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Wednesday, 08 August 2012 00:00

Cherokee, Franklin search for common ground over Nikwasi mound dispute

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fr nikwasigrassMembers of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and some Franklin townspeople would like to see the Nikwasi Indian Mound back under Cherokee ownership.

The mound, which sits in the heart of downtown Franklin, is an important Cherokee cultural site but is owned by the town.

The tribe and Franklin have been at odds over the mound after the town sprayed it with weed killer earlier this year, inciting outrage from members of the Eastern Band who consider it a sacred place. The weed killer was intended to kill the existing grass, which required regular mowing, so it could be replanted with a low-growing eco-variety. However, the eco-grass has not taken.

Since the incident in April, cultural and political leaders within the tribe have expressed an interest in regaining custody of the mound, or at the very least taking over its maintenance.

“We as the tribe, we as the Cherokee want to take it, maintain it,” said Diamond Brown, a tribal council member. Brown was asked to attend an informal gathering in Franklin last Thursday for interested parties to talk about the cultural significance of the Nikwasi mound and its future.

Nothing would change under tribal ownership, Brown said. The mound would stay mostly as is but would be cared for by the Eastern Band.

Brown added that he would like a black wrought-iron fence to surround the mound to discourage people from walking on it. He would also like to install a small interpretive exhibit next to the mound where students and visitors can learn about Nikwasi mound. The town does not promote its Cherokee connections enough, Brown said.

The tribe already owns two other mounds in Western North Carolina: Kituwah on U.S. 19 outside Byrson City and Cowee off N.C. 28 in Macon County.

“The ideal thing for us would be for the tribe to own all the mounds,” said Russ Townsend, the historic preservation officer with the Eastern Band.

However, Franklin town board member Bob Scott, who has lobbied for collaboration between the town and the tribe, did not think the idea would gain support among townspeople.

“I feel like you would have a lot of local people feel slighted,” Scott said, noting that the mound is part of their history too.

In 1946, then-owner of the mound Roy Carpenter put it up for sale. A developer showed interest in the property and wanted to doze the mound down. But, the children of the town gathered together to protect it, collecting any spare change they had. In the end, they bought the mound for about $1,500 and gifted it to the town.

“This place was saved by children, and that makes it even more special,” said Tom Belt, an instructor of Cherokee language at Western Carolina University and enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.

Nikwasi Indian Mound is one of the largest intact mounds remaining in Western North Carolina. Large earthen mounds were built to mark the spiritual and civic center of American Indian towns that once dotted the Little Tennessee River Valley through Macon County and the region.

Prior to the herbicide spraying, the town of Franklin had taken great care of the mound, Townsend said.

“I think that is why I was so shocked then when the town of Franklin sprayed the mound with herbicides,” Townsend said. “I was shocked that nobody spoke to us.”

Townsend compared the tribe’s outrage to how most Americans would feel if the government deciding to paint the Washington Monument red or get rid of Lincoln’s beard on the Lincoln Memorial.

At a town meeting this week, the Franklin town board considered an ordinance aimed at protecting the mound, setting clear rules for trespassing and vandalism. Ironically, the ordinance would make it illegal to damage vegetation on the mound, something it would have been guilty of if the law were in place before the mound spraying. The board did not vote on the ordinance at its meeting Monday, and it’s unclear whether the measure will pass a vote.

Despite Scott’s concerns, another Franklin resident said she doesn’t know anyone who feels strongly about keeping the mound under the town’s control.

“I haven’t heard anybody who said we should keep it,” said Barbara McRae, a member of the defunct mound committee, which used to oversee care of the mound. “I think public opinion has moved ahead of the movers and shakers.”

The informal meeting became briefly tense when Brown presented a resolution passed by tribal council at its monthly meeting earlier that same day. The decree requested that the title to the mound be transferred to the Eastern Band.

“This certainly sheds a little different light on what we were trying to do here,” Scott said. “It takes it pretty much out of this group’s hands. I am a little disappointed about this.”

Brown then stated, given the conversation and townspeople’s commitment to working with the tribe, he would have the resolution rescinded.

Talks moved on to how the two entities can work together.

Scott he would like to see the mound committee reinstated. He said the town board’s decision to abolish the group following the herbicide spraying was the “worst thing that happened.”

“We were making progress,” Scott said.

If the mound committee was reinstated, it could include an enrolled member of the Eastern Band to offer another perspective. But, in the immediate future, Scott hopes Brown, the tribe’s principal chief, Franklin’s mayor, concerned citizens and a representative from the town board can meet to draft a plan for how the mound should be maintained in the future and create an open line of communication between the Eastern Band and the town.

“We are all on the same sheet of music. We are just singing a different tune,” Scott said.

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