Editor’s Note: This story has been revised per a communication and press release from the Poach Band of Creek Indians.
An Alabama Grand Jury has tossed out a terrorism charge brought by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians against a Muscogee Nation citizen and reduced it to disorderly conduct.
Poarch Band police arrested Wayland Gray and three companions—Muscogee Creek Nation citizens Mike Harjo and Mike Deo and a Cherokee man named Maggot—on February 15 for trying to reach Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, Alabama, a sacred ceremonial place to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The men had notified Poarch officials days in advance that they intended to visit the site to pray for the Muscogee ancestors that the Poarch band dug up to make way for a $246 million casino expansion. The four men were charged with criminal trespassing. Gray, who was seen as the leader of the group, was additionally charged with “making a terrorist threat”—a felony punishable by 10 years in prison. The Poarch police claimed Gray threatened to burn down the casino. He spent four days in jail in Wetumpka following his arrest. (Related story: “Poarch Band Accuses Muscogee Creek Man of Terrorist Threat to Burn Casino”)
The Alabama District Court in Wetumpka in cooperation with the Poarch Band sent the case to a Grand Jury on March 20 to see if there was enough evidence to prosecute Gray on the terrorist threat charge, but the Grand Jury found none. On May 1 the Grand Jury remanded the case to the district court “with instructions to amend the charge of making terrorist threats to disorderly conduct.” A hearing is scheduled for May 14, to address criminal trespassing charges pending against the four men.
Gray told Indian Country Today Media Network on Sunday, May 5 that he was happy with the Grand Jury ruling, but “it wasn’t a surprise. I was never worried about it. We’ve got the Creator on our side.” He predicts that all charges will be dropped eventually. “We’ll fight it all the way because we did nothing wrong. We went to pray for our ancestors and pay respect to them on our sacred ground. These are all made up stories to try to take away from what they did wrong.”
Hickory Ground, known as Oce Vpofa in the Muscogee language, in Wetumpka, Alabama, is at the center of a long-running dispute between the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. 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 day 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 as a result of U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830—America’s legalization of ethnic cleansing. (Related story: “The Battle for Hickory Ground”)
The Poarch Creeks remained in Alabama and collaborated with the federal government and Jackson’s policies of removal, according to the Band’s website.
The Poarch Band currently owns Hickory Ground and the excavation of the Muscogee Creeks’ ancestors prepared the site for an expansion of their Wind Creek Casino Wetumpka at Hickory Ground.
The Grand Jury evaluated evidence presented by the Poarch Band. (Note: On May 4, the Poarch Band issued a press release with the following statement, “It is regrettable that Poarch Tribal law enforcement officials were not invited to show the Grand Jury video of the individual threatening to burn down our casino. That video, and other evidence, clearly shows that this individual has made threats to our property, our Tribal members, our employees and our customers.”)
“When I first went to jail, I challenged Poarch to show the video because I knew it would prove me innocent,” Gray said. “They took the part of the video where it was a bit hard to understand what I said because they already had in mind the words they wanted to put in my mouth. The part they were talking about is a part where I said, ‘We’re going to the ground [meaning Hickory Ground]’ and right after I said it Mike Deo [one of Gray’s companions and a fellow arrestee on the trespassing charge said, ‘We’re all going,’ so that backed up what I said.” (Related story: “Video: Watch the Arrest of Muscogee Man Held on Terrorist Threat Charges”)
Gray said he called the Poarch Band officials and chastised them for portraying him as a terrorist. “They’re trying to say now that I pleaded with them to drop the charges. It’s not true. I did call them and told them, ‘This is a grown up issue but now that you’re trying to make up charges against me and trying to put me in prison for 10 years, now you’re bringing my kids into it.’ And they called and wanted to have a meeting with us in Louisiana in a neutral place to discuss dropping the charges in exchange for giving us land—17 acres next to the casino—and making it sacred. I said there’s no way you can make it sacred now as part of a deal. We said we’d never make a deal,” Gray said.
Former Poarch Band Chairman Ed Tullis was asked about the offer of a 17-acre parcel during the National Indian Gaming Association’s annual meeting in Phoenix in March, but he did not respond to the question. (Related story: “Activists Rally for Sacred Sites During NIGA Convention”)
On April 24, Poarch Band Chairman Buford Rolin issued an exclusion order to Gray and the other men who sought access to the ceremonial ground banning them from Poarch land. “The tribal council voted to exclude you from all tribal lands (all trust lands and any other lands owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, including, but not limited to, Creek Casino Montgomery, Creek Casino Wetumpka, Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, and Tribal Council Offices Located on Highway 21, Atmore, Alabama). The exclusion from the above stated properties is effective immediately and shall remain in effect permanently. Any violation of this exclusion from tribal lands could result in prosecution.” Rolin could not be reached for comment by posting time.
Attorney Brendan Ludwick, who represents the Muscogee Nation in a civil lawsuit to preserve Hickory Ground, said it was both ironic and disingenuous for the state to be prosecuting Gray and the others for trespassing since the state has filed a lawsuit against Poarch, questioning its title to the land. “So the state is challenging Poarch’s title of that land while at the same time prosecuting Wayland and these guys for ‘trespassing’ on it,” Ludwick said. “I think it’s very inconsistent and disingenuous of the state to do that. The Muscogee should be entitled to access the ceremonial ground for religious purposes under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” he added.
Muscogee Mekko George Thompson, who has served as a traditional Chief of the Oce Vpofa Muscogee Creeks in Oklahoma for 42 years, spoke to ICTMN on Sunday, May 5.
What did you think of the Grand Jury tossing out the terrorist threat charge against Wayland?
It was awesome. It was only right that they do that.
Were you concerned about what would happen?
Yeah, in a way I was, but it was a good outcome. They [Gray and the other men] really didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just concerned for our old homelands. That’s where we originated from. Today we’re having one of traditions that we carry on and the things we do today on our ground [in Oklahoma] came from our original homeland back in Alabama, so we’re very thankful for our ancestors. We enjoy the things we do today at our ceremonial ground, If it wasn’t for our ancestors we wouldn’t have these things today and we’re very thankful they were able to leave something that we’re able to carry on.
What would you like to see happen with Hickory Ground?
When this thing first surfaced we wanted the remains to be put back where they were excavated from and let it go back to nature. That’s the way it was when they first came upon that area. That’s our intention, that’s what we wanted, but for some reason the overseer on this—the Bureau of Indian Affairs—they didn’t do their job like they should have, I guess, and keep things from happening. It’s a violation to dig up [the ancestors]. That’s drastic.
Can it be repaired if they stopped construction and reburied the ancestors where they were?
Well, you know, the problem was the Poarch people didn’t know what the culture was about. They say that they preserved the cultural site but it’s just around that one little area but to fully understand the cultural part, you have to be active to understand what the sacred site is because it encompasses quite a bit of area and not understanding what the culture was about I think has to be one of the big problems they had. They didn’t have the language or anything.
Does parch have a mekko?
No, uh uh, no.
A traditional chief or any kind of spiritual leaders or Faithkeeper?
No, they don’t have anything like that. The leader—they call him the chairman.
Is Poarch the only Creek people left in Alabama?
At one time there were 44 [tribal towns] or more, now we only have 14 tribal ceremonial towns that are active. Most of them came to Oklahoma when Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal treaty, that’s when people came this way.
Now we call it ethnic cleansing and it’s a violation of international law.
It sure is.
What outcome are you hoping for?
Everything we do we look to the Creator. He’s the one that said everything for the Indian people to have those things [like ceremony] and to be here also. That’s who we look to so, hopefully, there will be some help from [there].