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Debunking The Origins Of The Ancient Nikwasi Mound

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
National Park Service surveyor Hiram Wilburn took this photo of Nikwasi Mound circa 1937.

  At its March meeting, the Franklin Town Councilmoved forward with a motion to transfer ownership of the Nikwasi Mound to a nonprofit.


The origin of the ancient mound has been called into question. BPR spoke with historians and archeologists about the mound and what makes it a sacred space.


The Nikwasi Mound stands in the middle of downtown Franklin. It has stood in this spot for thousands of years and has never been fully excavated. That means the exact date of when was it was built is unknown - but that’s what makes the mound so special, says Brett Riggs, Seqoyah Distinguished Professor at Western Carolina University.


“So yeah its prominent, it’s on your mind. It’s there to be seen and experienced every day,” says Riggs.


The town council of Franklin is currently deciding who should have the responsibility of continuing to preserve the mound. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 so it is protected by federal law.


Local residents questioning the origins of the moundcite a report that the mound was built by the Creek people and not the Cherokee.  This is false saysRiggs, who has written extensively on the subject.  


“There is no evidence or even circumstantial evidence,” says Riggs, who explained that the mounds were built up overtime and topped with a council house.This was the center of a villiage that was a cross between a church, court house and meeting place.


There have also been reports that the mound was built by the “Mississippians.”  But Mississippian is actually a period of time spanning between 1000 and 1600 A.D. and not a tribe says Ben Steere, who directs the Cherokee Studies program at Western Carolina.


“When archaeologists talk about the Mississippian period we aren’t ascribing a culture to it - we are just talking about the time period,” says Steere, who is also an assistant professor in anthropology.


Steere has worked on a project studying Western North Carolina mounds and towns with the Eastern Band and local researchers starting in 2011. He says there are about 50 mounds in the 11 westernmost North Carolina counties built during the Mississippian and Woodland periods. This includesthe Biltmore Mound in Asheville.


“I think there are these contentious questions of who owns the past and that ownership can become politicized. That’s happened at other mounds not just Nikwasi,” says Steere.  


Nikwasi has been listed on maps of the region as early as 1566, says Steere. He advocates for indigenous people to have more of a voice in what is happening to their sacred sites.


"It's 2019 and I think what is most important now is that idigenous people have a say in their sacred sites," says Steere.  


The Nikwasi Mound land was taken by settlers through an 1817 treaty. The area around it was developed after World War II with gas stations and businesses. In 1946, the children of Macon County collected pennies to pay $1,500 to buy the 1-acre mound.


Franklin Mayor Bob Scott says the act shows the deep respect that the people of Franklin have for the Nikwasi Mound - just like the Cherokee.


“It’s like apples and oranges. There is kinship very strong both sides. There is the issue of who built the mound who used the mound and who preserved the mound,” says Scott. “There is as much or more kinship to the mound from local people as those outside. The people of Franklin saved that mound otherwise, it would not even be here and we’ve never had a thank you from the Cherokee that I’m aware of.”


Over in Swain County, stand one of the other sacred mounds in the region. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee owns and protects the Kituwah Mound. It has partially been flattened by years of farming before the Cherokee was able to purchase the valley.

Credit Lilly Knoepp
Kituwah Mound is considered a mother town for the Cherokee. The historic marker at the site says that the town was destroyed in 1761 by Col. James Grant's forces.

Johi Griffin has been the tribal historic sites keeper for the last 9 years. He says it is an honor to hold this job as a member of the Eastern Band.

“There is a lot of stuff that we do that no one will ever know just to preserve the Cherokee - past, present and future,” says Griffin.

“We can reach down and touch the earth that our ancestors have touched before. We can go anywhere in these mountains and see our ancestors we are just following in their footsteps. Now we are just trying to maintain in a nonnative world.”


Tom Belt is a recently retired professor of Cherokee Linguistics at Western Carolina University. He is Cherokee and advocates for tribal sites to be returned.


“Nequeesi is how they say it here,” Ne-ques-si,” says Belt. “ The English people heard it  and they wrote, ‘Nikwasi’.”


He says that the Cherokees’ ancestral history in the mountains reminds them daily of where they came from - and pushes them to find out where they are going.


“Landscaping in not the issue here when you are dealing a 10,000 year history and  virtually with the memory and the souls of my grandchildren. This is not a land management issue,” says Belt, referring to the maintenance of the mound.   


“This is an issue of disenfranchisement that is a part of a long lasting line of colonialism that still says that we have no right to our place but also to ourselves and our own memory because that’s what [the mound] is.  And that’s why it’s important.”


The Franklin Town Council will vote on the transfer of the deed of the Nikwasi Mound  to the Nikwasi Initiative on Monday, April 1.


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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