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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
Inaccurate recent and past historical accounts by the news media need to be well researched before they are published so they will represent a balanced story equal to both sides in this matter, not just a one sided story continually written to represent the side of the Mvskoke Creek Nation of Oklahoma only?. Concerning the historical and Ancestral connection of Wayland Gray to Hickory Ground? The Ancestors of Wayland Gray were from Little River Tulsa, they were not from Hickory Ground. as many newspapers have been told. He has no Direct Lineal Descent Ancestral blood connection to the Hickory Ground Ancestors. His Ancestral Tribal Town documentation back too Little River Tulsa is easily proved by documentatiion of his Creek Dawes Card Tribal Town Ancestry. His Tribal Town Direct Lineal Ancestral connections named in the above news story are incorrect as has been told wrong in all the newspapers.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
A very great article. But this is what I have been to tell the Creeks. There are some things they can do to turn things around. But for reason, they don't want to listen to a retired BIA guy to explain it to them. I don't know what else to do as I have explained their options to them. If they refuse to listen then I just have to give up. It's really not as complicated as they making it. There are ways to stop it and turn it around. But I can't tell them anything or show them unless they are willing to step up and take action.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Construction on Federal Lands under the NAGPRA Laws require Tribal and Cultural identification of the Ancestral remains by Archaeological Survey.in order to identify the direct lineal descendants and afterward reburial of the Ancestral remains by their (proven) direct lineal descent Tribal descendants..Many Federal entities have been required to do this in the recent past and for many years that procedure has been status-quo and accepted under the NAGPRA Law by many Federally Recognized Tribes.The Poarch Creek were required to get BIA and Department of Interior Approval including adhering to NAGPRA Federal Law guidelines and BIA Inspections. Tribes should petition Congress to amend the NAGPRA Law to change this Archaeological digging identification requirement instead of hating and blaming the Poarch Creeks? In 2006 Poarch Creek Tribal Administrator Fred McGhee invited an Oklahoma Creek delegation to Hickory Ground, Wetumpka, Alabama. This event was well documented in the local newspapers, the Montgomery Advertiser and the Wetumpka Herald. The purpose of this invitation was to work out a mutual and respectful solution for both tribes in the reburial of all the Hickory Ground Ancestors. Poarch Leader Fred McGhee made an offer of mutual tribal participation for the Oklahoma Creeks to perform a traditional prayer reburial ceremony in a "back to nature" area with the memorial and reburial location on the Hickory Ground site that was specified as a protected site and special memorial to those Hickory Ground Ancestors. The response of all the Oklahoma Creeks was sarcasm and to scoff at the Fred McGhee offer, reported in the local newspapers. Yet five years later Oklahoma Creeks sent their representatives to Fort Benning, Georgia and they approved a "hands on" digging up of the bones and remains of the Ancestral Sacred Graves and they worked with Fort Benning to rebury those same Ancestral remains in a different location without requiring a "back to nature" requirement? They also approve a road running over which desecratied the original locations of those Sacred Burial locations of the Ancestors. They can do that and no Oklahoma Creek protestors at Fort Benning?.There are a lot of hypocritical actions by the Oklahoma Creeks. Yet they still refuse to work out a mutual solution for Hickory Ground Ancestors with Poarch Creeks?.These events are all documented in the Columbus, Geogia Ledger-Enquirer. Another recent account, just a few years ago the Oklahoma Creeks came to Oxford, Alabama and approved for the city to tear down a Sacred Ancestral Mound at Oxford, simply for the purpose of building a Sam's Club over that Sacred Mound of the Ancestors and one stipulation, just asking reconstruction of a fake mound near the reburial of the Ancestors in a different location than the original burial site. These events were recorded in the local Anniston-Oxford, Alabama newspapers. I did not see any Oklahoma protestors there either? What about the destruction of the Helvpe-Oaktasasi Ancestral site in Tallapoosa County, Alabama, due to the construction of a power plant that is now continually disturbing the ground and the resting places of the Ancestors? No Oklahoma protest at that site either? The Oklahoma Creeks can be hands on involved to allow these types of desecrations with no protest or continual media news about these events and their actions, yet they are allowed in the news media to play public judge to the Poarch Creeks? Why does the news media avoid reporting these kinds of activities of the Oklahoma Creek allowing desecrations to take place and yet they say to other tribes "we don't dig up our dead" and they continually publicly on facebook and in newspapers desecrating the Poarch Creek Ancestors with their words day and night. I dare you in Indian Country to search out the truth in those local newspapers and post the truth!
