Nikwasi deed issue pits nonprofit’s vision against citizens’ resistance to ‘reparations’

Mainspring Conservation Trust Executive Director Sharon Taylor and Associate Director Dr. Ben Laseter discuss potential green space development in East Franklin in front of the Mainspring office, and in view of the Nikwasi Mound. Photo by Abraham Mahshie

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

Gloria Owenby begs to differ with the argument that her ancestors had anything to do with the Cherokee losing the land they once held in Macon County.

“When our European ancestors came to Macon County, they lived peacefully with the Cherokee,” said the former president of the Macon County Historical Society. “The federal government is actually who took their land away: Federal troops and Andrew Jackson.”

Owenby claims that locals were upset about the seizures and bought property for the Indians or hid them so they could stay in the area.

“That’s why we have the Eastern Band of the Cherokee,” said the historian, who worked on the reservation and has many Cherokee friends.

With that line of thinking, Owenby does not feel personally obligated to give reparations to the    Cherokee nation by way of deeding over the Nikwasi Mound in East Franklin.

The ancient ceremonial site – which existed for hundreds of years before the Cherokee arrived – was saved from demolition in 1946 when children saved pennies and townspeople contributed dollars to buy the land for $1,500 and prevent a service station from being constructed in its place. The deed that was drawn up, and a subsequent 2014 Town Council resolution, declared that the sacred mound would be preserved for the people of Franklin and Macon County.

For 73 years, the mound has stood largely untouched, except for the Town’s unfortunate application of a herbicide in 2012 that killed the grass. Apologies were made and the Town offered to share maintenance of the mound with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian (EBCI), who did not respond to overtures for cooperation in the mound’s maintenance and preservation, according to Mayor Bob Scott.

There was no question of that commitment to joint maintenance or to the Town’s ownership of the land until Monday, March 4, when Nikwasi Initiative co-chair and Vice-Mayor Barbara McRae proposed at a meeting of the Town Council that the Nikwasi Initiative be added to the town’s deed as a form of reparation for the seizure of Indian lands by “the white man” some 200 years ago.

Council members tiptoed around the issue as they carefully asked about the repercussions of the deeding and the promise of economic development. Town Attorney John Henning Jr. was directed to prepare a legal deed transfer for Council approval in the April 1 meeting.

The development argument

The ancient ceremonial mound rises like a green oasis in a contaminated urban wasteland. The East Franklin area where it resides is a floodplain along the Little Tennessee River. Adjacent to the mound is the former site of Simpson Gas and Oil. Across the street is what was formerly the site of the J.H. Duncan Oil Co., whose rusted oil tanks can still be seen in the area. The State of North Carolina and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have both allocated resources to purchase property and clean up the “brownfields” in the area. 

The names on those grant applications work out of a little building some 300 feet away from the Nikwasi Mound.

“Partnerships are what gets things done,” said Mainspring Conservation Foundation Executive Director Sharon Taylor, whose ancestors go back at least six generations in Macon County. “Mowing something does not mean you’re caring for it.” 

Mainspring is a nonprofit Land Trust founded in 1997 under the name “The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.” In 2012, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association merged into the group and expanded its staff and mission to include education and stream restoration. A subsequent name change to Mainspring in 2016 reflects a broader coverage area that extends west of the Balsam Mountains to the Tennessee line. The group currently has 12 employees, including 10 full-time employees, and an annual budget of $1.4 million financed through grants and donations.

Mainspring monitors 10,000 acres of conservation easements, in which a landowner has voluntarily added restrictions to his land’s deed to protect the environment. It has also helped conserve about 28,000 acres along the Little Tennessee River Valley and throughout six counties of western North Carolina and Rabun County, Georgia. The group has offices in Franklin and Murphy and hopes to open its third office in Sylva by April.

“Our mission is to conserve the waters, forest, farms and heritage of this service area,” said Ben Laseter, Mainspring’s associate director, who has a doctorate in wildlife ecology and management. “So much of our conservation work over the years has been on lands that are also culturally important.”

Mainspring isn’t new to Indian mounds, either.

A decade-long project with a $2.1 million investment included purchasing the Cowee Mound, property across the river and on Hall Mountain. The Mound and Hall Mountain were later transferred to the EBCI. The Mainspring property across the river will soon be the site of an interpretive center explaining the cultural importance of the mound.

As founding members of an advisory group known as “Mountain Partners,” Mainspring related what it had learned in the Cowee Mound purchase, transfer and development. Those lessons learned led to the founding of the nonprofit community development organization at the center of the mound controversy, the Nikwasi Initiative. 

