Kituwah Mound and destruction, North Carolina
sacred place, a bitter fight
Scarecrows rest at a
barn in the Kituwah valley near Bryson City.
Much of the valley is leased to Cherokee tribal
members for farming. The valley contains the
Kituwah mound, said to be the birthplace of the
It may well be
the most sacred spot in North Carolina.
The Kituwah mound
was bestowed to the Cherokees by the Creator
as the birthplace of the Cherokee nation,
according to oral tradition.
Cradled by the Smoky
Mountains and lullabied for eons by the
Tuckasegee River, the mound and surrounding
valley is the Cherokee promised land.
Cherokees compare Kituwah to the Garden of
Eden, and even its panoramic view is
considered sacred to all Cherokees.
Then last year that
view was threatened. Duke Energy began
clearing land on the other side of the
river - but within view of Kituwah - in
preparation for a regional equipment
upgrade to boost power delivery to the
Duke planned to put
in an electrical relay station on a
parcel 100 yards square, the size of two
football fields laid side by side. Duke
also planned to replace wooden utility
poles with 100-foot-tall transmission
towers and conduct high-voltage wires in
the serene valley.
To the Cherokees, it
was a form of desecration.
Since then, the
tribe and the Charlotte utility company
have been involved in a modern variant
of a treaty negotiation, one that may
ultimately be decided by the N.C.
Duke, the state's
biggest power company and one of the
largest energy companies in the nation,
has been trying to reach a settlement
with the tribe and has looked for other
land for the project. But all the while
it has maintained its legal right to
pursue the project.
In March, however,
it was forced to halt construction after the
Swain County Board of Commissioners passed a
90-day moratorium on building towers and
That same month, a
local group, Citizens to Protect Kituwah
Valley and Swain County, asked the state
Utilities Commission to block the project,
saying it would mar Swain County's natural
and cultural heritage. The commission, which
regulates public utilities in the state,
gave Duke until today to respond.
Where God commanded
The Cherokees conduct
monthly religious rituals at the Kituwah, within
view of the crag where Cherokees say God entrusted
them with the eternal flame and issued the
commandment to establish a nation.
The site represents a
tenuous link to the remnants of a once-thriving
culture now struggling against the threat of
extinction. In North Carolina, for example, out of
14,000 members of the Eastern Band, fewer than 300
speakers of the Cherokee language remain, said Tom
Belt, coordinator of the Cherokee Language Program
at Western Carolina University.
Russell Townsend, tribal
preservation officer for the Eastern Band of
Cherokee, which owns the Kituwah land, says his
people have "a responsibility for caring for this
property for all tribe members."
Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma passed a resolution
affirming the tribe's moral obligation to
"protect the Kituwah site from further
desecration and degradation."
In February, George
Wickliffe, chief of the 10,000-citizen United
Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, wrote state officials,
"Not only can one see Clingman's Dome, where the
Creator gave our wise men the Sacred Fire which they
carried back to Kituwah, but also earthly elements
between Kituwah and the heavens, which are part of
our religious ceremonies today."
integrity of Kituwah is not merely an internal
matter for the Cherokee, but also a cultural
concern for officials in Swain County, where an
estimated 40 percent of residents are of
Cherokee descent, said county manager Kevin
Duke executives have
met more than a dozen times with Eastern Band
leaders and Swain County officials to discuss
the issue. Wickliffe flew in from Oklahoma for
one of the meetings.
With the culturally
sensitive issue escalating, Duke agreed to
consider an alternate construction site that is
not visible from Kituwah.
"We didn't have a
good understanding that visual impact was a
cultural issue," acknowledged Joni Davis, Duke's
vice president of government and community
relations. "We very quickly recognized the
cultural significance of this site, being the
origin of the Cherokee people."
Duke, which bought the
contested land for $1.5 million two years ago, is
considering several nearby sites, but the
alternatives aren't a sure thing.
One possibility is
an industrial park Swain County is offering as a
land swap. The company is also looking at buying
private land from local residents, but many balk
at selling their homesteads.
"In many cases what
we're running into is homeowners who have lived
there for many generations," Davis said.
The sacred flame
The U.S. government
evicted the Cherokees from Kituwah in the early
1820s and auctioned off the land for farming.
Then the entire Southeast was cleared for white
settlement with congressional passage of the
Indian Removal Act and the forced migration of
Indians to western reservations in 1838-1839,
known as the Trail of Tears.
The Eastern Band of
Cherokees, a small remnant, were allowed to
remain where they had resettled in western North
Carolina because some had previously signed
treaties with the U.S. government.
The sacred flame,
continuously burning at Kituwah for nearly
10,000 years, according to tribal lore, made the
journey into exile with its displaced people and
burns to this day in Oklahoma. In the 1980s, the
Eastern Band relayed fire from the sacred flame
back to North Carolina, and it has burned here
continuously in an undisclosed location.
Once the sanctum
sanctorum for the tribal guardian of the flame,
the mound at Kituwah has, through plowing,
erosion and neglect, been reduced to a height of
about 5 feet, a third of its former size.
The Cherokees didn't
regain the property until 1996, when the Eastern
Band bought back the 309 acres for $3.5 million,
largely financed by proceeds from Harrah's
Cherokee Casino in the town of Cherokee. The
purchase roiled the Cherokee people, with some
insisting the land remain untouched in
perpetuity, and others suggesting the area be
developed as a resort, golf course or NASCAR
archaeological discoveries have quieted the
debate. Archaeologists found evidence of 15
burial sites in the area and speculate there may
be hundreds more.
The site is private
property but accessible to the public, though
it's not identified by historical markers and is
not promoted as a tourist destination, Townsend
Biblical in a lot of ways," said Belt, the
Cherokee language teacher.
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Submitted by Helen