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McGoun: Nikwasi-Cherokee Corridor reminds us of mountains' true history

Asheville Citizen Times logo Asheville Citizen Times 8/2/2019 Bill McGoun
a person posing for the camera© Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

There are two reasons to drive the Nikwasi-Cherokee Cultural and Heritage Corridor. First, it tells us a lot about the people who found these mountains a great place to live more than two thousand years ago. Second, it’s a lovely scenic drive.

The corridor begins where the Little Tennessee River enters Macon County from Georgia, but the first especially significant spot is Nikwasi Mound, between the lanes of U.S. 441 Business in Franklin.

a sign on the side of a road: Nikwasi Initiative plans to kickoff its Nikwasi Mound and cultural corridor push Aug. 24 in Franklin at Nikwasi Mound. The group’s members say they are planning a series of events and lining up speakers from Cherokee, Macon County and elsewhere.© Courtesy of Quintin Ellison Photography Nikwasi Initiative plans to kickoff its Nikwasi Mound and cultural corridor push Aug. 24 in Franklin at Nikwasi Mound. The group’s members say they are planning a series of events and lining up speakers from Cherokee, Macon County and elsewhere.

The Cherokee town of Nikwasi first appears on maps in 1544, but it could have existed for centuries — or even millennia — before that. “This mound was the spiritual, political, and physical center of the Cherokee town of Nikwasi,” according to the marker on the south side of the mound.

“A council house or town house on top of the mound held the sacred fire, and everyone gathered there to hear news, make decisions, dance, and participate in ceremonies. Surrounding the mound were about 100 houses, a field for playing stickball, and a dance ground, as well as hundreds of acres of crops, orchards, and gardens.”

Jonáš Záborský et al. standing around a table: Amanda Crowe, a Cherokee wood carver, demonstrates her skills during the 1960 Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands.© Courtesy of the Southern Highland Craft Guild Amanda Crowe, a Cherokee wood carver, demonstrates her skills during the 1960 Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands.

The mound itself is a peaceful oasis amid the flow of traffic. Ownership recently was conveyed from Franklin to Nikwasi Initiative, a nonprofit including Franklin, Cherokee, Macon County and regional nonprofit Mainspring Conservation Trust, whose headquarters sit just across the eastbound lanes of U.S. 441.

More: Cherokee invest in Nikwasi Mound's future, as preservation efforts pick up steam

The Cherokee have purchased a vacant building next to the mound that could be developed into a museum. “This would be a world-class interpretive center at Nikwasi Mound and tell its story,” said Barbara Duncan, retired education director for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Leaving Nikwasi, turn right where SR 28 leaves U.S. 441 Business. The road winds along the river, with a walking trail between. About five miles north of town you enter Cowee, perhaps the single most important Cherokee town in historic times. A new interpretive area on the river side of the road tells the story.

“The council house of the Cherokee town of Cowee was located on this mound in the 18th century, when the town of Cowee served as the principal diplomatic and commercial center of the mountain Cherokee,” according to Mainspring.

“Cowee is considered one of the most significant archaeological sites of the Mississippian period in North Carolina, where the presence of agriculture on the bottomlands dates back at least 3,000 years. Cowee was also the center of significant historic events on the eve of the American Revolution in the South.”

a bench in a garden: In 2018, partner groups installed a kiosk with cultural interpretive panels written in both English and Cherokee syllabary near Cowee Mound, also in Macon County, along N.C. 28.© Courtesy of Quintin Ellison Photography In 2018, partner groups installed a kiosk with cultural interpretive panels written in both English and Cherokee syllabary near Cowee Mound, also in Macon County, along N.C. 28.

In summer the mound, which sites across the river, is a bit hard to see, but if you look closely you can spot the rounded top of a feature considerably larger than the Nikwasi mound. The Cherokee have owned the property since 2007.

Going north from Cowee, you can either remain on SR 28, which crests several ridges before reaching U.S. 74, or cross the river and take the Needmore road, which follows the river closely, so closely that it frequently is flooded. I chose the latter, which is a lovely passage through a narrow valley.

That valley once was to have been inundated for a Duke Power reservoir. Duke abandoned its plans and the land was acquired by the state, which manages it as a nature preserve.

The only major site beyond Needmore is Kituwah, three miles east of Bryson City between U.S. 19 and the Tuckaseegee River.  “Kituwah is considered by all three of the federally recognized Cherokee tribes as the place of origin for the Cherokee people. Archeologists date the site back to nearly 10,000 years ago,” says visitcherokeenc.com.

The mound, once 15 to 20 feet high, was virtually leveled while being farmed by non-Cherokees. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians bought the site in 1996.

Most of us consider an old-time family to be one that’s been here since the 19th Century. The cultural corridor reminds us that, for some of us, the lineage goes back far longer.

Bill McGoun is a contributing editor for the ACT Editorial Board. He lives in Bryson City.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: McGoun: Nikwasi-Cherokee Corridor reminds us of mountains' true history

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