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Macon residents try to halt Nikwasi deed transfer

A group of Macon County residents plan to file a complaint seeking an injunction to keep the town of Franklin from giving up its sole ownership of the Nikwasi Mound.

The complainants include Betty Cloer Wallace, Gloria Raby Owenby, Mary Ruth Byrd, Edward Burton “Bud” Shope and Judith Dowdle while the defendants are Franklin Mayor Bob Scott and the six members of the Franklin Town Council. 

The complaint comes weeks after the town council members expressed support for transferring the Nikwasi Mound deed over to nonprofit community development organization Nikwasi Initiative. Vice Mayor Barbara McRae, who also serves as the co-chairwoman for the Nikwasi Initiative, made the request to the town board, and the vote to allow the town attorney to draw up a proposed deed was unanimous. 

The Nikwasi Initiative is a joint effort between Franklin, Macon County, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust that incorporated about two years ago in an effort to preserve Nikwasi Mound and other culturally significant sites in the area. 

McRae and her co-chair Juanita Wilson of Cherokee told council deeding the mound property over to the nonprofit would allow all stakeholders to have a voice in preserving it. 

“All the partners involved in this have enormous other responsibilities. It was our feeling that, to go forward in any meaningful way, we needed to have a committed entity,” McRae said. “This is no different, in my mind, than a city establishing a community development corporation to improve a downtrodden neighborhood or perform other revitalization work. That’s what we hope to accomplish eventually.”

 

The complaint

The complainants insist that the language of the 1946 deed that granted the town ownership of the mound is clear — ownership shall never be transferred. Many residents of Macon County were able to pull enough money together in 1946 to purchase the mound for $1,500 and save it from development. They deeded it over to the town to keep it preserved for future generations. 

According to the 1946 deed, the mound “shall be preserved for the citizens of Macon County and for posterity” and shall not be excavated, explored, altered or impaired in any way or used for commercial purposes. Furthermore, the deed states that any other lease or contract that interferes with the Nikwasi deed shall be null and void. 

McRae and other supporters of the deed transfer interpret the language of the deed to mean it must be preserved in posterity for all citizens, but that doesn’t mean the town must maintain sole ownership in order to honor the stipulations outlined in the deed. 

In the event the town fails to carry out the object and purpose of the deed, the 1946 deed grants any citizen of Macon County the right to “apply to the court for injunctive relief and to prosecute said action in their own behalf and on behalf of all other citizens of Macon County.”

That’s what the five complainants are now trying to do. As of Tuesday, the preliminary injunction paperwork had not yet been filed and they haven’t hired a lawyer on their behalf. Owenby said she hopes it doesn’t reach that point. 

“We have the right as citizens — we’re just community citizens coming together and we just want the town to honor the deed,” Owenby said. “We have nothing to gain except to preserve this in perpetuity for future generations. Our children and grandchildren will thank us down the road.”

Nikwasi Initiative organizers and supporters also see having joint ownership of the mound as a step closer toward healing old wounds and repairing a strained relationship with the Cherokee people. 

As a lifelong Macon County resident and former president of the Macon County Historical Society, Owenby said she hasn’t experienced these so-called hurt feelings among early settlers and the Cherokee. 

“I never knew there was any animosity — from the time my ancestors settled here they lived peacefully with the Cherokee,” she said. “In 2008, we (historical society) erected a kiosk at the mound and held a celebration with the Eastern Band — their dancers came, we played stick ball and cooked dinners. It was a wonderful day.”

Wilson, on the other hand, recently told the town board there was animosity after it refused to deed over the mound to EBCI in 2012 at the formal request of then-Principal Chief Michell Hicks. In fact, the debacle was the impetus for starting Mountain Partners and eventually Nikwasi Initiative. 

Hicks’ request came after the town applied herbicide to the mound in an attempt to kill off the grass and plant a different kind that would require less mowing. The well-intentioned plan — which left the grass on the mound dead and brown — backfired. Many Cherokee people saw it as an act of disrespect, and Hicks asked that the deed be handed over to EBCI. The town refused. 