Anonymous
Hickory_Ground's picture
Let's correct the record regarding the inaccuracies of what happened in 2006. The Poarch Band never apologized for lying about preserving the historic ceremonial ground or for digging up the undisturbed remains of the Muscogee ancestors. Instead, they asked the Muscogee Creek Nation and Hickory Ground Tribal Town to sanction their actions by participating in the relocation of the remains so they could build the casino on the burial grounds. The traditional Muscogee people refused. They insisted for the ancestors to be reinterred at the place where they were excavated and to preserve the burial and ceremonial ground. They are two sides to every story, but in this case it's so easy to pick one. At the end of the day this case is about greed versus everything that it means to be a Native person.
Hickory_Ground
Anonymous's picture
The Poarch Creek Indians chose to become American Citizens when they stayed behind in Alabama. The Creek Nation Citizens of Oklahoma chose their sovereignty over there ancestral lands. They chose to become Americans and not Indians. They are not the true Creek Indians but Americans of Indian descent.
Anonymous
Hickory_Ground's picture
I find the argument that Muscogee (Creek) Nation cannot complain about the excavation at Hickory Ground because excavations are occurring in other parts of the Southeast disingenuous. The Poarch Band should be taking the lead to protect those places in Alabama. Why aren't they: because they are doing the same thing themselves.
Hickory_Ground
Anonymous's picture
Regardless to any of the statements or of this article,what was and is being done At Hickory Grounds Alabama is wrong!This article seems to attempt to draw attention away from what actually was and is being done and make this sound like some ongoing dispute instead of what it is.Thousands of people have been fighting to protect Sacred sites and burial sites for years,winning little bits along!Then PBCI officials go and dig up a sacred site and burial site that most of the state is against them doing and that will set back years of won rights of protection.Now lawyers can argue that Poarch Creek Indians did it so why shouldn't we big business and industry?Sad that this is written and sad that PBCI members think reservation held Natives had more advantages than those who were citizens.Maybe the writer should gather more info on PBCI,this lacks information.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Regardless to any of the statements or of this article,what was and is being done At Hickory Grounds Alabama is wrong!This article seems to attempt to draw attention away from what actually was and is being done and make this sound like some ongoing dispute instead of what it is.Thousands of people have been fighting to protect Sacred sites and burial sites for years,winning little bits along!Then PBCI officials go and dig up a sacred site and burial site that most of the state is against them doing and that will set back years of won rights of protection.Now lawyers can argue that Poarch Creek Indians did it so why shouldn't we big business and industry?Sad that this is written and sad that PBCI members think reservation held Natives had more advantages than those who were citizens.Maybe the writer should gather more info on PBCI,this lacks information.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I have looked for the documentation on the Oxford Al Mound and the Oklahoma Creeks. I wondered why they would even be involved? The Anniston Star published many articles on the mound and Sam's Club. The Sam's Club was not built on the mound and no human remains were ever found. To further add to the controversy were the conflicting reports on was the mound man made or was it created by natural forces? According to the Anniston Star Poarch was working with them all along as it should be. "A new Alabama law providing more protection for American Indian burial and ceremonial sites might have prevented much of the destruction of an ancient pile of stones behind the Oxford Exchange, according to a tribal cultural official. Robert Thrower, cultural director for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, said the new law would have allowed him and representatives from other American Indian tribes to legally challenge the mound’s destruction. “The mound situation was horrible,” Thrower said. “We looked for quite some time for some legal hook with the Oxford mound. The really frustrating thing there was there was nothing we could leverage legally.” Last summer Oxford, through its Commercial Development Authority, began tearing down the large hill which some experts, including those with the Alabama Historical Commission, say is a mound built by American Indians centuries ago. The dirt underneath was to be used as fill dirt for a planned Sam's Club nearby. The city later stopped demolishing the hill, which is situated behind the Oxford Exchange shopping center. Though suspected to be a burial site, to date, no human remains have been found at the mound. To Thrower, the lack of human remains does not matter. “What most people don’t understand is it doesn’t matter if there are burials underneath or not,” Thrower said. “It serves a function … it’s sacred unto itself.” Though the bill might have helped Thrower and others preserve more of the mound, it cannot do much for the situation now. This was published in the Anniston Star and the writer was Patrick McCreless. I fail to see the need for this blame game? The writer points out the divisions of the ones West of the Mississippi and the ones East of the Mississippi. Now if you could witness what I have, you see no divisions in the ones that support Hickory Ground. If you truly want to call out a division it is Traditionalist and Non-traditionalist. I know Poarch people right now that are being treated better by the ones in Oklahoma than their own.
