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Nonprofit Defends Transfer Of Nikwasi Mound Deed Amid Controversy

Lilly Knoepp
The town of Franklin has preserved the Nikwasi Mound since 1946.

  At its March meeting, the Franklin Town Councilmoved forward with transferring ownership of the Nikwasi Mound.


Now certain residents and Franklin Mayor Bob Scott are asking for more information on the Nikwasi Initiative, the non-profit that will receive ownership of the mound.  BPR spoke to members of the group about their history and funding.

The Nikwasi Initiative grew out of the now infamous weedkiller incident of 2014 explains co-chair Juanita Wilson. That’s when grass on the mound was killed by an application of pesticide by town workers.  In 2015 the group adopted the name Mountain Partners to express their goal of bringing together people of all kinds, says Wilson.

“It started as a war of words but it just kind of became a media war - I don’t want to create another controversy,” says Wilson, comparing the 2014 incident to present day.

“I want to say that I can understand why people would be worried and upset but they are being represented by their own community leadership.”


There are over 20 members of Mountain Partners from the town of Franklin, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, Macon County and Mainspring Conservation Trust.


Last summer, the group announced a plan for the Cultural Heritage Corridor. The over 60 mile track of conserved land runs along the Little Tennessee River headwaters in Rabun County, Georgia through Franklin and Cowee to Cherokee.  The corridor includes Cowee Mound, Nikwasi Mound and Kituwah Mound.


In 2016, the Mountain Partners officially incorporated a nonprofit arm with a director’s board of seven people called The Nikwasi Initiative.  Maggie Mead is a consultant with Catalpa Partners who helped with move. The organization was called out by Mayor Scott, as its Asheville address was formerly used for Mountain Partners.


“The people who were involved in Mountain Partners are still involved - we meet monthly - but the Nikwasi Initiative is just the formal organization running that,” says Mead, whose last name was formerly Clancy.  “So there is are a lot of partners involved and there is a lot of focus on the Nikwasi area right now.”


Also listed in the opinion piece is Tom Hatley. He is a member of Mountain Partners. He was a Sequoyah Distinguished Professor at Western Carolina University in Cherokee Studies who now works as a consultant.


As The Nikwasi Initiative is ready to take ownership of the mound, Scott says he needs more information about the Nikwasi Initiative’s plans for the mound in order to support the move - even though the group has already received over $67,000 in funding from the town, Macon County, and the Eastern Band in the last two years.


Investment in the old Nikwasi Town area of Franklin goes back to the 1990’s, with over $11 million going into the area including the Little Tennessee River Greenway.   When you add up all the money spent - both public and private funds - to preserve the land along the Cultural Corridor it’s over $50 million dollars.


Mayor Scott says that he is well aware of the revitalization projects and the Initiative but he wants more details on the organization’s plan for the mound before he can support transfer of the deed.


“I think what they are trying to do is excellent and I support it but I have to watch out for the deed,” says Scott. “I just don’t know at this point and I have a duty and an obligation as the mayor to look out for this town and I’m going to do it.”


In August of last year, the Eastern Band purchased the property next to the Nikwasi Mound, with an expectation to build an historical museum on the property but official plans have not yet been announced.  

For some, the details of The Nikwasi Initiative are the main issue stopping transfer of the deed.  For others, personal and historical reasons are the main points of contention.

The town council is scheduled to vote on the transfer of the deed to The Nikwasi Initiative on April 1. Five Macon County citizens have filed an injunction againist the council.


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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