The Franklin Town Council has voted to transfer the deed to the ancient Nikwasi Mound to a nonprofit.
The hall broke out into applause after the town council voted unanimously in favor of transferring the property to the Nikwasi Initiative - a nonprofit made up of representatives from Franklin, Macon County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust.
Hope Huskey is on the board of the Nikwasi Initiative and a member of the Eastern Band.
“I like the idea that Cherokee and Appalachian people aren’t a thing of the past. That we are people living in 2019 and that we will be here in the years to come,” says Huskey, who is also on the Mainspring board.
The town first moved to draw up the transfer deed in March, but it has proven to be controversial. A group of private citizens filed a lawsuit against the town council. A hearing for it has not yet been scheduled. Franklin town Attorney John Henning says that he is certain the deed is legal - and that it gives the mound even more protections.
Mayor Bob Scott stated that he would sign the deed “under duress.” The mayor does not hold a vote on the council. He says he still has questions about the deal.
Gloria Raby Owenby - one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit - says that people of Macon County have taken a bad deal.
“We’ve been robbed. We have actually been robbed. We still are going to be able to go forward with our lawsuit and we plan to do that,” says Owenby. She was not comfortable sharing who her legal counsel is at this time.
In the deed, if the Nikwasi Initiative ever goes bankrupt, then the mound will revert back to Franklin. Additionally, if the Initiative ever violates the deed in anyway then there would be a hearing.
Franklin Vice Mayor Barbara McRae has faced personal attacks for proposing the transfer. Critics have called it a conflict of interest because McCrae is both on the town board and the co-chair of the Nikwasi Initiative. Henning says this is false.
“ I feel like most people are solidly behind it,” says McRae. “I hope that the people who are against it will change their minds when they start seeing positive changes down there.”
Another criticism of the Nikwasi Initiative is its lack of planning and transparency on what it will do with the area around the mound. The Initiative has received over $67,000 in funding from Franklin, Macon County, and the Eastern Band in the last two years.
McRae says that the Nikwasi Initiative plans to hold public meetings about the project soon.
“It’s very hard to organize a public meeting and graphics. Hopefully that will happen very soon,” says McRae. I think that we have lots of great idea and have taken some good steps.”
The Nikwasi Initiative website launched after the proposal for the transfer of the deed.
According to it’s website, the nonprofit will protect the mound and add “informational signage similar to its work at Cowee Mound.” A kiosk and observation platform were built across from the mound in the fall. These sites will be a part of a cultural corridor spanning along the Little Tennessee River that were announced this fall.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians bought the abandoned building next to the mound for $400,000. They are currently working on a feasibility study to build a Cherokee Museum annex on the property.
Council member David Culpepper says that there is no downside to this deal.
“Let’s play devil’s advocate for a second - So if we deed this to the Nikwasi Initiative and we got conned. They conned us. What happens now? They can’t do anything with it. The protections of the 1946 deed - which are good protections - are still there,” says Culpepper.
Culpepper also quoted an archived Franklin Press article from 1947 at the meeting which explained that the conveyor of original deed to Niwasi Mound was willing to sell the mound to “the town, a commission or a trusteeship on the express condition that the mound be preserved and not be excavated or explored.”
Council member Joe Collins put forward the motion to transfer the deed.
Despite the harsh words of the past few months, everyone at the meeting agreed on one goal: To protect the Nikwasi Mound for the next generation.