A walk through the parking lot was all that was necessary to see that a diverse crowd had gathered to hear what the group of panelists N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, had assembled had to say about fracking. Cars outside the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin sported bumper stickers promoting everything from gun rights to local foods, their owners pouring into the auditorium by the hundreds to settle into self-assigned pro- and anti-fracking seating blocks.
Cherokee leaders have formally asked the town of Franklin to turn over Nikwasi Mound, the latest turn of events in a two-year controversy swirling around the cultural and historical site.
The town owns the prominent landmark at the edge of downtown, but Cherokee claims the town isn’t taking care of it.
“The town of Franklin is being issued a vote of no confidence for their failure to provide upkeep of the Nikwasi Mound,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks wrote in a resolution presented to tribal council last week.
The resolution called on the town to hand over the property deed for the mound, citing the Cherokee people’s “cultural affiliation with our historic homelands.” It passed unanimously by tribal council.
But Franklin leaders countered their town also has a strong attachment to the mound, which has become part of the community fabric.
“We have a lot of people in Franklin who have a strong feeling for the mound as well,” said Franklin Mayor Bob Scott. “Both sides — the town of Franklin and the Eastern Band — have ties to the mound, so why can’t we work together jointly on preserving this mound?”
Scott said he understands Chief Hicks’ position, and might feel the same way if he were in Hicks’ place. But Franklin residents cherish the mound, too, and Scott doubts the people of the town would want to give up ownership.
“The mound would not even be there if it wasn’t for the people of the town raising the money to buy it back in the ‘40s,” Scott said.
The mound would have been bulldozed by a private property owner, but the community raised $1,500 for the town to buy it.
The primary point of contention for Cherokee leaders seems to be the grass on the mound — or rather lack of it — dating back to an ill-fated brush with weed killer almost three years ago.
Mowing the mound was time-consuming for town maintenance workers, so the town manager at the time decided to kill all the existing grass and replant a low-growing variety that doesn’t need mowing.
Once the mound was denuded, getting the new grass to grow didn’t go too well, however. The new grass is uneven and spotty, with bare patches in some places and weeds growing among it.
Chief Hicks brought pictures of the mound to the tribal council meeting last week. The council members weren’t pleased with the unkempt appearance.
“The tribe’s expectations are higher than the town of Franklin’s, I think. There is no reason for that mound to be in that condition,” said Cherokee Tribal Council Member Albert Rose, from the Birdtown community. “We can do a better job than that.”
David Wolfe, a tribal council member from Yellowhill, agreed.
“We would certainly take better care of it than what’s being done now,” Wolfe said.
Franklin leaders agree on one count.
“Yes, I know the mound got messed up and, yes, it does not look its best,” said Joyce Handley, Franklin town board member. “We don’t like the looks of it either — none of us do.”
But portraying the town as uncaring toward the mound is inaccurate, according to town leaders. They, too, want to rectify the appearance, but have been in a holding pattern awaiting direction and coordination with the tribe.
The town has reached out multiple times to Chief Hicks asking for a meeting to discuss the way forward, but to no avail, according to Handley and Scott.
“We have tried to get in touch and say to them ‘Please, if you are unhappy, tell us what you are unhappy with,’” Handley said.
“It is not like we’ve said we don’t want to do anything. We’ve said we want to work together and want to know what it is you want us to do,” Scott added.
The town even started sending certified letters to prove that it had attempted communication on its end.
“We had sent several certified letters that were received on their end but got no response. Whenever someone called him there were no phone calls back,” Handley said.
Hicks could not be reached for comment, however, the resolution he presented to tribal council portrays a different version of events. The tribe offered to help with maintenance of the mound to no avail, according to the resolution.
“The town of Franklin board of aldermen has disregarded the upkeep of the mound and ignored the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians offers of assistance and has failed to demonstrate respect to the Cherokee people through the disrespect of the Nikwasi Mound,” the resolution states.
Scott and Handley said the opposite is true — the town has offered to work together, but the tribe, or at least Hicks, were unreceptive.
