A move by the town of Franklin to spray the ancient Nikwasi Indian Mound with weed killer is not sitting well with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks last week described himself as “appalled” and called on the town to formally apologize for what he termed a culturally insensitive action and one that demonstrated a marked lack of respect for the Cherokee people.
“I’m going to make an issue out of it. I am not a happy camper. I’m not happy at all,” Hicks said in an interview. “I think this is really disrespectful to the tribe.”
Hicks said he plans to talk to both town and county leaders in Macon County.
For its part, Franklin leaders said they were merely trying to cut back on weekly mowing maintenance of the mound, which is located on town property. After the grass was killed off, the town intended to replant it with a low-growing native grass variety that wouldn’t need mowing.
“If they were tired of taking care of it or something, they could have approached us for help. We would have sent over our own mowing crew,” Hicks responded.
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. Scholars note that while its precise age is uncertain, Nikwasi Mound pre-dates even the Cherokee.
Last month, the town sprayed the 6,000-square-foot mound with an herbicide to kill the grass with the intent of replanting with “eco-grass,” a grass that grows much slower and shorter than regular grass. It had taken a town crew of four workers about half a day once each week during the spring, summer and fall to take care of Nikwasi Mound.
Town Manager Sam Greenwood said he’d made the decision to use the weed killer independently of the town board or of the town’s mound committee. Greenwood said replanting had not taken place yet because “we’re still waiting on the herbicide to break down so we can made sure there’s nothing residual.”
Greenwood said he felt the decision was in the best interest of the town, the mound, and that it was respectful of the tribe.
“This way we can put in a permanent ground cover and keep the town crews off the mound,” he said in explanation.
The future eco-grass won’t require mowing.
“I think they had good intentions, but they went about it wrong,” said Tom Belt, a Cherokee scholar who teaches at Western Carolina University. “It is like deciding you would like to make a change to an alter in a church and not consulting the clergyman or congregation. It would have been appropriate for the people doing that, the caretakers in Franklin, to consult with someone first, to talk with them about what would be the appropriate thing to do.”
The mound is not just a historical marker or symbol to the Cherokee, Belt said, “but has a deeper meaning. A spiritual meaning. And I know the Cherokee people would work with anybody to conserve it.”
Franklin town Alderman Bob Scott was accused in a town memo as having triggered subsequent media coverage of the now denuded mound. He in fact did not do that. Scott said, however, that he didn’t comprehend how some in town had thought the action of spraying herbicide on Nikwasi Indian Mound would pass unnoticed.
“You can’t hide a 500-year-old mound in the middle of town that’s turning brown,” he noted accurately.
Scott, who is a member of the town’s mound committee, said that his understanding was that the town would “let the grass grow up naturally on the mound until we decided what to do. We were trying to do it right so that it would be OK with everybody. We were in no hurry.”
Mayor Joe Collins stopped short of saying the town would issue an apology to Cherokee. He did express regret that the spraying had taken place and said that Greenwood “had overstepped his authority.”
That said, Collins noted that running mowers up and down the mound also isn’t a good caretaking solution. The new grass, he said, “will allow for less tromping around on it.”
Collins is in a particularly sticky situation. He and Hicks both noted his family ties to Cherokee — Collins’ mother was an enrolled member; the mayor is what’s called a first descendent.
“Cherokee is me,” Collins said. “We certainly want to be in accord with the Eastern Band, which is our neighbors and, in some ways, our family.”
Collins said this situation might prove an opportunity to engage in a conversation with the tribe about the mound.
There have been some discussions in Franklin about turning the area into a park of sorts.
“We have been a faithful steward of Nikwasi Indian Mound,” Collins said. “We are acutely aware of its significance. We have protected that mound for generations and will continue to do so.”