After months of bitter debate that resulted in a lawsuit, the town council of Franklin, North Carolina, voted this week to transfer ownership of an ancient mound to a nonprofit partially controlled by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The Nikwasi Mound is believed to have been built 1,000 years ago by ancestors of the tribe, which lost control of the site to settlers in 1819, according to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. The mound sits today at the center of Franklin, surrounded by development.
Council members voted 6-0 on Monday to transfer the deed to the Nikwasi Initiative, which says it intends to use the site to promote local cultural tourism. The nonprofit is a partnership of the Cherokee, the town, Macon County and Mainspring Conservation Trust.
The vote means the tribe regains a say in any decisions involving the mound, the initiative says.
Blue Ridge Public Radio reports the town council hall “broke out into applause” after the vote, despite weeks of growing opposition.
Council member Barbara McRae, a member of the Nikwasi Initiative, is credited with helping push the issue to a vote. She called the decision “historic,” in a statement sent to The Charlotte Observer.
She says the redevelopment plan surrounding the mound will have “enormous potential for the town and the region,” and will include a “cultural corridor” stretching from the Cherokee reservation to Franklin. An annex of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is among the things being considered for the site, she said.
“Its history is fascinating and unique,” McRae said in a statement. “It has meaning to all of us in Macon County, as well as the Cherokee, and is a treasured part of our heritage. And, it has national significance. We look forward to the opportunity the coalition offers to tell this story and create a beautiful public place around it.”
Among the critics is Mayor Bob Scott, who told the Observer he will sign the transfer “under duress.” He also questioned whether it will even be legal, due to a pending lawsuit from an opposition group. However, that suit was dropped by the five plaintiffs in mid May, after they “decided the cost to fight the legal battle would be too high,” reported the Smoky Mountain News.
“Much of this issue centers on emotionalism, that somehow the town giving the mound to the Nikwasi Initiative will right wrongs done to the Cherokee 250 years ago. Until recent years, the tribe has shown little or no interest in the mound,” Scott told the Observer.
“The Town of Franklin is being characterized as mistreating the Mound and that simply is not the case. ... The town has protected the mound for 73 years and it would not be in existence had the residents of Franklin and Macon County not raised the money to buy it from the owner in 1946 ... when there was a threat to bulldoze it for a gas station.”
The mound originally sat at the center of a 100-acre Cherokee town that was considered a “spiritual and ceremonial center” for the tribe, according to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and historians suggested at the time that it was built by “ancestors of the modern Cherokee people,” reported Mainspring Conservation.
McRae notes it stands 15 feet tall now, but originally stood 21 feet before six feet of fill was added around the edges to control flooding in east Franklin.
Juanita Wilson, who represents the Cherokee on Nikwasi Initiative’s board, called the unanimous vote “emotional” in a release.
“My heart skipped a beat,” Wilson said in the statement. “I could hear my ancestors sigh. In my mind’s eye I can see the Nunnehi, the ‘Immortals,’ who historically protected these lands, and the people, nodding in approval. I felt the winds shift, bringing a sense of renewal and unity across Western North Carolina. I woke up to a new day.”
Five opponents to the transfer formed their own group in late March and filed a lawsuit, claiming it would cause “emotional and financial harm to citizens,” reported WLOS. “We’re thinking that the town is more stable than a nonprofit,” plaintiff Gloria Owenby told the station.
The complaint cites a 1946 deed that gave Franklin sole ownership of the mound, after people collected donations to buy it from a developer, reported the Smoky Mountain News.
Owenby told Blue Ridge Public Radio after the vote that the town had “been robbed.”
Before the arrival of European settlers, the Cherokee Nation controlled 135,000 square miles across multiple states and had an estimated 25,000 members, according to Blue Ridge National Heritage. That changed in the late 1830s, when the federal government decided to relocate the tribe to Oklahoma. The subsequent march west became known as the “Trail of Tears,” after 50 percent of the tribe died, reports VisitCherokee.org.
“During this removal, more than 300 Cherokee hid in the mountains and escaped arrest. Over a period of years, these Cherokee managed to remain in the area, and eventually were recognized by the U.S. government as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in 1868,” Blue Ridge National Heritage.