In recent weeks, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has begun political maneuvering in its desire to gain ownership of the mound from the town of Franklin, and the state has finally handed down a fine for the town’s unauthorized use of the chemical.
The town of Franklin will have to fork over $800 to the state for treating Nikwasi Mound with herbicides to kill the natural grass growing on it. The town replaced the old grass with low-growing “eco-grass,” meaning Franklin employees don’t have to continually mow it.
Ancient mounds like Nikwasi were the civic and spiritual centers of Cherokee settlements. The tribe viewed the application of a poisonous chemical on the sacred ground as a desecration.
However, the fine is not related to the historical importance of the mound or because the chemicals hurt the environment. It is because the individual town employee who treated the mound with herbicides was not licensed by the N.C. Department of Agriculture to use them.
Following an investigation that involved interviewing then-town manager Sam Greenwood and two public works employees, the Department of Agriculture originally issued a $1,200 fine to the town of Franklin. However, the town took action to rectify the problem by hiring someone with an herbicide applicator license. Therefore, Franklin leaders were able to negotiate a reduced amount.
“The state was generous in lowering the fine,” said Franklin Alderman Bob Scott. “I thought it was fair. I don’t think there was ever any intention to create the havoc it did.”
The spraying caused a firestorm of criticism from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as well as some Macon residents.
Now, the Macon County Board of Commissioners seem to have sided with the tribe by calling on town leaders to entertain discussions with the Eastern Band about the ownership and maintenance of the mound.
The county commissioners officially passed a resolution in support of talks being held between the Eastern Band and the Franklin leaders. Michell Hicks, principal chief of the tribe, attended a Macon County board meeting in August asking commissioner to urge the Franklin town board to meet with tribal representatives.
The chief’s appearance at the commissioners meeting was off-putting to Franklin town leaders, who felt like they should have been Hicks’ first stop.
Hicks said he was not trying to slight the Franklin town board when he asked the Macon County commissioners for help. He planned to go to both boards.
“We were able to get to the commissioners first,” Hicks said.
However, Franklin leaders said they never heard from the chief and have yet to hear from him.
Although the county commissioners iterated that they did not own Nikwasi Mound, they were happy to oblige and commit to act as a third party during meetings between the town and tribe.
“The county welcomes the opportunity to participate with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in the initiation and holding of some constructive dialogue with the Town of Franklin,” the resolution reads.
The resolution is three pages long, and states over and over and in different ways how important maintaining a relationship with the tribe is.
“Macon County has been fortunate to have cultivated a mutually cooperative and respectful relationship with the Eastern Band,” the resolution states.
The Eastern Band has worked to take possession of key Cherokee landmarks, including another ancient mound site in Macon County, and the tribe hopes to add Nikwasi Mound to it.
“I think it is very culturally significant to our people,” Hicks said, adding that the desire to gain ownership of the mound has nothing to do with the mound-spraying incident.
Scott has publicly expressed a personal apology for offending the tribe, and also expressed that weed killer dismay it was applied without authorization or knowledge of himself and other town board members.
But likewise, he’s opposed to completely letting go of Nikwasi Mound. The land holds special meaning for Franklin residents as well because their ancestors raised money to save it from demolition.
“There are so many different feelings and so much attachment to the mound from both sides,” Scott said. “What we need to try to work out is something that is beneficial to all.”
Just after the mound was sprayed with herbicides, the tribe expressed its concern about the care of the cultural landmark and the idea of a mutual maintenance agreement came up — something Scott would be in favor of. However, nothing ever came of the idea because the town and tribe have never sat down to talk. Both point fingers at each other, saying they have not heard from the other party.
While the Eastern Band might agree to shared maintenance, it is not tribal leaders first choice.
“We are open to any type of maintenance agreement,” Hicks said. However, “I would prefer that to be in the name of the tribe.”