Two-Year Legal Battle Ends: Wayland Gray’s Convictions Overturned
A two-year legal fight over a Muscogee (Creek) Nation man’s access to his people’s ancient sacred ceremonial land ended recently in a small state courtroom in Wetumpka, Alabama.
It took a 12-person jury there less than 45 minutes on Wednesday, January 14 to decide that sacred site activist Wayland Gray was wrongly convicted of disorderly conduct and misdemeanor criminal trespassing when he tried to pray for his ancestors, who are buried at Hickory Ground.
Gray and three other men were arrested and charged by members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians police force when they tried to access Hickory Ground in February 2012. Trespassing charges against the three other men were dropped in a plea bargain, but Gray declined various plea bargain offers and was convicted in August 2013. He appealed that ruling.
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 Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s ancestors lived and were buried there before the tribe was forced from its Alabama homeland on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. The sacred site is now held in trust by the Interior Department for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. A dispute continues between the Muscogee Nation and the Poarch Band over Poarch’s excavation of almost 60 sets of remains of Muscogee ancestors during the band’s $246 million casino expansion. The Muscogee Nation sued the Poarch Band in federal court to stop the construction in 2012. The case is pending.
Gray was elated, but not surprised, by the verdict. “I knew I had a good chance of being found innocent,” he said.
A Poarch Band of Creek Indians spokeswoman issued a statement in the wake of Wednesday’s acquittal, Alabama News reported. “Mr. Gray was previously found guilty by a District judge in this case, and we continue to believe that was the correct verdict,” the statement said.
Around 25 Muscogee Nation citizens, including Mekko (Traditional Chief) George Thompson, Medicine Man Tim Thompson, a group of warriors, some elders and others took the 12-hour road trip with Gray from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, to the state court in Wetumpka for the trial. The Muscogee Creek Nation funded the trip, Gray said. “The Nation has set up a line item in its annual budget for the Hickory Ground issue as well as donations from others, Native and non-Native Americans, who have contributed to the Hickory Ground cause.”
The day before the trial, Gray spent time with his 11-year-old daughter, SeAnna, and visited other Muscogee Creek sacred places around Alabama, including Horseshoe Bend and the ancient Tukabatchee tribal town. “I allowed my daughter to come on the trip with me because I want her to see first-hand the desecration issues Hickory Ground now faces because one day she could be the one fighting this fight,” he said.
During the trial, the state prosecutor showed a video of the arrests in an effort to support the disorderly conduct conviction. It shows Gray leading in song and walking in a traditional dance pattern shaking rattles and using hand drums that he said are approximately 70 years old. The video shows no physical altercation with authorities or threats. All the people arrested were cooperative.
Prosecution witnesses claimed the singing and traditional ceremony was a concern to some casino patrons, but they produced no patrons to testify that the singing and drumming had upset them.
The prosecution used Facebook posts to claim Gray’s group came to Hickory Ground specifically to provoke their arrests and slow construction of the casino.
Dr. James Troglen, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wetumpka and a key witness for Gray, was pleased with the outcome of Gray’s appeal. “I just hope now that this is over that [the Muscogee and Poarch] will be able to communicate with each other real clear and that Hickory Ground… people can come and honor their ancestors and maybe they all can work out something a little better,” he said.
Gray said that ”spiritual justice” must be served. Although Poarch told ICTMN in a 2012 email that the Muscogee ancestors and their funerary objects had been re-interred “according to specific Indian traditions that they [Muscogees] had requested,” Gray said that’s not so. “Whether I’m here or not, the fight will continue and will always continue until our ancestors are put back where they belong and the land given back to nature,” he said.
The issue is not just about Hickory Ground, Gray said, pointing to the Senate’s recent giveaway of the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s traditional sacred land in Arizona to a global mining company, and the decade long lost battle to prevent the use of recycled human waste for artificial snow at a ski area in the sacred San Francisco Peaks.
“With our issue, the sad thing is it’s another tribe that has desecrated our sacred lands and burials. It sets a precedent,” Gray said. “What are non-Native commercial developers going to say when they want to develop upon sacred lands: ‘The Poarch Band is doing it, why can’t we?’”
Poarch declined to respond to several requests for comment by a certain deadline, and submitted the following response after the story was posted to the ICTMN website.
“Several members of the Muscogee Nation have visited our property in Wetumpka. Wayland Grey trespassed on an active construction site after being specifically asked not to. And he threatened our employees, tribal members, and customers. He is not at all a representative of true visitors that we have had from his tribe.”
Amy Morris contributed to this story.
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