At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

Meet the director of Nikwasi Initiative

Nikwasi Initiative Executive Director, Elaine Eisenbraun, joins the Cherokee Culture Keepers in Bear Dance to celebrate groundbreaking at new Kiosk site. Nikwasi Initiative Executive Director, Elaine Eisenbraun, joins the Cherokee Culture Keepers in Bear Dance to celebrate groundbreaking at new Kiosk site.

Nikwasi Initiative, a new nonprofit established in 2018 with the mission of preserving the Nikwasi Mound in downtown Franklin and expanding access and educational activities, has hired its first executive director, Elaine Eisenbraun.

In the past, she has served as executive director for three other organizations — an outdoor education center, a large river and landscape restoration organization and a healing arts start-up. At the same time, she consulted for countless other nonprofits. She studied forestry in undergraduate school and received a master’s degree in business leadership.

 

Rumble: Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Elaine: I think each of us is always growing and changing. I hope I always chase after new experiences and inadvertently discover new scenes to enjoy every day. I started out in the Adirondack Mountain area, a place with some definite similarities to here. After studying forestry in college, I went to Oregon to work on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where I traversed the woods alone studying forest conditions, wrote environmental assessments, and fought a few wildfires (I feel deep compassion for the firefighters there now). I met my husband (also a forester) there and we bounced back and forth across the country several times, always seeking out adventurous jobs or pursuing entrepreneurial ideas in the forest and farm sectors. I naturally tended toward environmental education because I always wanted to share my many forest experiences with people who didn’t have the chance to spend long days in nature. That led to leadership roles in places where the overarching mission is to connect people to nature or people to each other.

I have two daughters. They were home schooled and grew up running in the woods. It’s not a surprise that they chose alternative lifestyles. Today one is an award-winning artist and one is a homesteader. My interests are varied. I am a dabbler, adept at many things and superbly expert at none. I love to help people and have volunteered at all kinds of things from hospice and senior food delivery to scouting. I get up every morning and bike, run, or paddle before my day’s work. Often, I stop somewhere for a swim or to explore an interesting spot. I prefer biking and running on hills because I savor the persistence needed on the uphill challenge and then praise the reward of that cool breeze that freely gifts itself on the downhill. I also like knitting, playing music, crafting hand-written letters, gardening, learning anything I missed in school, and ruminating on simple observations. There’s never enough time to do it all, especially since I love my work and keep at it all day and night.

Rumble: You recently moved to Franklin from Oregon — how's that transition been?

Elaine: I have found Western North Carolina to be the most welcoming place that I have ever visited or lived. You are a group of people with open arms and overflowing kindness. Thank you. Before coming here, I lived on the east side of Oregon, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, so it was dry — maybe 12” of rain fell per year. As you can imagine, the landscape of the southern Appalachians is much different. I am loving the lush plant life and the secretive fauna. Our home in Oregon was very remote with no neighbors for many miles. It was a long drive just to get groceries and I could often be on the road for an hour or more before seeing another car. Before I moved, I wondered what it would be like to be around so many more people; what I found was that each person I meet here is a gem and the welcoming nature that I mentioned makes me eager to greet more and more people.

 

Rumble: What interested you enough about the Nikwasi Initiative (a nonprofit upstart) enough to move across the country to spearhead the project?

Elaine: Doesn’t the sound of a “non-profit upstart” just intrigue you with the thought of possibilities? Yes, there is more work to do in the beginning period of any undertaking, but the horizon is bright and full of so many possible trails to explore (some obvious and some hidden). Nikwasi Initiative was founded in a landscape of insufficient intercultural awareness, with a group of people who were willing to walk across the divide to build new understanding and create unity. Those people took each other’s hands and bridged the gap. It couldn’t have been done in a less personable or caring community. I’m honored to work with your amazing community. Also, the mission of Nikwasi Initiative is about “Culture.” I believe that each person is a composite of their own unique cultural upbringing and experience. That inner understanding is what we need to depend upon in times of uncertainty, and we are surely languishing in uncertainty today. Teaching individuals and populations everywhere to explore and honor their own culture and respect each other’s may just be the missing link to harmony in our ambiguous world. Nikwasi Initiative is leading that approach.