Mountain Partners met over the course of two years before realizing the existence of a natural corridor of Indian Mounds in the region, explained Laseter.

“We are talking about a 60-mile heritage corridor that goes from the headwaters of the Little Tennessee all the way up through Nikwasi, which is a major Cherokee town and mound,” said Laseter, as he explained the group’s vision at its East Franklin office with the help of a two-part enlarged map on a poster board. On one side was an aerial shot of East Franklin’s Nikwasi Mound and surrounding private and public properties, including the cleaned up brownfield lands. 

On the other side of the poster board was a topographical map showing mounds following geographically in the shape of a question mark in reverse from Coweeta in the south to Nikwasi, Cowee, Kituhwa and terminating in the north in present-day Cherokee. 

Mainspring first signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cherokee in 2004, when it realized that preserving riverfront land in Otto overlapped with the preservation of areas of cultural importance. In this case, river cane used for basket weaving grew along the river. The Cherokee were granted permission to harvest the cane in their former territory.

Leveraging its relationship with the EBCI and based on the Cowee experience, Mainspring believes the Nikwasi Mound and surroundings can be developed into a green space and cultural interpretative center, all with pedestrian access and connected to the Greenway.

“So, without risk to the town it’s an investment in partnership that has the potential to truly make the river entrance to the Town of Franklin more attractive, highlight the cultural and natural resources, because it’s on the river, and really help the economy of Franklin,” said Taylor. 

Added Laseter, “And there’s no economic benefit that the town is realizing currently from owning that mound that they would lose if they transfer it to the nonprofit.”

Deeding the land

Owenby was formerly in the automotive business, and she had many Cherokee clients and friends, she said. She never felt hard feelings from them, nor has she seen any interest in their maintaining or preserving the mound that was built hundreds of years before the Cherokee settled in this area. 

“I was just astounded when they came up with that cock-and-bull story,” she said of the argument for ceding the land as reparations for past wrongs.

When Owenby visited another Cherokee mound on Governor’s Island in Swain County, she noted a decrepit fence, overgrowth and a foreboding sign threatening high penalties for stepping on the area.

“If we give this to the Cherokee, then what’s to keep them from doing the same thing with our mound?” she asked, rhetorically, noting that the town has maintained Nikwasi Mound for 73 years, except for one unfortunate error that was later corrected.

“I don’t think it’s the Cherokee that’s pushing it, I think it’s the Nikwasi Initiative that’s headed up by Barbara McRae,” said Owenby. “I think the things they want to do down there in that area can be done without the ownership of the mound, but her argument was that we need to right a wrong that our ancestors did 200 years ago.”

Owenby has been rallying support among friends and via Facebook and intends to be at the Town Council meeting April 1 to lodge her protest. She believes a relatively new and unknown nonprofit, the Nikwasi Initiative, doesn’t provide the same level of stability that the town provides.

“We’ve already been down this road,” she said, noting past protests about ownership, maintenance and preservation of the mound. Laseter agrees, and that’s why he believes it should be turned over to a willing and capable group of partners.

“They have coming to them an entity, Nikwasi Initiative – which has town, county, Mainspring, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians – interests represented,” he explained. “We have coming to the town a group, 501(c)(3), who has representatives from all the associated interests, volunteering to essentially take on the care and stewardship of this site moving forward.”

Mayor Scott and Commissioner Ronnie Beale both asked McRae about development plans during her two presentations, such as design sketches for the would-be interpretive center and annex to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which has been discussed for the property adjacent to the mound that was purchased by the tribe.

Owenby echoed their concern. “I haven’t seen concrete evidence that they’re going to do anything.”

Owenby emphasized her unfamiliarity with the Nikwasi Initiative, lack of transparent plans or argument for transferring the deed as reparation for past wrongs.

“We’ll take this as far as we can,” she said of her effort to fight the deeding proposal. “If you change the deed, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Meanwhile, Mainspring clarified its role as a conservation organization whose mission turns over lands for public use and preservation, not profit or development. The NGO said it has not made any monetary investment in the initiative, just man hours of its staff members.

Laseter then took out an older sketch completed by Cooper Stewart Landscape Architecture. He cautioned that private ownership in the area was to be respected, but the vision for the public lands and would-be nonprofit-controlled mound was still possible: a green and revitalized East Franklin that would feature as its centerpiece a piece of land with enormous cultural value that would draw tourists from across the country.

“Transferring the ownership, in my opinion, opens the door to a regional partnership that can realize the potential of the project,” he said.

 Said Taylor, “It is time to honor that mound in a way that other people can appreciate.”