Town moves toward transferring ownership of Mound to nonprofit

The Nikwasi Indian Mound in East Franklin is the subject of a proposal to transfer its ownership from the Town to a nonprofit initiative supported by the Town of Franklin, Macon County, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, and Mainspring Conservation Trust. Photo by Vickie Carpenter

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

Town of Franklin Vice-Mayor Barbara McRae made a proposal Monday that the town deed over the Cherokee cultural site known as the Nikwasi Mound to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and the nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative, where she serves as co-chair.

“What this will do is allow the Cherokees, finally, after 200 years, to have some representation in the management of the mound,” said McRae in introducing the proposal, noting that an 1819 treaty with the Cherokee Indians to protect sacred lands had been violated. “Now, we have the opportunity to do something really historic and to reverse that wrong.”

In a letter submitted to the record, McRae explained that deeding the Nikwasi Mound to Nikwasi Initiative Inc. will allow joint ownership between the town and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and “ensure that, in perpetuity, they share equally with us in its care and preservation.”

Juanita Wilson of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian, also co-chair for the initiative, spoke briefly to the council, noting that the move would serve to further unite all those involved in the project.

“It really unites us, and nobody loses anything. We all gain, so, so much by doing this,” she said, noting that her “vision” of creating a cultural corridor of which the mound is a part, could later include sites important to the Cherokee, the Scottish and the Appalachian people whose histories are intertwined. 

Neither McRae nor Wilson made clear why deeding the land to the Initiative was necessary to move forward with the community development and preservation goals of the NGO (non-governmental organization), which has already received more than $300,000 from Macon County alone since 2016.

Some concerns

While careful to express their support for the initiative, council members asked questions about what deeding over the property might mean.

Town attorney John Henning Jr. explained that any transfer of the protected cultural site, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, would require a preservation agreement. Furthermore, the land could not be used for commercial purposes, and a deed transfer agreement would include details as to what might happen if the NGO were to be dissolved – such as transfer to another NGO or returning the property to the town.

The Nikwasi Initiative was organized in 2013 as Mountain Partners with the goal to “nurture understanding and reconciliation between the people of Franklin and Macon County and the Eastern Band.” The group received 501(c)(3) non-profit status as a Community Development Organization in 2018. The initiative is supported by the Town of Franklin, Macon County, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust.

Mainspring has already pursued restoration of brownfield sites and property improvement along the Little Tennessee River, near the mound.

The Nikwasi Initiative promises to erect a kiosk with interpretive panels near the mound this spring, and promises “significant investment in adjoining property,” and has been in discussion related to a possible Museum Annex/visitor center.

Mayor Bob Scott asked if architectural sketches were yet available of the proposed Museum. They are not. Meanwhile, Wilson said the tribe hopes the deed transfer can happen “as soon as possible,” setting a goal of May.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Scott wondered, “Is it going to be one of these things where the deed or nothing?” 

Noting that it is his responsibility as mayor to fully vet the proposal, he said he has received some concerns from community members that the deeding over the property is not necessary.

“It’s not that I’m against any of the development or beautification or revitalization of that area,” he said, regretting that a prior administration had “poisoned” the area by planting inappropriate grass. However, he stated, “The deed is very, very ironclad that the town is to keep the deed.”

The Town Council voted unanimously Monday to proceed with preparing a deed transfer agreement for consideration at April’s meeting.