The Nikwasi Mound holds spirits and a deed
by Rob Neufeld
The Nikwasi mound, recently sprayed with herbicide by the town of Franklin, killing the grass, occupies a site once called Dayulsun’yi—“Where They Cried”—by the Cherokee Swimmer, a Cherokee medicine man whom ethnologist James Mooney had consulted in the 1880s, had told him the story behind the name.
“Long ago,” he said, “a powerful unknown tribe invaded the country from the southeast, killing people and destroying settlements wherever they went.”
The locals had no hope, but then the Nunnehi “poured out (of the mound) by the hundreds, armed and painted for the fight.” The immortal spirits killed the invaders down to its last few warriors, who, when captured, “cried out for mercy.”
It is uncertain when this legendary confrontation took place.
The direct ancestors of today’s Cherokee (the Qualla people) came into this area round 1450 A.D., many scholars surmise, looking at artifacts and linguistics.
The Creek did not exist as an entity until various native peoples, primarily the Muscogee, federated after having lost 90% of their populations to European-borne plague.
When, in 1715, the mountain Cherokee allied with South Carolina against the Creek in the Yamasee War, they cited a long-standing conflict with the Creek, whose ancestry was Muskegon rather than Sioux. I have not been able to find any reference to a Creek invasion of Cherokee middle towns, such as Nikwasi, as the Cherokee called their village at the time of de Soto.
“Nikwasi,” according to some translators, means “center of activity.”
The Cherokee, respecting their ancestors’ tradition of building on former villages and mounds, erected a council house atop the Nikwasi mound. In 1730, their leaders met there with the British to forge a historic alliance that ended when Col. James Grant—on a kill and destroy mission—obliterated all but the mound in 1761, during the French and Indian War.
Before that destruction, the Cherokee had “attempted to stop the British soldiers before they reached the Middle Towns,” the Museum of the Cherokee Indian’s “Emissaries of Peace” catalog states. Nearby, “thousands of Cherokee warriors led by Oconostota fought for nearly four hours against 2,800 British and colonial troops.”
Grant buried his dead under the Nikwasi council house, which he had converted into a hospital.
Thus, British souls joined generations of Indian ones, going back a thousand years to the Woodland Indians, who’d preceded the Mississippian, who’d preceded the Qualla.
No digs of the mound itself have been done because a deed transferring the property from the Macon County Historical Society to the town stipulated that the mound “not be excavated, explored, altered, or impaired.”
The Nunnehi remain as sacred and unglimpsed as the Great White Bear at the enchanted lake atop Clingman’s Dome.
At times, before the Cherokee Removal, Nikwasi residents had heard the drumming and singing of the Nunnehi, and sometimes encountered them.
“They were a friendly people, too,” Swimmer told Mooney, “and often brought lost wanderers to their townhouses under the mountains and cared for them.”
It is tempting to think of the Nunnehi as the spirits of Woodland Indians, who occupied the hills and coves of this region 2,000 years ago, both maintaining a hunting and gathering lifestyle and growing corn.
They buried their dead in graves, enclosing objects meant for the afterlife.
They used bows and arrows, wielded celts, made pots and art objects, traded for seashell jewelry, and built round homes in which family members slept with their feet to the central fireplace. They had dolls. They had holidays.
Twice a year, Thomas Lewis and Madeline Kneberg relate iin their book, “Tribes That Slumber,” Woodland Indians in the mountains held memorials called “‘feast of souls’ or ‘cries of the kindred’ that were performed to reassure the dead—whose spirits were supposed to hover nearby—that their bones were being properly cared for.”
Macon County schoolchildren, when alerted, in 1946, that their connection to Cherokee history was being threatened by a developer looking to purchase the mound, collected $1,500 in nickels and dimes to help the historical society buy it and give it to the town for safekeeping and maintenance.
The recent spraying was done to lower maintenance costs, and was initiated without required approval from the state or a local oversight committee.
Michell Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said at a meeting with local officials, May 21, “I would rather own the mound and let us take care of it…The right thing to do, just like Kituwah, just like Cowee, is to bring it back into the hands of its original owners.”
The Nikwasi mound in 1890, photographed by H.G. Trotter, the owner, and printed in James Mooney’s 1891 book, “Myths of the Cherokee.”