Photo courtesy Save Hickory Ground
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians denied some of its members and members of the Hickory Ground Tribal Town access to the ceremonial ground to pray for the ancestors who were buried there. The sacred site is under construction for the new Poarch casino.
Poarch Band Blocks Ceremony on Sacred Hickory Ground
Gale Courey Toensing
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians blocked access to the sacred Hickory Ground by a group of traditional Creek Indians who planned to hold a prayer ceremony on Valentine’s Day for their ancestors buried there. Instead the group prayed in a nearby parking lot joined by pastors from local churches
The Poarch Band officials refused to allow the group onto the sacred site in Wetumpka, Alabama, because it is under construction for their new $246 million casino. A day before the planned ceremony, Poarch officials announced they “reserved the right to restrict access to a construction site for safety reasons.”
The attempted ceremony was organized by Save Hickory Ground members who oppose the casino construction on the sacred site. The Poarch Band excavated 57 sets of human remains from the burial ground to accommodate the new casino, according to court documents.
The traditional Creeks attending the ceremony included Wayland Gray, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who traveled from Oklahoma to attend the ceremony, and William Bailey, the Mekko, or Traditional Chief of the Hvsosv Tallahassee ceremonial ground of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who formerly served on its tribal council.
“Today we were denied access to the property to pay respects to the ones dug up and the sacred place that’s being desecrated by the Poarch officials,” Gray said in a video on the group’s Facebook page. “Today we had a couple of preachers with us. They were going to pray and provide moral support because they too are against this, just like every human should be. If the Poarch win this it’s bad for all people because it will set precedent that it’s ok to build on sacred places and dig people up for financial gain.”
The confrontation is the latest event in a long running struggle between the Poarch Band and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation over Hickory Ground, an historic Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Town that includes a ceremonial ground, a tribal burial ground and individual graves. The Muscogee Nation says the casino construction is a desecration of the sacred site. Hickory Ground Tribal Town was the Muscogee Creeks’ last capitol before the tribe was ethnically cleansed and removed to Oklahoma following Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. The Poarch Creeks remained and cooperated with the Americans.
In December, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Hickory Ground Tribal Town, and Muscogee traditional chief Mekko George Thompson filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Poarch Band and others to stop the construction of the casino. A central claim concerns the excavated human remains of Muscogee ancestors in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and other federal laws. The lawsuit is pending.
Sam Deer, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, told the Montgomery Advertiser, that the traditional group was not against gaming. “Some people say that we’re against gaming but we’re not against the gaming casino, we’re against where it’s being built. We’ve never heard of people digging up graves… for their financial gain. This is what you would call a want; it’s not a need, it’s a want,” Deer said. The burial ground is “an eternal resting place” for the ancestors, Deer said. “They said they dug up 57 people but our people lived here for hundreds and hundreds of years and I’m positive that through those years more than 57 people died here… My understanding is last April they dug a hole and threw all the bones in there and covered it back up. That kind of behavior took place overseas during the wars when they had mass graves, but I thought it was over. I see that it’s happening here in Wetumpka, Alabama, where Hickory Ground once was.”
Gray said the Save Hickory Ground group will continue its efforts to stop the desecration of Hickory Ground. “We are not done here. We came here to pay our respects to our ancestors and sacred place on the property. Today we came in peace and gave the Poarch a chance to do the right thing the Native way and allow us to pay respects to our ancestors and sacred place.”
The group planned to return to Hickory Ground on February 15.