Whatever hurt feelings there may be on either side, Wallace said that’s not what the complaint is trying to resolve. 

“The Plaintiffs are addressing only the legal terms of the deed — not public opinion about the rightness or wrongness of reparations to other cultures or races, or about what should be done to the adjacent private property surrounding the mound parcel,” she said. “The Franklin Town Council holds the deed to the mound in Trust for the Citizens of Macon County. The Town Council does not ‘own’ the mound unconditionally, and they have no legal right to dispose of it.”

The complaint states that losing the mound would be incalculable, “causing emotional and financial harm to the citizens, because the Nequassi Mound has been the iconic symbol for the early history of the county …”

 

Nikwasi Initiative

People in opposition to the deed transfer say they don’t understand why the Nikwasi Initiative can’t move forward with its plans to raise awareness about the mound’s cultural significance under the town’s ownership. 

The mound is just one part of a much bigger plan that has been in the works for several years. Even before Nikwasi Initiative incorporated as a nonprofit and formed a board of directors, it worked under the name Mountain Partners since 2015 to explore ways in which Macon County residents and the Cherokee people could work together on economic and historic preservation projects. The results so far have been fruitful for the East Franklin corridor.

Mainspring purchased the former Duncan Oil site next door to its office on East Main Street in 2015 and completed a brownfield cleanup effort on the site to remove the contamination caused by the old underground oil tanks. Now the property behind the office, which runs along the Little Tennessee River, is lush with grass and picnic tables for the public to enjoy.

Mainspring also purchased the Simpson Gas and Oil Company located at 544 East Main Street to clean up and redevelop into green space while the EBCI purchased the former Dan’s Auto property on the other side of the mound. McRae said ECBI plans to invest over half a million dollars to construct a visitor center and an annex for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian on the property.

All these projects will tie into Nikwasi Initiative’s plan to create a cultural heritage corridor through Macon County to Cherokee with stops at Nikwasi Mound as well as Cowee School Heritage Center and Cowee Mound. Nikwasi Initiative has already installed historic markers and educational kiosks at the Cowee School and Cowee Mound. There is also now an observation deck just across the river to give people a view of Cowee Mound.

Despite the work of Nikwasi Initiative to revitalize East Franklin and increase cultural tourism for the entire county, opposition is questioning the long-term intentions of the nonprofit. As Owenby pointed out, what’s to keep the nonprofit from handing over the property to EBCI and what would happen to the property if the nonprofit dissolves in the future?

McRae said all those concerns would be addressed in the new deed being drafted for the town council to consider. 

“Nikwasi Initiative provides a partnership that combines the resources and strengths of all the partners, and can focus its energies on improving the section of Franklin surrounding the mound,” she said. “There is absolutely no intention of changing the mound’s ownership later, or of making any changes to the mound itself. As the project progresses, we see Nikwasi Initiative owning other parcels, such as the former Simpson property, for park land.”

 

Next steps

The ongoing issue will likely bring out supporters and opponents to speak up at the next Franklin Town Council board meeting on April 1. 

Mayor Bob Scott, who is opposed to transferring the deed to the Nikwasi Initiative, said he hopes to propose some kind of compromise.

“I’m going to suggest delaying this for a while until the town joins the Nikwasi Initiative. The town isn’t a member of it, never has been,” Scott said. “Then we want to see a detailed plan for what is being proposed at the mound.”

Contrary to Scott’s statement, McRae said the town is absolutely already a partner in the Nikwasi Initiative as she has given the board many updates on the project in the last couple of years and has received monetary support from the town. To date, she said, Franklin has contributed $17,500 toward the nonprofit and recognized McRae as the town’s representative on the board. Macon County gave Nikwasi Initiative $12,500 in 2017 for start-up funds and another $12,500 in 2018-19 from its economic development funds to continue to support the group’s mission.

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