In this business of covering the news, we often bear witness as apathy wins the day. Citizens sit back and let elected leaders, powerful corporations or a boisterous minority get their way without putting up a fight.
That’s why the conclusion to the Duke-Kituwah standoff is so refreshing. It’s not so important that one side lost and the other won — although the decision to move the electrical substation does stand as a victory for opponents. But it was the effort by the citizens group and their zeal that should be remembered and emulated.
The electrical substation was slated to be built within sight of Kituwah, the location of the mother town of the Cherokee that is considered a sacred site by the tribe. As soon as plans became public, members of the tribe and nearby citizens raised a storm of protest. They began lobbying Cherokee tribal officials and Swain County officials to stop the utility’s plans.
As the controversy swirled, Duke held to its opinion that the entire project was necessary in order to benefit the tribe. The irony here was hard to miss — the substation would benefit Harrah’s expansion and thereby tribal coffers that rely on the casino, but would mar a sacred site central to the identity of the tribe.
Chief Michell Hicks and tribal officials took a firm stand. Early in the controversy Hicks had this to say of the proposed substation site and Duke’s communications with the tribe.
“The bottom line is it’s a disrespect to our tribe and a disrespect to the people of Swain County,” said Hicks.
As Duke relented, tribal cultural preservation officer Russ Townsend said it could set an important precedent.
“I hope it’s an example to other agencies that we deal with that our concerns are legitimate and there are often alternatives to finish a project without undermining our cultural concerns,” said Townsend.
But it’s Natalie Smith and the Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley who deserve the most praise. The dedicated group lobbied tribal council and Swain commissioners while mobilizing a statewide media campaign. They refused to give up and from a very early stage and took the moral high road, a position that in most cases will win the day. It’s a lesson in grassroots organizing that hopefully will inspire others to stand up and fight when the time comes.