The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians may take legal action against Duke Energy after learning about the utility company’s plans to place an electric substation near the Cherokee tribe’s most sacred site, Kituwah mound.
In November, Duke began bulldozing part of a mountainside region to prepare for construction of the substation. The mountainside, near the Hyatt Creek/Ela exit off the Smoky Mountain Expressway between Cherokee and Bryson City, is considered by the Cherokee to be a part of the greater Kituwah mothertown, which was once the tribe’s spiritual and political center.
Should the project move forward, it would ruin an entire area that is central to the tribe’s cultural identity.
This Substation development has also upset some of the Cherokee students attending Western Carolina University. Specifically, members of Di Gal Li I, a Native American Student Organization on campus, have had members pull together to protect Kituwah from destruction.
“It has pushed some individuals to be protective considering some of our organizational members are enrolled with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” said Sky Kanott, President of the Di Gal Li I organization. “My feelings hold strong for Kituwah.”
The controversy over the construction of the substation emerged when the tribe’s administrators became aware of the scope of the project in late December.
Duke Spokesperson Paige Layne said the company was surprised about the concerns over the substation, which she said is being constructed in part to service Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
“This was not something we initiated to cause harm,” Layne said. “Our goal was to provide energy to our consumer base. I guess the next step is to make sure we’re doing that with the utmost respect to the tribe’s culture.”
When bulldozing work began late last year as part of the site preparation work, some of the tribe’s employees inquired about the project. The tribe’s legal office contacted the North Carolina Utilities Commission to find out what was going on.
According to Hannah Smith, an attorney for the tribe, utility companies are required by the statute to notify a number of state agencies and file an application whenever lines of 161kV or more are involved.
Thomas McLawhorn, spokesperson for public staff at the commission, said Duke made the argument that, as an upgrade, the project did not require an application, and therefore did not have to specify why the project was necessary.
“I feel that Duke Energy could have prevented this fight by informing the tribe and Swain County first,” said Kanott.
Tom Belt, a professor of Cherokee Language and Culture at Western Carolina University, said Duke’s construction of the substation near Kituwah was equivalent to putting a McDonald’s sign near the pulpit of a church. Belt urged the tribal council to do whatever it could to protect the site.
“The Kituwah site is one of the most sacred things we have and I would submit that it may have been part of the reason so many of your forbears stayed here in 1838,” Belt told the tribal council.
According to Layne, Duke has already offered to tone down the impact of the substation on the site by using non-reflective steel, replanting the area with native plants, and using stone-colored material for retaining walls.
Natalie Smith, a tribal member who owns Tribal Grounds Coffee Shop in Cherokee, asked the tribal council to stand up to Duke and get the project moved.
“I don’t think we should compromise at all with Duke,” Smith said. “I think they’re counting on us not to know the law and I think they’re counting on their Fortune 500 lawyers beating us.”
The United Keetoowah Band of Oklahoma released a statement denouncing Duke’s failure to communicate with all of the Cherokee bands that hold a stake in the cultural legacy of Kituwah.
“It’s disappointing to know what they have done, especially considering the reservation is a Duke Energy contributor, “said Kanott.