After 200 years, Cherokee poised to regain mysterious tribal mound dating to 1,000 AD

The Nikwasi Mound dates back 800 to 1,000 years and is believed to have been built by the ancestors of the Cherokee tribe. Nikwasi Initiative Photo
The Nikwasi Mound dates back 800 to 1,000 years and is believed to have been built by the ancestors of the Cherokee tribe. Nikwasi Initiative Photo

A 1,000-year-old sacred mound that counts as one of North Carolina’s oldest mysteries is on the cusp of being returned -- at least in part -- to a tribe believed to be descended from the original builders: the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.

The town council of Franklin -- which controls the Nikwasi Mound -- voted Monday to move ahead with plans to deed control of the site to the Nikwasi Initiative, a nonprofit co-owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, reports Blue Ridge Public Radio.

It’s a move that comes exactly two centuries after the Cherokee lost ownership of the site to European settlers in 1819, according to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

“What this will do is allow the Cherokees -- finally after 200 years -- to have some representation in the management of the mound,” Franklin Vice Mayor Barbara McRae told council members before the vote. “We have an opportunity to do something really historic, and to reverse that wrong.”

Who built the mound and what it was originally used for are unresolved bits of history, say historians, but the Cherokee have long considered it a sacred place, according to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

If final votes go as expected, the nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative will assume control of the mound in the next few months, for incorporation in a “cultural corridor” along the Tennessee River, reports Blue Ridge Public Radio. At that point, the mound will be controlled by four partners: The tribe, the town of Franklin, Macon County and Mainspring Conservation Trust, McRae told the Charlotte Observer.

Cherokee representative and Nikwasi Initiative official Juanita Wilson addressed Franklin’s town council last week and called their plan to share ownership “amazing” and “emotional” for the tribe.

“For this to happen and you guys to support this in such a strong way...I’m trying not to get too emotional...but bringing that (mound) back home, it really unites us and nobody loses anything. We all gain so very much,” she said, video shows.

The Cherokee tribe were among North Carolina’s indigenous people and it is believed the mound in Franklin is all that remains of 100-acre tribal town that was their “spiritual and ceremonial center,” according to the N.C Department of Cultural Resources.

The origin of the mound itself is one of North Carolina’s oldest mysteries. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and historians suggested at the time it was built by the “ancestors of the modern Cherokee people,” reported Mainspring Conservation.

An explorer who visited the area in 1774 reported being told by a Cherokee elder that the tribe did not know who built the mound which “was already old when the Cherokee arrived,” reports a 2017 article by the Apalache Foundation’s Richard Thornton.

The mound survives today surrounded by development in Franklin, which purchased it 1946 from a developer who “wanted to doze the mound down,” reports the Smoky Mountain News.

Among the critics who oppose plans to share the mound with the Cherokee is Franklin Mayor Bob Scott, who was quoted telling WLOS that the town should not share ownership of the site. However, he would only vote in the matter in the case of a tie, officials told the Charlotte Observer.

“The mound would not even be there today had it not been in 1946 local residents got together and raised $1,500,” Scott was quoted saying.

He told the Macon County News his preference “would be to enter the partnership, but keep the Mound in the town’s ownership.”

“To do otherwise may well create hard feelings for a long time to come and hinder the vision of the Initiative to revitalize East Franklin,” he told the news outlet. “For the record, there is a strong kinship to the Mound, not only by members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but the residents of Franklin.”

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.