Duke, Cherokee meeting opens dialogue over Kituwah site

After a day of discussions between the leadership of Duke Energy and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the dispute over the construction of a proposed power substation near the tribe’s most sacred site remains unresolved.

Last Wednesday (Feb. 17) Brett Carter, President of Duke Energy Carolinas, led a delegation to the EBCI Council House to meet with members of the tribal council and Principal Chief Michell Hicks. The meeting was billed as a closed-door discussion between leadership of the two entities, but before it began a group of demonstrators expressing support for the tribe’s leadership was invited inside.

What followed was, according to participants, a formal and orchestrated dialogue in which Carter expressed his regret that Duke Energy had not consulted with the tribe before beginning the site preparation for the substation. But while Duke has admitted to poor communication and expressed a willingness to pursue mitigation of the visual impact of their project, they have also continued to work on preparing the site for construction.

“The work that’s going on at the site is grading and prep work, and that work is going to continue,” said Duke spokesperson Jason Walls.

While the tribe wants to see the substation moved to another tract, Duke asserts the visual impacts can be mitigated.

After the discussion between Carter and the members of the Tribal Council had finished, the council allowed a series of questions from the audience. Some were probing and others impassioned, but all of the tribal members who showed up wanted to make it clear visual mitigation wasn’t enough; they wanted the substation and line upgrade project moved off the hill.

Natalie Smith, a tribal member and Cherokee business owner who helped organize the demonstration, said she was grateful to the council for inviting them into the dialogue.

“You can’t do this here,” Smith said. “That was the bigger message.”

Chief Hicks also invited members of the Swain County board to the table. Swain County Commissioner David Monteith was not impressed with Duke’s communication with the leadership of the county or the tribe.

“I think they treated Swain County like a left-handed stepchild,” Monteith said. “Professional courtesy from a company of the size of Duke with a project that large would at least tell you to talk to the commissioners.”

George Wickliffe, a chief of the Oklahoma Cherokee United Keetoowah Band, sat in on the meeting, too.

“Kituwah is well documented as our Mother Town and due to its history, not only through such documentation, but orally and as a part of our religious tradition, is like the Garden of Eden to the Christian,” said Wickliffe.

After the meeting, Hicks said the tribe had already identified areas that could be used as alternative sites for the substation, but he wouldn’t comment on whether any definite alternatives had already been discussed.

“We’re still working on what our options are,” Hicks said. “I think they were sincere about the failure to notify us of the project. As far as negotiating, we won’t know until we see what options they present.”

Hicks said over the next two weeks Duke would submit plans to minimize the visual impact of their project, and the EBCI would offer Duke options for moving the site off the hillside.

Walls called the meeting “productive” and said Duke “left with a commitment to work on additional mitigation to minimize the visual impact” of the project.

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