. She said that the town’s ownership dates to 1946 when then-owner Roy Carpenter was offered $3,000 to sell the mound for commercial interests. Someone wanted to doze the mound down and develop the property.

“School children, people in town, people out of town and people out of the county sent in their pennies and money and it was bought for $1,500 dollars and given to the town of Franklin,” Pattillo said.

Mayor Joe Collins had earlier told The Smoky Mountain News that Town Manager Sam Greenwood had exceeded his authority in ordering the weed killer to be applied.

“But decisions were made and that’s where we are at right now,” Collins said. “It didn’t jump out at me as being an affront or an indignity to the mound and certainly not to the Eastern Band. I hope it’s not an issue of strong sentiment to the tribe in particular — I’m over there on a regular basis and I’ve not picked up on it.”

Collins noted that the mound does belong to Franklin and that he was satisfied that the town has been a good steward of it.

“It really is our decision to make because it is under our ownership,” said Collins, whose mother was an enrolled member of the Eastern Band.

The mayor said that he for one would welcome working with the tribe on issues concerning Nikwasi Mound, perhaps in connection with a town hope to one day acquire some of the land around the mound. There has been some discussion about creating a park there. The town also has plans to install an informational kiosk at the mound to inform visitors about the historical significance of the ancient site.

Scott said one good thing about the weed-killer incident is that “it has brought the issue of the mound into the public eye.”

Scott’s motion to send the letter expressing regret failed for lack of a second. Alderman Billy Mashburn then made his own motion — that no apology be considered by the board, and that the town attorney be instructed to look into an ordinance that would ban all foot traffic from the mound unless there was prior town board approval.

“And I think at this point we need to dissolve the mound committee,” Mashburn added, explaining that he believes decisions about the mound need to be made by the town board.

The mound committee was made up of town leaders and residents who discussed issues about Nikwasi Mound. Scott and Collins both served on the committee.

Scott, a bit testily, asked “Would you be more comfortable with the mound committee if I weren’t on it? I’ll just step down.”

No one replied to Scott.

Collins noted that there was no reason to vote on a motion noting that no apology would be considered since there wouldn’t be an apology issued anyway.

The board then dissolved the mound committee, voted to have the attorney research the needed legalese for banning foot traffic and to plant eco-grass on the denuded mound.

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