The Battle For Hickory Ground
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says Indigenous Peoples have the right to “free, prior and informed consent” before their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property can be taken, and the right to maintain, protect and have private access to their religious and cultural sites. These assertions are directed toward nation states—the entities that historically have violated indigenous rights and continue to do so. But when one indigenous group accuses another of violating these rights, bitter controversy results. Such a controversy has erupted between the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation over Poarch’s plan to expand the Wind Creek Casino Wetumpka at Hickory Ground in Alabama—a historic Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribal town and an established archeological site that includes a sacred burial ground of Muscogee ancestors. The controversy being played out includes elements of a 200-year-old family drama rooted in Indian Killer Andrew Jackson’s genocidal policies against the Indigenous Peoples of the south and eastern part of the continent and raises essential questions for American Indians everywhere: Who are we as Indian peoples?
What makes us Indian? How do we get beyond historical trauma by the Euro-American settler colonists and betrayal by our own people? And how far will we go in destroying the past in order to reap financial rewards? Hickory Ground, known as Oce Vpofa in the Muscogee language, was the last capitol of the National Council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The sacred place includes a ceremonial ground, a tribal burial ground and individual graves. The current day Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s ancestors lived and were buried at Hickory Ground before the tribe was forced from its Alabama homeland on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma as a result of U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830—America’s legalization of ethnic cleansing. Just seven years after enactment of the Indian Removal Act, Jackson had relocated 46,000 Indigenous Peoples from the lands east of the Mississippi and opened up 25 million acres of land “to white settlement and to slavery,” according to the PBS “Resource Bank” website for its Africans in America series. Among those removed were 20,000 Muscogee (Creek) Indians in 1836 and ’37, according to the Muscogee Nation’s website. But the Poarch Creeks were not removed. They collaborated with the federal government and Jackson’s policies of removal, according to the Poarch Band’s website. “These ‘Friendly Creeks’ signed contracts with the new federal government to serve as guides, interpreters, ferrymen and river pilots for those traveling through the Creek Territory. They also operated inns and raised free-range cattle,” the website says. As a result, they were allowed to remain in Alabama. Today’s Poarch Band members are the descendants of a segment of the original Creek Nation, according to the website. Today, the Poarch Band’s gaming authority manages three gaming facilities in Alabama, including the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmore, the Creek Casino Montgomery, and Wind Creek Casino Wetumpka, where the controversy is centered. In the tribe’s August newsletter, Tribal Chairman Buford L. Rolin reported that development at the Wetumpka casino is moving forward.
“This expansion will include a large hotel, parking deck and other facilities. This project will provide much needed jobs to Tribal Members and our neighbors in Wetumpka. We have seen Wind Creek in Atmore have a very positive ripple effect on the economy, and we look forward to seeing other businesses in the Wetumpka community grow and prosper because of this development,” he wrote. But on August 9, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation issued a press release demanding that the Poarch Band stop construction on the $246 million expansion project, which, the nation said, will further desecrate the sacred Hickory Ground. The Poarch Band has already excavated approximately 60 human remains to build the casino and the expansion will cause further desecration to Hickory Ground, the release said. “The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is committed to protecting the burial and ceremonial grounds of our ancestors,” Principal Chief George Tiger said in the release.
“We have attempted to convey to the Poarch Band why it is wrong to disturb the peace of our ancestors and burial grounds. However, the Poarch Band does not seem to share our cultural values and respect our traditional ways.” Muscogee Mekko George Thompson, who has served as a traditional Chief of the Oce Vpofa Muscogee Creeks in Oklahoma for 42 years, said in the release, “Our ancestors and their burial objects, and our cultural items need to be returned where they were taken from, and the whole place needs to go back to nature.” The Poarch Band denies that the casino expansion would harm the Hickory Ground site. “Hickory Ceremonial Ground, a site that is culturally and spiritually important to both our tribe and the Muscogee Nation, is not affected by the new business development at Wetumpka. In fact, at the invitation of our tribe, the Muscogee Nation participated in the joint covering and preservation of the ceremonial ground in 2007, and the site continues to be maintained and preserved to this day,” the Poarch chairman wrote in an e-mail in response to questions from Indian Country Today Media Network. “As an Indian nation with close cultural, if not familial ties to the Muscogee Nation, we are both shocked and disappointed by recent statements that do not accurately reflect Poarch’s efforts to maintain the site and preserve a relationship with the Muscogee Nation.”
The battle over Hickory Ground is not new. Although the Poarch Band was not federally acknowledged until 1984, the band submitted a grant application to the Alabama Historical Commission on February 12, 1980, for federal funds from the Interior Department to purchase Hickory Ground in fee simple. The commission applied on the band’s behalf, received a grant of $165,000, purchased the property, then transferred it to the Poarch Band. The Muscogee Nation did not object to the transfer at the time because Poarch promised that acquisition of Hickory Ground was sought “principally (as) a protective measure,” according to the February 12 letter.
Poarch promised that “Acquisition will prevent development on the property” and that the property would serve as a valuable resource for cultural enrichment of all Creek people. The application acknowledged that Hickory Ground is the ancestral home of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and speculated that, “they will be pleased to know their home in Alabama is being preserved… The Hickory Ground site will continue to enhance their understanding of their history, without excavation.” But a few years after Hickory Ground was taken into trust in1984, the Poarch Band unveiled plans to develop a gaming facility there.
Muscogee Nation Principal Chief George Tiger said in an e-mail to ICTMN, “We were disappointed to learn about the casino, because the Poarch Band entered a covenant to preserve the ground for all Creek Indians.” Even some Poarch members opposed the plan. James Linam wrote to the executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission in 1988 on behalf of Poarch Band members. “The land has been made sacred by the religious leaders who chose the place for their ceremonial ground in the very early days,” Linam wrote. The leaders placed “certain items” in the ground that are necessary for the proper conduct of ceremonies, Linam wrote.
