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Rights vs. Identity: Divisions Run Deep Over Hickory Ground

DaShanne Stokes
3/26/13

The recent arrest of Wayland Gray, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, has set off a firestorm of criticism against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Gray was arrested on February 15 this year for attempting to pray at Hickory Ground, a sacred Muscogee burial site in Wetumpka, Alabama, where Gray and many of his people’s ancestors were buried. He was not read his Miranda rights, and was forbidden from exercising his religious freedom to pray where his ancestors were buried. Gray’s rights were clearly violated, but as horrible as that is, the struggle over Hickory Ground reveals a much larger issue that many people are overlooking.

Much of the debate surrounding Hickory Ground has centered on rights, and everyone seems eager to take a side. On one side there’s the Muscogee Nation, seeking to protect the sacred remains of their ancestors, to protect their ancestral lands, to exercise their rights to self-determination and sovereignty. They want the Poarch Band of Indians to live up to their promise to leave Hickory Ground undisturbed. On the other side there’s the Poarch Band of Indians, ostensibly seeking to develop Hickory Ground, the property they now own, to build revenues from casino gaming, presumably to benefit members of their tribe. Both tribes are federally recognized, and both sides are Muscogee (Creek), albeit from what are now two politically separate and distinct tribes.

The fault lines have been clearly drawn, and many people across the country, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and Seminole nations, are understandably taking sides with the Muscogee Nation against the Poarch Band. I was one of those people myself. I find it heinous that anyone would think to desecrate a burial site by tampering with or removing human remains, or the sacred objects buried with them.

But when I started reading more and more about the situation, I learned that many in the Poarch Band and Muscogee Nation have been at odds with each other for some time, long before Hickory Ground became the issue that it is today. In the heat of the present battle, it is easy to overlook the larger, historical tensions between the Poarch Band and Muscogee Nation that helped set the current conflict over Hickory Ground in motion.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians and the Muscogee Nation are both descendants of the original Creek Nation, a union of tribes making up a larger people who once covered most of what is now Alabama and Georgia. In 1836 and 1837, the main body of the Creek Nation was forcibly removed on the Trail of Tears to the Oklahoma territory. The Poarch Band descends from Creeks who received a land grant as a reward for assisting the U.S. government in removing the Creek Nation from Alabama.

This understandably created a lot of tension and animosity between them. Some called them collaborators. Some questioned their Indianness. Others wondered how a tribe could do this to its own people. If this sounds a lot like what’s happening today over Hickory Ground, that’s because it is.

But back then this was the height of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. government created divisions and flamed the flames that would eventually give way to a sense of separateness of identity and values, setting Native peoples against one another as part of their efforts to take Native lands.

It is no wonder, therefore, that many, in their anger over Hickory Ground, have resorted to questioning the Poarch Band’s values and claims of Indianness. History is again repeating itself.

This helps explain why, for example, people like George Tiger, chief of the Muscogee Nation, have said, "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."

It also helps to explain why others, like JoKay Dowell, of Quapaw, Cherokee, Peoria, Eastern Shawnee and Irish descent, has said on the Poarch page that, “Your group's federal recognition was a sad day for American Indians. Your behavior of playing Indian (yes I've seen your powwows atop a mound) is repulsive. Having the DNA of the original peoples of this land is not enough to call yourselves one of ‘The People.’ Through the Bible and Christianity, you have been so far-removed from what it means to be Indigenous…”

But if the U.S. government hadn’t succeeded in setting the Muscogee peoples against each other in order to undermine their rights and take their lands in the first place, it is doubtful that we’d be witnessing this battle over Hickory Ground and Muscogee identity today.

Taking sides over Hickory Ground therefore means overlooking the fact that not everyone in the Poarch Band agrees with the actions of the tribal leadership. It means overlooking how the tribes were deliberately set against each other in the first place. And it means overlooking their common origins, their common culture, their common values. In short, it means overlooking any common ground that could be used to help both sides heal, and to ultimately resolve the battle over Hickory Ground. It also means making ourselves complicit in the division of the Muscogee people, a division that was set in motion nearly two centuries ago.

Hickory Ground presents an opportunity to heal historic wounds between the Poarch Band and Muscogee Nation. And with the outcome having the potential to set precedent for other inter- and intra-tribal conflicts, it’s important to avoid the temptation to take sides and begin looking for common ground and a common solution. Only then can there be healing, and only then can the real battle over Hickory Ground be won.

DaShanne Stokes writes about human rights, equality, and inclusivity and is a doctoral candidate in sociology. You can follow him online at DaShanneStokes.com.
 

