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 region.
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. Utilities Commission.
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 power stations.
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."
The 290,000-strong 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."
Preserving the 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 King.
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 race track.
Subsequent 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 said.
"It's almost Biblical in a lot of ways," said Belt, the Cherokee language teacher.
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