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Mountain Partners Unveils First Look At Cultural Corridor Worth Over $28 Million

Lilly Knoepp
Ancient Cowee Mound rises above a field of hay in Macon County.

The first piece of a project connecting historical sites of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee is complete.  When the full project is finished, a cultural corridor will run over 60 miles along the Little Tennessee River from Rabun County in Georgia to the town of Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina. The effort has been a long time coming.

Credit Lilly Knoepp
The first panel of the cultural corridor will be placed across from the Cowee Mound on a viewing platform to the sacred spot.

The Cowee Valley in present day Macon County is the heart of the ancient Cherokee people.  It’s also home to start of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The name Cowee in Cherokee is “Kawiyi,” which means “Deer Town.  Cherokee Elder Tom Belt explained the significance and origin of the word:


“This area here along the banks of the Little Tennessee River, there was a town here.  Technically, this was the second most important town in all of Cherokee World. This was called Ani-kawi and this was the Deer Clan Town,” says Belt.


Informal conversations about building this cultural corridor began almost 7 years ago. That led to the formation of Mountain Partners. The group includes which includes members of the tribe, the town of Franklin, Mainspring Conservation Trust, the Nikwasi Initiative, Macon County officials and Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center.


Juanita Wilson is the co-chair of the Nikwasi Initiative which is the nonprofit arm of Mountain Partners.  She explains sites like the Cowee mound are a part of the collective heritage of the whole region:


“It’s everyone’s mound now,” says Wilson. “Everyone has a piece and an interest  in preserving it and making sure that it is respected.”


Late last month, the panels of the corridor’s first kiosk which tell the story of the mound in English and Cherokee were unveiled. Stacy Guffey is a member of Mountain Partners board of directors. He says that that project is the result of years of partnership.


“It’s taken about 20 years worth of work just to have the landscape in place so that we can do this work,” says Guffey. “That’s the most powerful part of the story to me,” says Guffey, who is the project manager for Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center.


Almost $9 million dollars is invested so far in this project, with around $5 million of that coming from the Eastern Band.  A big portion of the corridor also includes the Needmore Tract. Conservation of that over 4,500 tract of land cost the state $19.2 million dollars - making the scope of this project over $28 million dollars.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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