“They remain and the ground remains sacred to the people who practice the traditional Creek religion.” Poarch’s promise to preserve Hickory Ground fell by the wayside in the early 2000s after the expiration of a 20-year easement that came with the land transfer in 1980, limiting development on the property. The site became part of the Poarch Band’s reservation lands in 1984, and when the development restriction expired, Poarch built the gaming facility at the site. During excavation, the Poarch Band exhumed Muscogee graves. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation called construction at the site “deplorable” and claimed that many burials were disturbed during the initial building phase, according to the The Wetumpka Herald. The development of a gaming facility on the site was also opposed by tribes both inside and outside the state, by the Alabama Historical Commission, the City of Wetumpka, and Alabama’s delegation in Congress, which introduced legislation in a failed attempt to stop it.
The Poarch Band said in its e-mail to ICTMN that it “understand[s] and respect[s]” the importance of the land to the Muscogee Nation and has tried for years “to reach a harmonious resolution with the Muscogee Nation to address both sides’ interests in the proper reinterment of the remains and funerary objects found there,” but “as cultural affiliates of Hickory Ground and beneficial owners of the property, we have the cultural and legal rights to determine the handling and reinterment of the remains and funerary objects ... The Poarch Band did not feel that our history, our ancestors, and our culture were being honored by delaying reinterment any longer.” So in April, the Band reinterred the remains and funerary objects “according to specific Indian traditions that they had requested.” Not so, Tiger wrote. “From the beginning, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation opposed the excavations at Hickory Ground as a violation of the dignity of our ancestors who were buried there. Since that time, the Nation has consistently asserted that the remains must be reinterred with the funerary objects at the place where they were exhumed with respect for our tradition. Instead, the Poarch Band unilaterally decided to rebury our ancestors outside the footprint of their casino project, without the funerary objects or ceremony.”
But that’s not the Muscogee Nation’s only objection. “Furthermore,” Tiger wrote, “to transform a place of deep historical and cultural significance into an entertainment venue for the general public is inappropriate and destructive to that sacred place. In addition, ‘Sacred Sites’ aren’t just the immediate burial cavity, it’s all areas surrounding the location of the Tribal Town, ceremonial squares, medicine houses, etc.” Poarch maintains that the site is now “a secure and spiritual place that will be preserved for perpetuity as agreed to in a memorandum of agreement signed by the Muscogee Nation and the Poarch Band in 2007.” But Muscogee Attorney Brendan Ludwick can find no such agreement in the nation’s files. “I didn’t see that in the file. I saw a letter that said they (the Muscogee Nation) rejected it,” he says.
This dispute is part of a deeper conflict between the Poarch Band and the Muscogee Nation over who should determine the fate of this sacred ground. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation views itself as traditionalist. “The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has always maintained the position to preserve the language, culture and traditions of our ancestors,” Tiger wrote. “We attempted to convey that understanding to the Poarch Band including why it is wrong to disturb our ancestors’ final resting place. Their actions indicate that they do not share our traditional values or culture. They may never share our understanding, but we will continue to honor our past and strive to protect our ancestors.”
Poarch said its gaming revenues “afforded new opportunities to preserve its tribal land and culture ... Tribal leadership took additional measures to preserve the Hickory Ground’s history” when it hired nationally-recognized archaeologists from Auburn University to perform a survey of the site in 2000. “In 2005, Auburn University archeologists discovered the Ceremonial Ground on the Hickory Ground Town site. Once that discovery was made, construction was halted immediately and plans were undertaken to begin historic preservation of the area,” the Poarch Band said. But one tribe’s idea of historic preservation can be another tribe’s idea of desecration. Asked how much a tribe can compromise its traditions and practices and still maintain its indigenous identity, Tiger said “traditional values and cultural practices regarding our people and ancestors are a large part of who we are and should not be compromised for the sake of making money.”
An article by Cameron B. Wesson in Across a Great Divide: Continuity and Change in Native North American Societies, 1400-1900 traces the roots of the current conflict between the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to the transition from non-capitalist to capitalist forms of political economy in the 18th Century “as one segment of society became increasingly comfortable with (and successful at mastering) the principles of individualist capitalism while another grew increasingly militant and reactionary as the rights, responsibilities and principles of reciprocity consistent with the preexisting moral economy were abandoned.”
Among the most prevalent claims of the Muscogee (Creek) people in Oklahoma is that the Poarch Creeks are “questionable” Indians, Wesson writes. “As Suzan Shown Harjo [in 2006] states, ‘The Poarch Band of Indians was a nonrecognized group at Atmore and Poarch … until they gained federal recognition ... They descended from people who stayed behind to become Americans when the Muscogee citizens were chained and marched at bayonet point to Indian Territories,’ ” Wesson writes, noting that by inference the Poarch lost an element of legitimacy by avoiding “the crucible of removal.”
Harjo [who writes a column for ICTMN] more recently lambasted the Poarch Band specifically for its activities at the Hickory Ground site. “When I see some of our Native people . . . building casinos on our sacred places as is happening right now with the Poarch Band on our sacred Hickory Ground…digging up our ancestors and then after a decade just almost throwing them back in the ground without telling the traditional people what they were doing, this is a horrible way to behave and it’s not a good sign,” Harjo said at the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Conference and Consultation in Tucson, Arizona, on April 27, 2012. None of the signs currently point to a resolution of the conflict any time soon. Ludwick, the Muscogee attorney, says that if construction continues at the Wetumpka casino the Muscogee (Creek) Nation will file a legal action to stop the desecration of their historic sacred site at Hickory Ground.