Council Vote Results in New Nikwasi Mound Deed

The main topic for the meeting, the controversial Nikwaski Mound, was front and center in signs showing one side of the issue and placed in front of the Council’s podium. Photos by Deena C. Bouknight

Deena C. Bouknight

Contributing Writer

After months of debate, some of it heavy-handed and personal, the Town of Franklin Council following about one hour of hearing public opinion, voted in favor of deeding the Nikwasi Mound to Nikwasi Initiative. Attorney John Henning Jr. explained at the May 6th meeting that “a new deed will be signed by Mayor Bob Scott and recorded, but it is effective as of now.” 

At the packed meeting, at least a dozen people on both sides of the Nikwasi Mound controversy, which has dominated local headlines, social media feeds, and sidewalk talk since March, reiterated or addressed concerns. Many requested the 1946-established deed remain solely with the Town of Franklin, while others pointed out the betterment and beautification of the Nikwasi Mound area if it was deeded to Nikwasi Initiative, which is a board representing four equal partners: the Town of Franklin, Macon County, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI), and the nonprofit land trust, Mainspring Conservation Trust, whose office is just 300 feet from the mound.

Strong words ensued. Melissa Callahan Hall shared that she remembers a Native mound existing in the Clark’s Chapel area when she was a child, but “today no physical evidence of that mound is there. However, the Nikwasi Mound remains unchanged. How does a group feel they have a right to take possession of the deed? Just because you think you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do.” 

Tamara Zwinak conveyed, “I want to put on record the reasons for my objection to the Mound transfer as it stands today. In my opinion, the decision is based upon dubious information and poor scholarship, motivated by special interest.” 

Betty Cloer Wallace added, “The Nikwasi Mound is not yours to give away. It is ours for you to have and to hold in trust for us, and we beseech you to do our ethical duty.” 

But Gordon Mercer, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Western Carolina University, countered with, “It’s great to see democracy in action. It’s a long-term plan that Nikwasi Initiative has put together. And one of the things that the Council has always believed in is nonprofits. The resources of nonprofits really give the town value-added. The time has come, and I urge the Town to vote favorably on this proposal.” 

Ken Murphy included that the Nikwasi Initiative “vision will benefit Franklin tremendously; the result will be a beautiful gateway to Franklin.” And Ben Laseter, a member of the Nikwasi Initiative board, said, “This insures Nikwasi Mound will be protected, managed, and interpretive for future generations.”

Before the final vote, Henning said he was “100 percent confident we have done everything to honor [the original deed]. I don’t know if it’s been stated enough … the Nikwasi Initiative is a public nonprofit. [The Nikwasi Mound] is not being put in private hands.” 

In fact, Henning and others referred to Nikwasi Initative’s “legal language” of their stated mission, which is: “The Nikwasi Initiative, a collaboration of the EBCI and neighboring communities, is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the sense of place of the Nikwasi Mound and expanding the understanding of the mound and the surrounding region through improved access, interpretation and educational activities. Using engaged partnerships, it focuses on developing cultural interpretation resources for the nationally significant Cultural Corridor from Cherokee to Franklin and to the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, and encouraging sustainable economic growth of the entire corridor area.”

Prior to the final vote, Mayor Scott encouraged Council members to share opinions. However, he first told the crowd: “This is the most contentious issue in the Town of Franklin since 1967. I have never been against what Nikwasi Initiative wants to do, and I have tried to find out what they are trying to do. I will sign [the deed], but it will be under duress.” 

Council member Joe Collins called the controversial Nikwasi Mound issue a “good civics lesson,” pointing out further that “from an economic standpoint, [the Nikwasi Mound area] is in so much need of a face lift. That’s a heavily trafficked corridor … the first thing that people see coming into town.”

A July 25, 1946 article in the Franklin Press alluded to wording by W. Roy Carpenter, who owned the land on which the Mound sits; he stated then that he was “willing to deed the property to the Town of Franklin or to a proper commission or trusteeship on the express condition that the Mound be preserved, and not excavated or explored.” 

Some members of the Council indicated that the Nikwasi Initiative will serve as a “trusteeship.”  

Collins made a motion to convey legal title of Nikwasi Mound to the Nikwasi Initiative; Council member Barbara McRae seconded the motion. 

Before the final vote, however, Council member David Culpepper interjected some thoughts about the Nikwasi Initiative board. “These are good people, who have stated the purpose of their legal mission. Even playing devil’s advocate, the 1946 deed protection is still there. The Town of Franklin is not expunged of its duties to oversee [Nikwasi Mound].” 

“This has been a difficult situation,” said Council member Adam Kimsey. “But we all have the same interest – to make sure the Mound is preserved for the next generation and the next.”