After months of missed connections, Hicks and tribal representatives finally met with Franklin leaders last week.
But instead of collaborating as the town leaders had hoped, Hicks told the town he wanted them to turn over the mound.
“I told him ‘Really, I don’t think we can do that right now,’” Scott recalled.
The next day back in Cherokee, Hicks went before tribal council with the resolution. Franklin leaders said they first heard of the resolution on WLOS television news.
“We were caught completely off guard,” Scott said.
Hicks has been at odds with Franklin ever since weed killer was sprayed on the mound three years ago. Hicks publicly voiced his disappointment on behalf of the tribe and demanded an apology.
But the majority of Franklin board members didn’t want to apologize. When the former mayor apologized anyway, the board censured him for apologizing out of school.
Scott, who wasn’t mayor yet but was an alderman at the time, also went rogue by reaching out to the tribe after the weed killer incident. He made a trip to Cherokee to apologize personally and “see what we could do to make it right.”
Scott said the whole situation was “very unfortunate.”
“It happened. I don’t deny it, but it is over and it is past, so let’s look at what we can do to work together for what is best for the mound, the Eastern Band and the town of Franklin,” Scott said.
At times, it seemed that was happening. Representatives from Cherokee and Franklin met once or twice last year to discuss what should be planted on the mound, how to go about it, and the best practices for maintaining it.
But discussions were preliminary, mostly brainstorming in nature, and never arrived at a plan. Follow-up meetings never happened.
Franklin leaders were then thrown a curve ball late last summer. Hicks asked Macon County commissioners to pass a resolution urging Franklin to work with the tribe — and specifically to engage in discussions over mound ownership and maintenance.
That seemed unnecessary and even insulting to town leaders, who claim they were more than willing to work with the tribe and the lack of discussions wasn’t their fault.
The stalemate seemed to take a positive turn in the spring, when Chief Hicks came to the Franklin town meeting to talk about the mound.
“Everything was cordial, it was a very amenable productive meeting. We were going to be working together I thought, and all of a sudden this thing blows up again,” Scott said.
To Cherokee Tribal Council members, the appearance of the mound sends a message that the town didn’t care as much as they do.
“There was just a bunch of dead spots on it and there were vines growing on it,” said Bo Crowe, a tribal council member from Wolfetown. “We think it should be taken care of better than what they are doing. We thought it was really disrespectful.”
Crowe said he isn’t sure the tribe can force Franklin to do it, but “Hopefully, it will put a little pressure” on them.
Scott countered that the town has simply been waiting on input from the tribe before doing anything.
The mayor said the town’s interests are ultimately the same as the tribe’s.
“The mound needs to be here 500 years from now,” Scott said. “We want to be good stewards of the mound.”
But with Cherokee angling for ownership, and Franklin refusing to give it up, any hope of middle ground remains elusive.
Man-made earth mounds, some quite large, were the spiritual and geopolitical center of prehistoric Cherokee towns.
People gathered on the mound for celebrations, religious services and social occasions. Tribal affairs were conducted in council houses built on top.
The mound was like a church, town square, town hall and auditorium stage — all in one.
Dozens of major Cherokee towns once lined the banks of the Little Tennessee River and surrounding river valleys before white people destroyed them and took the land. The mounds are the only surviving record on the landscape of the vast network.
There were once around 25 mounds in the seven western counties, but there are only about 16 mounds left, estimated Tyler Howe, the tribal historic preservation specialist.
“Not all of those are in existence any longer,” Howe said. They’ve been farmed over, bulldozed to build on, flooded by dams and dug up by archaeologists.
There were far more towns, but not every town was marked by a mound, Howe said.
The tribe has made an effort in recent years to inventory the remaining mounds. The location of most was retained in the collective cultural memory, passed down by Cherokee elders, but some have been rediscovered in modern times.
“The mission is really re-establishing the Cherokee world,” Howe said.
The tribe has even bought two mounds — Cowee Mound in Macon County and Kituwah in Swain County. Many still remain in private ownership, however.