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Anonymous's picture
Treason is a dangerous pill to swallow and difficult to forget the after effects.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Get your history straight about the Poarch. Land grants were received before 1820
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Your argument is well intended but seems to be unfair to the truth of how the Poarch started. My grandmother was not allowed to attend school with whites, marry whites, or even be buried in the same cemetery as whites because of her “Indian-ness.” Removal was truly an act of genocide, but to accuse all of the Creeks that refused to be rounded for that purpose seems to show a sort of prejudice on your part. It could also be said that the generations of Creek that were removed to Oklahoma did have advantages given to them that were not allotted to my Poarch ancestors. Please try to review the actual history before condemning an entire group of people. Try starting with the Creek Civil War. Allen Malone, Proud Poarch Creek Indian
Anonymous
almalo's picture
Your argument is well intended but seems to be unfair to the truth of how the Poarch started. My grandmother was not allowed to attend school with whites, marry whites, or even be buried in the same cemetery as whites because of her “Indian-ness.” Removal was truly an act of genocide, but to accuse all of the Creeks that refused to be rounded for that purpose seems to show a sort of prejudice on your part. It could also be said that the generations of Creek that were removed to Oklahoma did have advantages given to them that were not allotted to my Poarch ancestors. Please try to review the actual history before condemning an entire group of people. Try starting with the Creek Civil War. Allen Malone, Proud Poarch Creek Indian
almalo
Charles Kader's picture
Terrific retrospective research and editorial DaShanne. It is also worth questioning why the State of Alabama has taken the apparent jurisdictional lead in prosecuting Wayland Gray on the "terroristic threats" charge against him, apparently due to the Poarch Band claiming the entrance to their casino is on fee land. Although the disinterred Hickory Ground ancestors remains have since been placed back into Turtle Island, one has to wonder if the remains would still be stored in metal buildings on the casino grounds, if not for the encouragement from the empowered Muscogee Creek Nation. Muscogee Nation Chief Tiger has a solid background in television and the mass media. He will continue to keep that encouragement up, that I have no doubt, through those forums. There is a higher road to understanding because of this effort, and if that is present, then so is a solution.
Charles Kader
Anonymous's picture
there were no land grants given to the poarch band in the early 1800s...they didn't exist as a band...individuals who had abandon their Creek Nationality and became American nationals eventually received a land grant after begging for decades for land as sundry citizens of the state of Alabama....also brother, the Creek Nation today is the same Creek Nation that existed in 1832...that's like saying the United States today is a descendant of the United States in 1776...its ridiculous...
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
What about the incident on March 13? It sent runoff and debris into the Cossa River, a critical habitat area with protected species. This has nothing to do with the dispute over Hickory Ground, It's down right disrespectful. Question now is with all the documented reports and environmental action plains on this very area of the Cossa River how did this happen?
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I think it is great that some of the respondents to this article know the historical accuracies regarding their tribe, however this is not the main focus at hand. The focus is that there has been internal strife within the one tribe for generations and this seems to have been started by outside forces systemiatically seeking to cause distopia. Perhaps both Muscogee and Poarch members should take a step back and look at this issue after balance has been restored between the two (prayer, ceremony) in an effort to determine the root of the issue and how it may effect all tribes in the end. If one tribe is willing to desecrate the remains of their anscestors, how will this set precedent for others--especially in regards to sacred sites. Just as Allen expresses below, this should not be a condemnation that all Poarch members are bad and that all Muscogee members are good but rather, this should be an opportunity to reunite families, strengthen community and culture and resolve this conflict. If elected officials are unwilling to do so--on either side of the coin--be conscious of those choices when re-election is coming up.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
this really bugs me because no one is making porch band accountable for what they are doing. somebody needs to stand up for the people. Someone showers needs to.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
This story needs more research as it is one-sided and both sides of the story need to be told to Indian Country. It contains multiple inaccurate statements about both parties. Wayland Gray does not descend by direct lineal descent from Hickory Ground Ancestors. His direct lineal Ancestors belonged to Little River Tulsa, not Hickory Ground. That documentation is easily proven by researching his Dawes Creek Ancestry identified on his Ancestral Dawes Creek Cards. Twenty plus years before the 1836-1838 Creek Removal West, some of the Poarch Creek Ancestors, but not all were Friendly Creek Warriors who were party to Creek Treaty Allotments assigned under their own rights as Friendly Creek Chiefs and Warriors under Special Acts of the Treaty of Fort Jackosn 1814. These specific Treaty Ancestors received these allotments long before the Creek Removal West before interpreters were used during the removal. Yet the Poarch Band Ancestors were a mixture of both Redstick Creeks and Friendly Creek Warriors who were well documented historical Creek figures on both sides of the Creek Civil War 1813-1814. Many local descendants of Redstick Leader William Weatherford and Sam Moniac-McNac are a perfect example of their Redstick and Friendly Creek historical Ancestral distinctions. Sam Moniac-McNac-Manack, who was one of the Poarch Band "Main Core" Ancestors was officially documented as being removed during the removal and died in the process at Pass Christian, Mississippi, due to the adverse effects and sufferings of the removal. Concerning documented historical desecration of the Okahoma Creek Ancestors upon the Poarch Creek Ancestors? Some of the bodies of the women, children and men of the Poarch Creek Ancestors were desecrated by the Oklahoma Creek Ancestors during the attack at Fort Mims in August of 1813 and there has never been an official apology by the Oklahoma Creeks for this desecration of the Poarch Creek Ancestors. In very recent past, representatives of the Oklahoma Creeks are recently documented as "hands on" digging up their own dead for reburial in a "different location" at Fort Benning, Georgia, without the original location of the burials being required to go back to nature and the Oklahoma Creeks approved a highway to roll over those sacred burial locations with no Oklahoma Creek protest of that obvious desecration? The Oklahoma Creeks are documented as giving approval for the town of Oxford, Alabama to dig up the Ancestral Mounds and a Sam's Store to be built on top of the orignal sacred location of that specific mound without those sacred areas being required to go back to nature, incuding reburials in a different location and no Oklahoma Creeks protested the desecration of that sacred location. In 2006 the Oklahoma Creeks were.offered to participate in their own Mvskoke traditional ceremony according to their stipulations for the reburial of all Ancestral remains at Hickory Ground in a back to nature setting as a memorial, by then Poarch Tribal Chairman Fred McGhee. The response of the Oklahoma Creek delegation was sarcasm and to do nothing but scoff at the offer. This offer by Poarch Creek Leader Fred McGhee, was publicly documented in the local newspapers during that time period, Wetumpka Herald and Montgomery Advertiser. The above historical documentation tells the story of two sides and reveals the . .
Anonymous

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