Activists Rally for Sacred Sites During NIGA Convention

Activists Rally for Sacred Sites During NIGA Convention

Gale Courey Toensing

The struggle to save the Muscogee Creek Nation’s sacred Hickory Ground in Alabama has crossed the country, gaining support from indigenous activists in the Southwest who are also struggling to preserve their holy places.

Wayland Gray, Mike Harjo and Mike Deo, Muscogee Creek Nation citizens from Oklahoma, drove for 16 hours to reach to Phoenix, Arizona, where they held a rally to stop the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from continuing to construct a $246 million casino expansion on Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, Alabama. The Poarch Band has already excavated 57 sets of Muscogee Creek ancestors’ remains as part of the casino expansion project.

The three men were arrested by Poarch Band police in February and charged with trespassing when they tried to access the sacred Hickory Ground site to pray for the Muscogee ancestors buried there. Gray was additionally charged with making a terrorist threat. A fourth man, a Cherokee Nation citizen named Maggot, was also arrested but did not travel with the others to Phoenix. The charges are pending in Wetumpka court.

The sacred lands rally took place outside the Phoenix Convention Center on March 26 during the week that the National Indian Gaming Association held its 28th Annual Tradeshow and Convention. Sacred land activists from the O’odham, Navajo, and Havasupai nations helped organize and participated in the rally.

“There are a lot of connections about sacred sites,” said activist Alex Soto, a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation and one of the rally organizers. “What’s going on back east with Hickory Ground is the same thing going on here in Phoenix with a proposal to build an eight-lane 22 mile freeway that will desecrate our sacred South Mountain and bring a level of pollution and hazardous waste to the Gila River Indian Community. For myself, my girlfriend is from Gila River, my ancestors are from Gila River. This is how I help.”

Hickory Ground, known as Oce Vpofa in the Muscogee language, in Wetumpka, Alabama, is at the center of a long-running dispute between the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Hickory Ground 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.

The Poarch Creeks remained in Alabama and collaborated with the federal government and Jackson’s policies of removal, according to the Band’s website.

The Poarch Band currently owns Hickory Ground, and the excavation of the Muscogee Creeks’ ancestors prepared the site for an expansion of their Wind Creek Casino Wetumpka at Hickory Ground.

Leaders from both the Poarch Band and the Muscogee Creek Nation attended the rally and Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with them. The following interview was with former Poarch Band Chairman Ed Tullis:

What’s your opinion of the dispute between the Poarch and Muscogee?

Our tribal position is that we have done everything according to the existing laws and we’ve done everything we can to satisfy these people and we’re continuing with construction. It started a long time ago.

Would you not take into consideration that the Muscogee are really upset at the digging up of their ancestors?

We did not dig up Hickory Ground. Hickory Ground is still preserved in place and protected forever.

They say the spirits of their ancestors are still there. Would you consider that an important enough reason not to continue the expansion on that ground?

Yes, we considered all that.

I understand you made an offer to give Muscogee a 17-acre parcel on the other side of the casino. Was it not possible to expand there instead of on the burial ground?

Well, this has been a six-year process. We would have loved to have them people there six years ago before we started to spend $100 million.

Why didn’t you contact them if you would have loved to have them there?

Maybe we could have answered all of their questions.

Did you contact them to tell them what you were doing?

Oh, yes, they’ve been aware of it since way before we started construction.

Before Poarch was federally recognized and when the Alabama Historical Commission was trying to get the Hickory Ground land for Poarch, there’s a document from Poarch that says “Muscogee will be very happy to know that we’re preserving the land without development.”

And we still are preserving all that property! All that property’s never been touched.

So your position is even though you dug up the ancestors you’re still preserving the land, is that correct?

No, no, we didn’t… we preserved the property. We’ve got 18 acres that’s preserved into perpetuity.

But what about the people that you dug up?

All the remains that were removed by the archaeologist—not by us!—has been re-interred.

But they weren’t re-interred where they were removed from, were they?

We do the same thing for…[inaudible] where we can preserve them for perpetuity.

Do you see an end to this dispute? Do you see a resolution?


Do you see an end to this dispute between you and your cousins? The Muscogees are basically your cousins.

I don’t think there’s no solution to it from their perspective. From ours we’ve settled that and we’re continuing with our construction.

Chief George Tiger of the Muscogee Nation was also asked to comment on the dispute.

“First of all, I want to acknowledge our relatives here in Arizona for supporting the efforts here for Hickory Ground,” he said. “I think the more attention we can bring to it [the better]. I think Indian country already knows about the situation in Alabama. I think as elected officials we should always defend our sacred places. I think as elected officials if we’re going to do anything we should always have the courtesy as it is in our tradition and culture to work things out before we do anything and, unfortunately, in this particular case that wasn’t done.”

The Muscogee Nation filed a federal lawsuit last fall to stop the Poarch Band from ground-disturbing activity at Hickory Ground. The lawsuit asks the court to order the remains and funerary objects to be reburied where they were excavated and to restore the ceremonial ground. Tullis said that the Poarch Band believes the lawsuit will be dismissed.

Asked if the Muscogee Nation is prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court with the case, Tiger said, “Well, I believe any time you do anything to support your own people, if we make a commitment we stick with it. I believe that’s the direction we’re taking.”

