Sacred Site Advocates Ask Senate to Heed Keith Harper Concerns
Poarch Band leaders have said that they have taken “efforts to maintain the site” and want to “preserve a relationship with the Muscogee Nation,” but the inter-tribal battle escalated in February 2013 when Gray was arrested on terrorism charges by Poarch Band police as he and three others tried to access the sacred Hickory Ground site to pray for their Muscogee ancestors buried there. The Poarch Band has issued press releases saying Gray threatened to burn down the casino before his arrest. A grand jury has since tossed out the terrorism charge, but Gray is awaiting a jury trial on appeal to try to fully clear his name, based on religious freedom legal arguments, and having rejected a plea deal in June 2013.
As Gray was dealing with the fallout from his arrest, Poarch Band Chairman Buford Rolin was sending a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year in support of Harper’s nomination that said Harper has served as “the tribe’s lawyer representing us in litigation critical to our community” and that the tribe has “a great deal of respect” for Harper and his work. Beyond his representation of the Poarch Band, Harper’s biography on his firm’s website says he has served on the tribe’s Supreme Court.
Brendan Ludwick, a lawyer for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, says that Harper’s work for the Poarch Band is a “reason to be concerned” about his nomination.
After Gray’s arrest, Ludwick wrote an e-mail to Harper in February 2013 to ask for his assistance on the matter. “I reached out to him as a fellow Indian lawyer to see if he could bridge communications between our clients to secure Wayland's release,” he says. “Keith never responded.
“This was a situation where we had a Native American exercising his First Amendment right to access a sacred place and was incarcerated because of the actions of his client,” Ludwick adds. “It was disappointing that he did not do more to help.”
Harper’s silence on various indigenous human rights issues has led to consternation about his nomination from many Native Americans and from Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Ludwick, a member of the Kickapoo Tribe, hopes that more senators, on both sides of the aisle, will investigate the concerns. “The question is whether as a partner at the Kilpatrick law firm Keith Harper advised or profited from the desecration of the burials at Hickory Ground,” he says.
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