Activists Rally for Sacred Sites During NIGA Convention
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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