Anonymous
faye1938's picture
Why do the Oklahoma Creeks continue to judge the Poarch Creeks? Yet the same Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma with other Indian Nations, together are documented in the newspapers as disturbing and digging up the bones of the Ancestors at Fort Benning, disturbing their resting places, with their bones and reburying those same Ancestors in a different location than their original resting places. The original resting places of the Ancestors were not required to go back to nature either in those specific cases? The Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma approved a highway running over those original sacred resting locations of the Ancestors. at Fort Benning. Why did the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma participate with the city of Oxford, Alabama and approve destruction of that "sacred mounds" by allowing a "money making" multi-million dollar Sam's Club to be built over the original location of the mounds, without the original sacred mounds place being required to go back to nature? After that settlement the Oklahoma Creek "money deal" was struck with the city of Oxford to look the other way and let the desecration happen. Why were there no Oklahoma Creek protesters on that site at Oxford and at Fort Benning? Was the Oxford deal an Oklahoma Creek "money making" venture? Yet in the Poarch Hickory Ground case only, does the Oklahoma Creeks demand a totally different criteria for reburial than the past reburials mentioned above? The Oklahoma Creeks, should not play the role of Poarch Creek judge and expect to be respected by the Poarch Creek Indians, when their reburial demands to Poarch are different than past NAGPRA surveys and reburials that were accepted by the Oklahoma Creeks, which has been documented in newspapers around the country like at Fort Benning and at Oxford, Alabama. Oklahoma Creeks should not judge the Poarch Creek since they are documented as dictating their own double standard actions with other Ancestral reburials. If the Oklahoma Creeks would have not scoffed at Poarch in 2006 and agreed to reburial of the ancestors in the nearby Hickory Ground site location just like their tribal constitution and tribal code dictates, this issue would have been settled a long time ago. Yet, with the Poarch Creek Hickory Ground only, the Oklahoma Creeks demand a different reburial criteria for the Ancestors? Not like the tribal reburial requiremnent dictated in their code below. Where is the 36 acre" back to nature" clause in the Oklahoma Creek Tribal Code? Yet with other entities the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma agreed to rebury the Ancestors in a different location without the back to nature clause, yet when Poarch reinterred the Ancestors as nearby as possible, as the Muscogee Code mandates, the Oklahoma Creeks refused to accept that reburial, but demanded of the Poarch Creeks a totally different criteria which demands a back to nature of the whole 36 acre site reburial criteria which is not mandated in the Muscogee Creek Nation reburial code listed below. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Creeks approved the multi-million dollar Sam's Club Mounds desecration? Here is the MUSCOGEE (CREEK) NATION CODE ANNOTATED CONSTITUTION OF THE MUSCOGEE (CREEK) NATION [ANNOTATED] ARTICLE XI [BURIALS AND CEMETERIES] Section1. Protection of individual burials and cemeteries.§ 1. [Protection of individual burials and cemeteries] Burials shall be reinterred at or in close proximity to the place from which they were disinterred, and in a place protected by a Conservation Easement in the name of the Muscogee Nation in perpetuity.
faye1938

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