What began as an outlet for two disparate communities to make peace about the past and move forward in unity has attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution.
Based in Franklin, the nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative preserves, protects and promotes culture and heritage in the original homelands of the Cherokee. In turn, its board of directors — composed equally of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians members and white residents — is upfront and honest about the often fraught ways Native American history commingles with that of Appalachian settlers.
“This story starts a couple of hundred years ago when the settlers and the Cherokee started to have clashes,” says Elaine Eisenbaum, Nikwasi Initiative executive director. “The British burned out the entire community of Noquisiyi, and [the Cherokee] rebuilt it and then the Americans burned it out. And so there’s been this conflict for a long time.”
Long-buried tensions were stirred up in 2012 when a systematic spraying of herbicide killed all the living plants on the sacred Noquisiyi Mound (later interpreted as Nikwasi) in Franklin. Rather than ignore this painful past and its legacy, people from the Franklin and Cherokee communities met in April 2015 with the common goal of conserving heritage and healing relationships between mountain neighbors. The Nikwasi Initiative officially formed in 2016 and has resulted in a range of projects that identify and honor Cherokee history and culture.
“We put up kiosks along roadways and at various places so that people can stop and have roadside learning opportunities, and we do education programs for kids,” Eisenbaum explains. “We’re also putting in an apple trail, based on varieties of apples that were originally bred by Cherokee people before they were removed by the Trail of Tears. In restoring those apple varieties, people can actually taste the Cherokee contribution to something that we aren’t aware of in our modern world.”
Those efforts, along with 29 other community-led projects throughout the country, have now been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution. The organization’s new Spark! Places of Innovation traveling museum will bring the story of Franklin and Cherokee to 24 states and 144 rural communities with populations of fewer than 25,000 people from 2023-29.
According to Carol Harsh, associate director for Museum on Main Street — the Smithsonian arm that handles traveling exhibitions — Spark! will “explore four broad themes of innovation: technological, social, cultural heritage and artistic,” with the Nikwasi Initiative featured in the cultural heritage section. Other selected stories include cherry-industry innovations from Forestville, Wis., and efforts that led to the revitalization of Helper, Utah.
“Rather than tell visitors about innovation, we want to show what actual innovation looks like in rural America,” Harsh says. “Real stories will be crafted into case studies in the exhibition with the goal of inspiring visitors to think about innovation in their own town.”
In her regular searches for nonprofit opportunities, Eisenbaum read about the Smithsonian launching a new museum project to spotlight “diverse communities that implemented new ideas leading to innovations or inventions that change the community for the better.” Feeling that it was describing the Nikwasi Initiative, she filled out what she describes as a “pretty involved” application, answering questions about the community, its history and the importance of other communities learning from their efforts.
“What I emphasized in the application is how this is a place of mingling. In Franklin, you’ve got the young, energetic, Appalachian Trail-walking people who thru-hike, and they’re mingling with what I call the ‘new mountain residents,’ who have moved to the country,” Eisenbaum says.
“And you’ve got the Cherokee people mingling with the non-Cherokee people, so there’s a lot of different types of people coming together here. And I think that really excited the Smithsonian, because it’s a different kind of intercultural relationship than you see in urban areas or other parts of the country.”
Upon being selected, Eisenbaum assembled a committee of people who’ve been involved with the interaction between Franklin and Cherokee for decades. Going forward, she’ll serve as conduit to Harsh and her team to determine what the presentation looks like. The current plan includes the production of several interactive videos, featuring interviews with EBCI registered members and Franklin community members speaking to how the collaborations have been important to them.
“We’re going to work hand in hand all the way through,” Eisenbaum says. “The Smithsonian is obviously the expert at designing museums, and we’ll ‘sign off’ on the story, so to speak. We’ll be having so much input along the way that they’ll take our input and then make it into something spectacular.”
Though Eisenbaum says there are currently no plans for the traveling museum to stop in Franklin, she hopes that the Nikwasi Initiative’s story and others selected by the Smithsonian will encourage other communities that are having cultural challenges between different populations to embrace communication and conflict resolution.
She and Fred Alexander, a fellow white resident of Franklin and a Nikwasi Initiative board member, additionally see the Spark! Places of Innovation collaboration as a way to spread the word about the small, rural nonprofit’s work and bring more people to the region.
“The Smithsonian [honor] is affirmation from a national perspective that all parties combined to do something noticeably good and right,” Alexander says. “Locally, I think we all will understand our shared history better. More people will visit Cherokee and Franklin to learn more, and we’ll discover new friends and supporters.”
But the achievement is even more significant for Juanita Wilson, EBCI member and Nikwasi Initiative co-chair.
“I never dreamed that this beautiful story of reunification would emerge from the terrible storm that raged between the Cherokee and Franklin communities not so long ago,” Wilson says. “It is, however, fitting that the mound, which was the center of the controversy, is now reuniting us. Our ancestors were neighbors who looked out for one another. We were connected then, and we are finding our way back to one another.”
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