Drumming, singing and round dances punctuated the two-hour rally, which attracted hundreds of passersby, convention attendees, and celebrities. Actor Adam Beach of the Salteaux Tribe, who was at the NIGA convention, attended. Dennis Banks, Anishinaabe from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, leader, teacher, lecturer, activist and author, who had a natural foods booth in the tradeshow, also came out of the tradeshow to the rally.

“Underneath that [Hickory] Ground are bones and a lot of evidence of it being a very sacred site,” Banks told the crowd. “Please do anything that you can do to support, to stop that casino from being built.”

Klee Benally, award-winning Navajo artist, musician, and a well-known sacred lands activist energized the crowd with a rousing speech. Benally has been frequently arrested for his direct actions opposing the desecration of the San Francisco Peaks by a ski resort that uses recycled human waste to make snow on the sacred mountain.

“It’s been a years-long struggle—decades—to address this issue and here we are in 2013 [and] a ski area can make snow out of treated sewerage effluent [and spray it] on what amounts to a church not just to one indigenous nation but to 13,” Benally said. “It’s important to bring this message here today and stand with our brothers and sisters who are also struggling to protect sacred places because as indigenous people here in the so-called United States we don’t have guaranteed protection for our religious freedom—like the rest of you… This is a struggle for cultural survival… They’re gambling with our ways of life and NIGA should not gamble with the culture, the ancestors, our ways of life. Understand that and send a message to your membership: No casinos on sacred land!” The crowd joined in chanting that slogan.

Rex Tilousi traveled from the Havasupai Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to attend the rally. “What is inside our Mother Earth, not only the surface but underneath our Mother Earth, the waters, the springs that give us life, we need to save and protect these things,” Tilousi said.

Gray, who will face the charges of trespassing and making a terrorist threat in court later this month when he returns east, said he is elated at the solidarity from the sacred lands activists in the Southwest.

"Native people throughout the country are going through the same struggle," he said. "Indian country is here in Phoenix and we plan to stand together to honor the sacred lands of our ancestors."

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Anonymous's picture
ody stopped us and we
Anonymous's picture
Please read.
Anonymous's picture
FANTASTIC ARTICLE....except this part that says " The Poarch Creeks remained in Alabama and collaborated with the federal government and Jackson’s policies of removal, according to the Band’s website." The historical facts don't add up to support their claim. The people who call themselves Poarch today are descendants of individuals who were once Creek and abandon the tribe to become American nationals. They never broke away from the Creek Nation as a band or group. Most didn't even know one another in 1832. These people became American citizens, a right they sought in treaty of Ft Jackson. It must be understood clearly that the creation of the poarch band is relative new in history. They are sought federal status once they realized they can get something from the federal government. Services that were given to Indians and Indian tribes around the country. Just as their ancestors took advantage of being American nationals in 1832, their descendants found another con of being Indian....
Anonymous's picture
The heartbreaking desecration of OceVpofv / Hickory ground is beyond comprehension unless you have see and felt it as have I ! The Poarch Band Leadership is totally "infected with the sickness of greed "! Their leadership hides behind a shield of sovereign immunity and believe they are untouchable ! They have no love or respect for OUR SACRED,OUR CULTURE,OUR HISTORY! Mvto~
Anonymous's picture
Historical treaty documents identified in the American State Papers and the National Archives support these facts. Under the provisions of the "Special Acts" of the Treaty of Fort Jackon 1814, Eastern Creek Allotments were assigned to certain "Chiefs and Warriors" East of the Mississippi in the year 1824. These were Ancestors of the present day Poarch Band of Creeks.The 1824 date took place long before the 1836-1838 Removal of the Creek Nation in Alabama to Indian Territory West. These "treaty stipulations" were signed off and agreed to by certain Creek Chiefs who removed to Indian Territory West, which long before the Creek removal west, gave these specific Eastern Creek Allotments to Chiefs and Warriors of the Creek Nation East. The Treaty stipulations did not assign these Allotments to state citizens of Alabama, due to the fact they were named in the Treaty as certain Chiefs and Warriors of the pre-removal Creek Nation East, nor were they assigned to Creeks who had removed to Indian Territory West in present day Oklahoma. One of the these Eastern Creek Treaty Allotments transferred to the Eastern Creeks under the provisions of the the Treaty of Fort Jackson 1814, was Hickory Ground land, located East of the Coosa River in Township 18 North, Range 18 East, Section Number 24. That specific Eastern Creek Allotment was signed away by the Creek Chiefs who agreed to that Treaty and afterward they chose to remove West to Oklahoma. So, the direct lineal Ancestors of those Creeks in Oklahoma, signed the Hickory Ground Land away to the Eastern Creek Ancestors. By this act, the Oklahoma Creeks forfeited claim to the Eastern Creek Allotment Land including the Hickory Ground Eastern Creek Allotment Land and that is all documented. Those who are commenting erroneously, please do your research. The historical documents easily prove you comments are historically incorrect and do not impress those who have the documents that tell the truth.
jeremydavis621's picture
The commenter who posted that the Poarch Band are not "real" Creeks is factually wrong and is being culturally insensitive at best and a racist at worst. Get your facts straight. The Poarch Band has a strong history in Alabama and in the US. The Band has been recognized by native and governmental agencies. To call the tribe cons is to desecrate the traditions and culture of a proud people. But you wouldn't know about that since you just spout off hate speech anonymously on the internet. And the other outside forces who are pushing this issue to divide the Poarch and Muscogee tribes are just as misguided.
Anonymous's picture
The people of your tribe look so strong and beautiful!


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