Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
At the Feb. 9 Macon County Commissioners meeting, Elaine Eisenbraun, executive director of the Nikwasi Initiative, presented an update of the future for the area surrounding Nikwasi Mound in Franklin. She explained that after discussions with EBCI (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) tribal members, a determination was made that an originally planned museum next to the mound “wasn’t going to tell the whole story,” she said. “The Cherokee society was an agrarian society so partners want to enhance that fact. Food and language are very important to the tribe. So they came up with the concept of a restaurant. People want to learn of the heritage of the tribes and other cultures that were here and a restaurant would accomplish that.”
All around the historical Nikwasi round-style mound is planned future concepts that will not only honor the Cherokee heritage of the area, but also result in a richly cultural destination spot. Ancient mounds, of which there are several in Western North Carolina, were built from dirt cleared for houses built near the mound. Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center Director Stacy Guffey, who is also founder and a board member of the Nikwasi Initiative, explained that Cherokee people building homes would add their dirt for the development of the mound. No one is certain if people are buried inside the mound or not, “but ECBI believes it is highly possible,” said Guffey. Mounds, considered sacred places by the Cherokee, were made so that a council house could be constructed on top. A fire would burn in the middle of the council house, so the Cherokee understand an “eternal flame” burns inside the mound, pointed out Eisenbraun.
Besides a restaurant, discussions are ongoing regarding establishment of an indoor learning center that might “have a commercial kitchen that teaches what is being cooked at the restaurant … that teaches basket weaving, pottery …,” said Eisenbraun.
Plus, there might be a demonstration farm operated like a seeds-to-service concept, which could create jobs for people who are coming out of substance abuse, trauma, etc.
“We want to plant crops, fruit trees, and more,” said Eisenbraun. “What we would be creating here is cultural and culinary tourism, which are big right now.”
The main goals of the projects surrounding Nikwasi Mound are to enhance economic development by promoting cultural tourism, culinary tourism, and cultural and historical districts so that visitors will extend stays to the area, noted Eisenbraun. She shared a power point that included statistics from a 2019 feasibility study: more than 13 million people visit the Western North Carolina area, and at least 20% of those seek out historical places and experiences; 73% of millennials indicate are amenable to culture tourism. Also significant is that currently, 22,000 vehicles pass the Nikwasi Mound daily.
Eisenbraun said that the project around the mound would provide the Cherokee a place to tell the story of Nikwasi (properly pronounced Nokwisi), and also considered by Cherokee as the “Star Place.”
“What occurred in the area of Nikwasi is a story of a people of this place and a story of our shared history as mountain people,” said Guffey. “The partnership between the Nikwasi Initiative, the EBCI, Macon County, and the Town of Franklin is unique. Our executive director is building relationships that will elevate the project to a national level. With that, there is potential for significant funding from private, local, state, federal, and tribal sources. The potential for economic development and jobs is significant.”
“It’s a huge multi-million dollar project,” said Eisenbraun. “We intend it to be a combined public and private effort. It’s an idea at this point that will grow and morph.”
Eisenbraun told commissioners she expected the county to be a significant part of the effort in many ways, including financially.
Eisenbraun also mentioned that planning continues on the Apple Trail, which will be located on the Little Tennessee River Greenway, with estimated planting of five heritage varieties of apples, developed by Cherokee growers, to be planted this fall.