The Nikwasi Mound in Franklin is owned by the town, after residents raised $1,500 back in the 1940s to save it from being leveled by a private property owner. Deed stipulations prevent the mound from being altered, a measure put in place at the time to ensure continued protection by future generations of town leaders.
The Franklin Main Street Program has been soaking up some criticism lately, and the issues came to a head at an Aug. 19 meeting of Franklin residents, town administrators, business owners and board members. The verdict: Shape up by January, or lose town funding.
Two more local governments in Western North Carolina have passed resolutions opposing fracking this month. Franklin and Forest Hills are the most recent to formally oppose the natural gas exploration method green-lighted by state legislators earlier this year.
When Franklin RiverFest’s Anything That Floats Raft Regatta kicks off Aug. 23, Warren Cabe hopes to see the Franklin Fire Department cross the finish line first. The Macon County Emergency Services Director is holding the details of the team’s raft design close to his vest.
“I can’t tell you,” he said. “It’s top-secret.”
“The key is we don’t want to drown,” added fire department Captain Carey Patton.
The boardroom in Franklin’s town hall was so packed last Wednesday that town employees had to scavenge chairs from the kitchen and closet to accommodate everyone.
It was a welcomed inconvenience. Mayor Bob Scott hoped a meager half dozen people would show up to the town’s first Focus on Franklin meeting, but more than 60 people came, ranging from 20-somethings to senior citizens, from born-and-raised Franklin to Florida transplant. They were all there for one reason: to lend their voices about what Franklin’s future should hold in a forum where the town aldermen could hear.
Hospice House of WNC suffered a setback last week when the Franklin Board of Aldermen made a split decision not to support the organization’s application for a $100,000 Department of Commerce grant.
“It’s a worthy cause. That was not the question,” said Verlin Curtis, vice-mayor. “The problem was it looked like that their raising the money and being able to complete the project on time was not going to happen.”
Macon County’s project to turn the 48-acre Parker Meadows project into a tournament-level softball and baseball complex met some complications when construction turned up a Cherokee burial site.
“You might hear rumors to that effect, so we’ll go ahead and confirm them,” County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said at the board’s July 8 meeting.
After a closed session Monday, the Franklin Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to give Interim Town Manager Summer Woodard a permanent place in town hall. Woodard, who has been acting as town manager since Warren Cabe resigned in May, now has the job for good.
“We were unanimously very pleased with her work,” said Alderman Barbara McRae. “She is very qualified and has been an employee for years.”
Woodard, a Franklin native, received a master’s degree in public administration in 2010 and has worked for the town ever since, including serving as assistant to the town manager under three different managers. As a student, she did an internship that gave her experience working in every town department.
The board voted to award her the same contract they signed with former manager Warren Cabe, an annual salary of $85,000. They did not go through a search process for the position, agreeing that Woodward was highly qualified and up to speed on everything happening in the town.
“Since she proved herself, why go through the expense of a major search when we already had a viable candidate in-house?” asked Mayor Bob Scott.
As part of the same discussion, the board also did some shuffling of positions in town hall, with the moves expected to save about $25,000. Woodard told the board she did not need an assistant but did not want to serve as human resources director, since that could cause a conflict of interest.
“If you get into a conflict with an employee and the HR director decides something, the employee should have the opportunity to appeal,” McRae said, “and if the town manager and the HR person are the same individual, there’s nobody that you can appeal to.”
The board gave the human resources job to Chad Simon, who has been working in the front office for several months, splitting the HR job with the town clerk position. Janet Anderson had been doing that job in addition to her responsibilities as finance director but now is continuing solely as finance director.
“The town has grown and we have to look periodically at positions and how we can operate more efficiently,” Scott said.
— by Holly Kays, staff writer
Franklin residents will be paying a bit more on their property taxes next year following a unanimous decision by the Franklin Board of Alderman to increase the rate by 2 cents per $100. Currently, the rate is set at 25 cents, but the town had been thinking about raising it for a while.