We’re Still Here: Harmony & Collaboration at the Heart of The Cherokee Cultural Corridor Project | Cherokee, NC

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We’re Still Here: Harmony & Collaboration at the Heart of The Cherokee Cultural Corridor Project

Participants in Nikwasi Initiative pictured above, from left: Anita Finger-Smith, Trail of Tears Association; Tim Will of Catalpa Partners; Robin Swayney, Genealogist at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian; Tom Hatley of Catalpa Partners; Hope Huskey, Associate Director of The Sequoyah Fund; Juanita Wilson, Talent, Development Director, EBCI; and Lamar Marshall, historian.

Translated to English, Nikwasi means star. Fittingly named, the Nikwasi Mound shines light on the past and future of the Cherokee people. Mounds such as this one are sacred sites and the ancient centerpieces of Cherokee towns, deserving of respect and dignity. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians owns five of the 25 archaeologically-known mounds in Western North Carolina: Cowee, Nvnvyi, Birdtown, Talulah, and Kituwah, known as “Cherokee Mother Town” and the site for the upcoming Turkey Strut 5K Walk/Run. Ongoing efforts by the Tribe and their neighbors are taking place to preserve and protect a multitude of these cultural landmarks.

Nikwasi Mound

While it is impossible to put an exact date on the construction of Nikwasi Mound in downtown Franklin, NC, it is estimated in its present form to date back to the Mississippian Period, roughly 800-1600 CE, says EBCI Cultural Resources Supervisor TJ Holland. (Photo on left: A historic marker sits at the Nikwasi Mound in Franklin. Photo courtesy of Cherokee One Feather)

Today, Nikwasi Mound is owned by the Town of Franklin. Franklin historian and vice-mayor Barbara Rae explains how the Town came to acquire the property: “After World War II, returning servicemen wanting to start businesses turned to the vacant land in the river bottom. Development there began to threaten the Mound. The owner at the time, Roy Cunningham, apparently felt a lot of pressure to sell. However, a group of local citizens were anxious to preserve it, and he offered to hold it for them until they could raise the money, giving them a price that was half what he had been offered. Attorney Gilmer Jones led the Mound Committee and he was joined by some of the most prominent people in Franklin. School children contributed their pennies, and donations poured in from all over the United States, from former residents who read about the campaign.

“Once they had the $1,500, the committee made the purchase and gave the land to the Town of Franklin. The deed turning the land over to the town stipulates that the Mound must be kept ‘as it now stands.’ It can never be ‘excavated, explored, altered or impaired in any way,’ but must remain as a monument to the town’s earliest inhabitants. That was in 1946.”

Nikwasi Initiative

Considered by passersby as a large grassy knoll in the middle of downtown, Nikwasi Mound has immense cultural significance. “Learning about Nikwasi helps me be Cherokee,” says Nevayah Panther, Little Miss Cherokee. “ I love to share my culture with friends and my mom says one day I can share it with the world.” (Photo on left: Ernest Grant, a member of the Warriors of Anikituwah, dances at the Nikwasi Mound Celebration held in 2008. Photo courtesy of Cherokee One Feather.)

The Nikwasi Initiative (NI) is a collaborative venture to improve the Nikwasi Mound area. Created from partnerships, NI was actually born out of conflict. In 2012, without consulting EBCI, the Town of Franklin sprayed Nikwasi Mound with an herbicide in order to eventually replace the grass with a different varietal that needed to be mowed less often. The grass turned brown and it took people by surprise. EBCI members were very concerned and upset.

Asheville-based consulting group Catalpa Partners, who had worked previously with EBCI, was called in to help. Maggie Clancy, a consultant with Catalpa Partners, explains, “Catalpa Partners convened the reconciliation effort between the EBCI and the surrounding communities (Macon County and the Town of Franklin) following the blow-up about the stewardship of Nikwasi Mound. This group grew to become Mountain Partners. Catalpa Partners has created the conflict resolution strategy behind the effort, and played a leadership role in guiding Mountain Partners for the past four years and forming the Nikwasi Initiative.”

In 2016, the Cherokee and non-Cherokee members of the group Mountain Partners formalized their work and formed NI, a 501c3 community development organization. Mainspring Conservation Trust, which owns several parcels of land surrounding Nikwasi Mound and in the Little Tennessee corridor, is one of the key leadership members of the Mountain Partners coalition.

Cherokee Cultural Corridor Project

The Nikwasi Initiative oversees the Cherokee Cultural Corridor project, a heritage tourism initiative to preserve and showcase historical sites crucial to the US and EBCI. (Preliminary map above.) Conceptualized to be a regional economic driver, the Corridor is about 60 miles long and extends from Cherokee along Highway 28 along the Little Tennessee River to Franklin and continues along Highway 441 to the Georgia border. Sites include Anglo-Cherokee War Battlefields, Cowee, Lauada Cemetery/Fontana Lake, and Cherokee - Qualla Boundary Gateway, among others. Signage in Cherokee and English will inform visitors about the region’s past and present. One of the goals is to publish a brochure to guide visitors along the corridor.

The Town of Franklin, Macon County, and EBCI have all contributed start-up funds for NI. There are many other funders to the Corridor project, including the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, and the Cannon Foundation.

Last year, EBCI purchased a .59-acre tract of land adjacent to the Nikwasi Mound as part of the Corridor. Currently, NI is focusing on establishing three major hubs of the corridor: Nikwasi, Cowee, and Cherokee,  and interpreting those sites, and placing kiosks with information at those sites.

Franklin Historian Barbara McRae has been involved in several efforts to give Nikwasi Mound a more significant place in the landscape, including NI board membership. She says, “I was thrilled when Mountain Partners formed and I was invited to join it as a representative from Franklin. I was especially pleased that the project would fully include Cherokee representation. It has proven a wonderful experience for me and I treasure the friendships I have made through this project. Even more, I treasure the fact that the Mound has captured public attention in a positive way. Many good things are happening around it, from the Tribe’s acquisition of an adjoining property to upcoming brownfields work by Mainspring Conservation Trust, to initiation of the Cherokee Heritage Corridor. It has been exciting to be a part of these developments.”

Efforts will focus on enhancing adjacent properties, increasing education, tourism, and economic development. This project will provide feasible approaches to site development for use within the cultural corridor. What began as reconciliation on the Mound issue has evolved into a thriving partnership to develop a Cherokee Cultural Corridor that would educate and inspire visitors.

Unveiling of Cowee Mound Displays

The Nikwasi Mound is located on public property in Franklin. While Corridor kiosks have not yet been installed, visitors may see the Mound. Directions: Take U.S. Hwy-441 "Business" into downtown Franklin (E. Palmer Street/E. Main Street) for 0.5 mile to Nikwasi Lane on your left. You'll see the Indian Mound to the left of E. Main Street (across from "Hot Spot" gas station & "Dan's Auto Service").

On Saturday, September 22, from 10:30–11:45 a.m., the public is invited to the unveiling of Cowee Mound displays at 51 Cowee School Dr., Franklin, NC. Join NC State representative Kevin Corbin, Franklin Mayor Bob Scott, Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, and EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed who will be speaking about this project and their collaborations through the Nikwasi Initiative.

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