EBCI Principal Chief addresses controversy

Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian Principal Chief Richard Sneed sat down in his office at the Council House in Cherokee Tuesday to discuss the tribe’s views regarding the Nikwasi Mound in East Franklin, its proposed deeding to the nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative and potential future development in the area. Photos by Abraham Mahshie

Abraham Mahshie

Contributing Writer

Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian (EBCI) Principal Chief Richard Sneed discussed the controversy surrounding the Town of Franklin’s proposed deeding of the Nikwasi Mound in East Franklin to the nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative at a meeting Tuesday at his office in the Cherokee Council House.

The following is an edited Q&A with Principal Chief Sneed:

MCN: What is the Eastern Band’s position on the deeding of the Nikwasi Mound in Franklin?

PCS: “There’s a conservation group on the ground already [Mainspring Conservation Trust] that we have a good working relationship with, that the town and the county have a good working relationship with.

“There have been issues in the past where the mound was improperly maintained, and this to me would be a good opportunity to ensure that there was proper care and maintenance of the mound.

“The mound itself is an important part of not only Cherokee history but also Macon County’s history and if you look at the area around it, it’s really out of sorts where it’s at because you just have this hodgepodge of buildings popped up all around it and yet there’s this great piece of history right there in the middle of town. So, I think it’s a great opportunity for the town, for the county and for the tribe.”

MCN: What is the historical and ceremonial value of the mound and other mounds in the area to the Eastern Band?

PCS: “Historically, it’s believed that the building of the mounds came from the individual Cherokees bringing dirt from the floor of their home during the time of ceremony. They would just add to the mound every year and that’s how the mound would get bigger year after year.

“At Kituwah [Mound in Swain County] since we purchased that back 20 some years ago, we have ceremonies down there. There are folks that do stomp dance, folks that do prayer down there. 

“I think there’s just a great opportunity to tell our story, a great opportunity for economic development around the mound … There’s a whole plan for the cultural corridor that the Nikwasi Initiative has developed [connecting the Indian mounds with interpretive centers].

“We can accomplish so much more together than as individuals and the idea for the cultural corridor, the idea for ecotourism development – there are several groups all working together [Southwestern Commission, individual counties and NGOs] to pool all of this together because the western part of the state for most people, once you get past Asheville, they don’t give much thought to us out here.”

MCN: The deed expressly prohibits commercialization of the mound. Can you comment on what is envisioned with the proposal for economic development in the area around the mound?

PCS: “There is no single group more vested in protecting the mound than the Eastern Band, and certainly we would not ‘commercialize it,’ but there’s an opportunity to tell our story. There’s an opportunity for historic and cultural tourism. That means dollars to the county, dollars to the town. When the cultural corridor is developed and people are on this journey from historic spot to historic spot, seeing all of these historic, cultural places, they’re eating, they’re drinking, they’re buying gas, souvenirs, etc.

“That’s opportunity not necessarily for us. If we develop the Dan’s Auto building to be a small museum or something, sure, certainly there’s an opportunity for us as well, but that’s deeded property, we would be paying taxes to the town, to the county, just like everybody else. The sales tax would go back to the county.”

MCN: Could the Eastern Band have better explained this opportunity to the public?

PCS: “Speaking from a public servant position, we run into that all the time, where we have a plan for something, we thought this was a great idea, everybody is going to be on board, and we put it out there and almost without fail, there are voices of opposition. I think that it’s human nature.

“When the voices of opposition arise –- and they have a right to, it’s a democracy– then the responsibility and the obligation falls to us to educate. Should there have been more on the front end? I think that probably for the folks who have been lifelong citizens of Macon County and the Town of Franklin, they know the story of the mound.

“When things like this come up, I don’t get excited about it. It’s how government works. We go through the process, everything is about process. The process gives everybody a voice, and this gives everybody the opportunity to voice their opposition, and we’ll let the courts decide as to who has the authority to do what. It would seem to me that the Town Council has the authority to do what they’re proposing to do, and if the citizens want to voice their opposition to that, well, they can do that.”

MCN: Many citizens are opposed to deeding the mound to the Cherokee as a reparation for past wrongs because they believe their ancestors lived peacefully with the Cherokee. How does the Eastern Band view this issue?

PCS: “That’s the first time I’ve heard anybody use the word ‘reparations’ when it comes to the conveyance [deeding] of the mound. The discussions have all been around historic preservation. That’s the only discussion I’ve ever heard, so I don’t know where that’s coming from. 

“The purpose is, it is a historic Cherokee site. The Eastern Band is more vested than anyone else in the historic preservation of that, and in this part of the agreement we would be financially responsible for the maintenance and upkeep year over year, which we’re more than willing to do.

“The tribe would pay the [estimated annual cost of] $15,000 to Mainspring, who would then be responsible for contracting landscaping and maintenance of the mound.”

MCN: Do you believe the town has properly preserved and maintained the Nikwasi Mound since it took ownership 73 years ago?

PCS: “I think they’ve done a fine job. There was an unfortunate incident [the use of a poisonous herbicide by the town in 2014]. That was a singular event. It happened once, it’s never happened since. In the interim, it’s been well maintained. It’s an imperfect world, forgive and move on.”

MCN: How have social media comments about the Nikwasi Mound contributed to the current controversy?

