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Nikwasi Initiative moves forward with big plans

An educational kiosk was recently installed at Nikwasi Mound in Franklin. Donated photo An educational kiosk was recently installed at Nikwasi Mound in Franklin. Donated photo

As November is recognized as Native American Heritage Month, it seemed like a perfect time for Nikwasi Initiative leaders to give Macon County commissioners an update on their long-term vision to bring more awareness to the Nikwasi Mound and other lands that hold cultural significance to the Cherokee people. 

The Nikwasi Initiative formed as a nonprofit several years ago. The collaborative effort between Macon County, the town of Franklin, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust was seen as a way to work together after years of controversy over who should own and maintain the Nikwasi Mound property. 

While the mound is sacred native land, it’s located in the middle of downtown Franklin and surrounded by city streets and industry. The mound was saved from development in the 1940s when residents raised enough funds to buy the property and deed it over to the town for safe keeping. 

The deed remained in the hands of the town government until 2018 when the Franklin Town Council voted unanimously to give the deed over to Nikwasi Initiative. It was indeed a historic but controversial moment — some Macon County residents, including Mayor Bob Scott, were not in favor of giving over the deed to a fairly unestablished nonprofit — while others thought it was the right thing to do. 

With the deed in the hands of NI, the future of the mound could be decided by a group representing all the stakeholders instead of just the town government. The town of Franklin has maintained the mound over the years but hasn’t had the funds to promote it or take further measures to preserve it. 

On the other hand, EBCI has the funds available to invest in making the mound a cultural education centerpiece in town. NI put together a feasibility plan to develop the properties surrounding the mound — Mainspring purchased the parcel next to its office on East Main Street to turn into greenspace along the Little Tennessee River while EBCI purchased the parcel adjacent to the mound with plans to build an annex for the Cherokee Indian Museum. 

NI’s vision goes beyond Nikwasi — the organization’s plan is to create a cultural corridor from the North Carolina-Georgia state line to the Qualla Boundary that includes other cultural sites like Cowee and Kituwah’s Mound.   

NI conducted a nationwide search for its first executive director and hired Elaine Eisenbraun in the spring of 2020. In the past, she has served as executive director for three other organizations — an outdoor education center, a large river and landscape restoration organization and a healing arts start-up.

Eisenbraun recently told county commissioners, who have offered financial support for the project, that the organization was in the middle of developing a strategic plan. 

“We had a feasibility study done a year ago, but I think we’ve outgrown it at this point and have some bigger ideas that could be very important to the county, especially for economic development,” she said. 

In addition to placing educational kiosks along the cultural corridor and developing some kind of educational and cultural center near the mound, NI has other projects in the works. NI is also working with the Macon County Women’s History Trail project to get a life-size bronze statue commissioned and placed somewhere near Nikwasi Mound. 

Eisenbraun said the 7-foot statue would depict three women who were integral to the county’s history — a white settler woman, a Black slave woman and a Cherokee woman. Fundraising efforts are underway for the $350,000 needed to complete the public art piece being created by sculptor Wesley Wofford.

To hear Eisenbraun’s full presentation on NI, watch the commissioners’ meeting at https://youtu.be/V8fJFPik2A8.

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