Rumble: For those who may not be familiar with the organization yet, what is the main purpose and who are the collaborators?

Elaine: Nikwasi Initiative exists to preserve, protect, and promote culture and heritage in the landscape that was the traditional homeplace of the Cherokee people. That usually revolves around Cherokee culture, but is also inextricably linked to the heritage of settlement, slavery, agriculture, and modern life. Our projects include kiosks to interpret or help inform people about sites that are often misunderstood. We are in the process of building a Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail. Did you know that, prior to relocation, the Cherokee were great breeders of apples? I’ve also started a Multi-cultural Alliance in the area with partners who lead nonprofits to help all different groups of people. We will share rich stories of culture in order to unite people more readily, and we plan to take on policy work, which is fundamental to social harmony. Nikwasi Initiative is planning educational programs, and so much more.

Nikwasi collaborators are many and diverse. Of course, they include the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as well as the Town, County, Mainspring Conservation Trust, The Museum of the Cherokee, Western Carolina University, and many of the museums, festivals, and other nonprofits. It would take this whole article to list them all. I hope each of you is a collaborator in your own way.

Rumble: How significant was it historically and culturally for the town to deed the Nikwasi Mound property over to NI?

Elaine: HUGE! Collaborative solutions are very popular today. In many places where there is intractable disagreement, facilitators work to pull everyone into a circle of discussion. It is a good approach, usually providing tentative, slowly crafted agreements. On the other hand, the transfer of the Nikwasi Mound was big and brave and indicative of superb intercultural understanding. That is rare. I honor the Town of Franklin, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and all the partners that contributed to the discussion for their patience and willingness to listen honestly to one another. There is a lot to be learned from this process. The outcome- passing the deed, represents a new awareness of the importance of Cherokee lifestyles and history. We all have something to learn from the community that once thrived here. The mound is a place to start learning from that heritage.

Rumble: How will the NI projects benefit the community in the future?

Elaine: There are 4 key contributions that Nikwasi Initiative can make to the community, region, and individuals who visit the area.

  1. We tell the story of culture and heritage in a full and thought-provoking manner so that people not only learn the facts, but they also gain a new understanding of their own culture, and of neighbors who may at first glance seem different. We encourage you to find both, your own story and the will to reach out to others.
  2. Nikwasi Initiative will develop new tourism opportunities. After Covid-19, I believe that we’ll see people seeking more meaningful travel. Yes, everyone has a pent-up desire for raucous fun after the quarantines J, but we also grew during the pandemic in our desire for meaningful connections. That is what Nikwasi Initiative strives to expand.
  3. We are helping to create livable communities by providing stimulating programs that educate, enlighten, and coalesce.
  4. We’ll continue to use the collaborative model to assure that everyone is heard. After all, everyone has a heritage and a vision that has grown out of that heritage. Each heritage and vision is equally important.

Rumble: Why is it still important today to work closely with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians?

I’ve seen a quote from a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians stating, “We are still here.” There is a lot in that sentence. We are all neighbors on this planet. When you relocate to a new neighborhood, you might depend upon the long-term residents to show you the ins and outs of the place. The Cherokee not only know the landscape, they are an integral part of it. The forests through which you hike on the weekends may have been influenced by long-ago residents of that land. I have worked with several tribes in my career. The EBCI stands at the forefront of collaborative vision and communication. They are innovative, wise, and effective. The EBCI is looking out for the wellbeing of the whole region and we need to do the same in return.

To find out more about Nikwasi Initiative, visit their website or follow them on Facebook.

Subscribe to Our Email Newsletters

  • Rumble: An empowering weekly newsletter created by women, for women
  • The SMN Xtra: Updates from the Smoky Mountain News throughout the week
Go to top