PCS: “Social media in general is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a great medium for reaching a lot of people very quickly at no financial cost. But there is a great cost to our social fabric with the things that people put out on social media. This tool that is meant to bring us together is often the greatest driver of division …There may not be any fact to it, but if enough people repeat it, it becomes their truth.”

MCN: What is your opinion of the Nikwasi Initiative and its board?

PCS: “[EBCI board representative Juanita Wilson] and the members of the board recognize the importance of these historic sites, and the development around them because we live in an area that is so rich with history and culture and tradition, and certainly we would like to see markers and kiosks that tell the story. Obviously, we don’t want craft shops all around, but the plan is one that is culturally sensitive and appropriate. … It’s preservation of historic sites in order to tell what happened on these lands thousands of years before European contact and then after European contact. 

“The group itself, you’ll not find a group of people who are more committed to conservation and preservation that those folks. It’s certainly not as if they have ulterior motives and nefarious intent for what they’re doing. Their hearts are in the right place. If there can be any criticism, it’s a lack of PR.

“I have great faith in humanity and presented with the facts and with the entire story and with an opportunity for those who oppose something to be able to voice their concerns and have those concerns answered in a respectful way, I have a great faith in humanity that the majority of people will say, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ and move on. 

“The only time that’s not true is when the questions are posed and then all of a sudden the walls go up, but I don’t see that happening here. I think that everybody involved is more than willing to answer any questions. There have been multiple public gatherings and displays of renderings just in the short time I’ve been in office [two years]. There were two, separate, widely-attended public meetings: one at the Cowee school and another out at the Cowee Mound. 

“So, there’s been a lot of publicity on this, so the question I have is, these folks who are opposing this now, have they not been paying attention until this moment? And, all of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Well, where did this come from?’ Well, this has been going on for a couple years now.

MCN: What are the Eastern Band’s plans for the adjacent property, the former Dan’s Auto, purchased in 2017 to build an annex to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian? 

PCS: “There are no renderings to date. In fact, just last month, I just signed the approval for the funds [$89,000] to be released to conduct the feasibility study.

“We are asking the question, ‘Do we stick with the building that we have, the structure, which was just a concrete building block building, it was an auto repair building? Do we stick with that, and put money into that, and convert it to something else? Or, is it going to be more feasible to build an entirely new structure?’ We don’t have an answer to that yet.

“The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Bo Taylor, the curator over there, he and Dr. [Barbara] Duncan are heading up the bidding process.

“On historically and culturally significant sites, here locally on the boundary — and certainly our museum and village and other places — we’ve made substantial investment. Depending on what the feasibility study tells us, we will act appropriately. Today we don’t have that yet. I think the fact that we’ve invested close to $100,000 just on the feasibility study demonstrates our commitment.”

MCN: If the Eastern Band owns property outside of the reservation, does that property fall under the jurisdiction of the county or is it considered tribal land?

PCS: “It’s just property that we own …There is a process by which any federally recognized tribe can send an application to the Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and ask that that property be taken into trust, and there’s an entire process that goes with it. The county has to approve, the BIA has to approve, and what you’re using it for is a big determining factor as to whether or not they will take it into trust.

MCN: What is the importance of the Nikwasi Initiative’s name on the deed?

PCS: “The importance is it speaks to our commitment to preservation of historic places. To me, it ought to really give a sense of peace of mind to those folks who are concerned about what’s going to happen after this is conveyed. The fact that there is this conservation initiative of historical sites is the one overseeing it should give them peace of mind that it’s going to be preserved as is.

MCN: Can you comment on accusations that the Kituwah Mound has not been properly preserved since the EBCI took ownership?

PCS: “I would disagree with the assertion that we don’t take care of Kituwah, that’s just not true. [Architectural renderings for the future EBCI Kituwah site were provided to MCN]. So, the mound itself is mowed. There’s a short stockade fence around the perimeter of it. The only complaints I ever get around that is that sometimes there are weeds growing up around the stockade fence, that we don’t weed eat around that enough.

“There’s an old steel machine shed [on the property], we’re going to take that down and put in its place a very nice structure that will still be open-air for outdoor gatherings. Then it has a small visitor’s center and you go up the stairs and there’s an observation deck at the top looking out over the mound.”

MCN: Is adding the Nikwasi Initiative to the deed of the Nikwasi Mound a prerequisite for EBCI involvement in this project?

PCS: “It’s more partnership. It’s not a prerequisite, but it makes the most sense. Again, so the Eastern Band is a tribal government, and it just seems to make more sense to me to have a conservation group be responsible for the oversight of the maintenance and upkeep. If that doesn’t happen, does that mean we’re not interested? No, we are certainly still interested. The fact that we are already on the ground, we already spent $300,000 plus to buy the Dan’s Auto building, I think that again demonstrates our commitment to the area and our investment in Macon County and the Town of Franklin.

MCN: Some have claimed that the mound was built before Cherokee settlement in the area, and therefore it precedes the Cherokee. What is your opinion on this issue?

PCS: “I think that’s arguable as well because of some of the studies that have been done on artifacts found here locally, and we know that our Cherokee ancestors were in a seven-state region. There are artifacts dating back 10,000 years that were found here locally. I guess I would take some issue with the assertion that, ‘Well, this was here before the Cherokee got here, so why should they care?’ I would disagree with that and the fact is that we do care, and the amount of money that we have invested already demonstrates how much we do care.”