Rights vs. Identity: Divisions Run Deep Over Hickory Ground

DaShanne Stokes

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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faye1938's picture
The theory of not being accepted as Indians or a tribe just because your tribal community did not remove to Indian Territory is very misleading and totally incorrect. If one accepts that statement at face value, that would be saying all Mississippi Choctaws, all of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, the Catawba Tribe and all of the other Eastern Federally Recognized Tribes are not Indians or Tribes, simply because they chose to not remove East during the removal? This way of thinking is no doubt promoting Tribal Self Genocide and is definitely not right or true, otherwise there would be no present day federally recognized tribes East of the Mississippi. As far as the Poarch Creek Ancestors, they were 1814-1817 Eastern Creek Allotment Treaty Ancestors and were party to the Treaty of Fort Jackson 1814-1817 with their own perpetual rights as Friendly Chiefs and Warriors of the Eastern Creek Nation. This tribal community of Eastern Creek Ancestors received Treaty Allotments under the provisions of the Special Acts of the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814, as Chiefs and Warriors of the Creek Nation East, long before the 1836-1838 Creek Removal. These Eastern Creek Allotments did not fall under the Laws of Creek Nation West that pertain to the Dawes Creek Allotments only, according to the BIA Title 25 Code specifications. These 1814 Eastern Creek Allotment were to be perpetually passed down to the Eastern Creeks as long as they lived on the Treaty Land and the Allotments remained in U.S. Trust under Federal Jurisdiction as an Eastern Creek Reservation. That is easily proven in the 1912-1915 Lynn McGhee Eastern Creek Reservation illegal timber harvest, which brought about Federal intervention by the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice, to protect Lynn McGhee's Eastern Creek Allotment, which was still under Federal Jurisdiction a hundred years later. These Eastern Creek Allotments were created as Eastern Creek Treaty Allotments, under the provisions of the Special Acts of the Treaty of Fort Jackson, under Federal Trust and could not revert for sale to the public unless individual Acts of Congress properly released the U.S. Government Reversionary Interest in each of these individual Eastern Creek Reservations or if they were abandoned by the Allottee or his or her direct lineal descendants. If abandoned, an Act of Congress would be required to release each specific Eastern Creek Reservation from U.S. Trust and the individual Creek Reservation would revert to the U.S. BLM Land Control and a simple fee deed would be issued to the land buyer converting the land back to the local county ownership control and non-Indian reservation trust status.Those Indians who continued to live on their Eastern Creek Ancestral Reservations were considered under federal jurisdiction and by their documented half-blood status would have qualified under the IRA Act.
Anonymous's picture
The sad part about this is that some people choose to hate all Southeastern Creeks, when the decision to build on Hickory Ground was made by just a few people. The reasons you use to hate all Southeastern Creeks could also be applied to the mighty Seminole Nation who remained in Florida, or to the Alabama Coushatta Tribe who remained, living in Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally Texas, as well as many others who escaped the illegal Removal. Some of the people who are spreading the hate to Southeastern Creeks have ancestors who are documented as helping Andrew Jackson and taking his blood money...so they have no room to be name calling. Also...check the documentation on the ones doing the name calling.....see where their ancestors are from. I haven't found one yet who descends from Hickory Ground!
Lex's picture
Hickory Farms to die for! Who doesn't love their summer saausge dipped in sweet honey mustard with a little smoked cheddar on the side. We know the holidays are near when we see the Hickory Farms kiosk setting up in the mall. We line up for the sample as we walk by .and then sneak around the corner for another. The petit fours look too pretty to eat but of course, they are another of our favorites so we must buy them. And the tastes of all these delicious treats are just as we remember from last year and the year before and the year before that. When I think of the holidays, I think of Hickory Farms. A favorite tradition at my house! And to whoever wins this contest ENJOY.
Pait's picture
YMMD with that asnwer! TX
Anonymous's picture
Whole hardheartedly agree divide and conquer was the incentive and motive to raise conflict between Native Americans which still occurs today. Dialogue is the only solution and resolution to commence healing and return to Tribal Traditions and Teachings. There must be open mindedness, good will and good faith in order to begin the healing process regarding the feelings of animosity and splitting / division of traditionalist and fundamentalists.
Mayela1810's picture
It is sad, irritating and frustrating to read these types of articles. As if the native people did not lose enough in the past there exist possibilities of them losing even more. Forget the wrongs and atrocities done by non-natives, that is another subject, but, when current tribes attempt to turn on one another is so beyond maddening. Especially maddening because tribes seem to demonstrate that indeed they need Big Brother to arbitrate and control them even further. Take North Korea, for example, behaving like an unruly child (even though "the child" is an adult) causing the U.S., South Korea and China (the parents)to act helping to bring them under control. Shameful and embarrassing to say the least.
Anonymous's picture
Well it's similar to the divisions that existed between the ''house negro'' and the ''field negro'' during slavery. The ''house negro'' ate and lived well in relation to the ''field negro'' who caught hell on a daily basis. Obviously the Poarch Band does not feel any connection to the people buried at Hickory Ground and that is a clear indication how far removed they are from the earth and their ancestors. The Poarch Band represents a excellent example on the dangers of how Tribal Nations will eventually become if our collective cultures via, languages, spirituality, and history are not preserved. Do Tribal governments existence solely depend on an corporate model with no indicators of Indigenousness? Originally, the Poarch Band whored themselves out the highest bidder back in the 1800s and are just repeating and following in the path of their ancestors. It seems to me the Poarch Band are "Creek'' in name only with no substantive value the Creek culture provides to those who choose to follow in the path of their ancestors.