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North Carolina City Takes First Steps Toward Cherokee Cultural Corridor

The Nikwasi Initiative is working to protect and honor local sites that play an important role in the heritage of a regional Indian tribe. 

By Brittany Mosely

For decades, the town of Franklin, North Carolina, owned Noquisiyi (later interpreted as Nikwasi) Mound. The mound is the only thing that remains of a Cherokee settlement that dates back to the 16th century. The town’s meeting hall once sat atop the mound.

Now, the Nikwasi Initiative is working to protect and honor local sites that play an essential role in the heritage of a regional Indian tribe — including the Nikwasi Mound.

The organization, which was founded in 2019, is the byproduct of a conflict that arose between Franklin city officials and members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, according to executive director Elaine Eisenbraun. 

In an effort to reduce the maintenance burden of the mound, local officials decided to change the grass that grew on it. To do that, they sprayed herbicide on the mound to kill the old grass.

“To the Cherokee people, the mound is a living member of their community, and that was devastating,” Eisenbraun says. 

But from that devastation and upheaval, came understanding and collaboration. 

“The initial discussions were just about getting everybody to the table, getting representatives from the Cherokee community and the Franklin-Macon County community together, just to sit down at the table and start talking,” says Bob McCollum, a lifelong Franklin resident and a member of the Nikwasi Initiative’s board. “And that led us to the idea of, well what if we had a project that we can work on jointly? And the protection of the Nikwasi Mound ... was, of course, the focal point for both groups.”

Those discussions led to the formation of the Nikwasi Initiative. Eisenbraun and Jacqueline Rhew, who serves as coordinator, make up the two-person staff, but the nonprofit counts local residents, civic leaders and members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians among its volunteers and board members. In May 2019, Franklin Town Council deeded the mound to the Nikwasi Initiative.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a tribe of 14,000 members located in western North Carolina. The city of Franklin is about 36 miles south of the Qualla Boundary, a territory the tribe has owned since purchasing it from the federal government in the 1870s.

“The mission is to preserve, protect and promote a culture and heritage in the original homeland of the Cherokee people,” Eisenbraun says. “So a lot of it is landscape-oriented. But we take on projects that are appropriate to our organization and help to preserve that mission.”

The long-term vision for the Nikwasi Initiative is to create a Cherokee cultural corridor along the Little Tennessee River, running from Franklin to Cherokee, a town inside the Qualla Boundary. The organization has taken several steps toward this goal, including placing cultural information kiosks at Cowee and Noquisiyi Mounds and creating two trailways: the Blueway Trails and the Apple Trail. Its biggest project though is turning the Noquisiyi Mound and the area around it into the Noquisiyi Cultural District. Part of the project will include converting a former auto sales building into a cultural learning center. Other aspects of the cultural district include a cafe, green space and an amphitheater.

“It's a long-term project. There's no question,” Eisenbraun says. “We're trying to raise funds to purchase some of the real estate around the [cultural learning center] and the mound to make a really special place to honor that mound.”

The cultural center is estimated to cost $3.75 million. The Nikwasi Initiative received funding for the center from Opportunity Appalachia, a consortium of eight regional partners coordinated by CDFI Appalachian Community Capital that aims to ​​bring investments that create new jobs and businesses and support sustainable growth to Appalachian communities.

Although much work is left to be done, Eisenbraun and McCollum both agree that progress has already been made when it comes to enhancing community engagement and understanding. Through conflict and misunderstanding came a productive and respectful relationship between the two groups. It’s something McCollum would like to see happen in more places.

“I'm hoping that this … can be used as a model for all those other communities out there once they find out about it. That they too can calm the rhetoric, ease up on the hard feelings,” he says. “The fact that if you just get people to sit down and talk to one another and better understand the other people's position, a lot of good can come from it.”

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.