When Wayland Gray and three other sacred land activists show up for a court hearing in Wetumpka, Alabama, on June 18, they won’t be alone. A busload of around 40 Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizens has traveled from Oklahoma to Alabama to support the men charged by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians with criminal trespassing for trying to hold a ceremony for Muscogee Creek ancestors buried at Hickory Ground.
Hickory Ground is a Muscogee Creek sacred ceremonial site in Wetumpka where the Poarch Band excavated almost 60 sets of remains of Muscogee ancestors during the band’s $246 million expansion of their casino.
Gray, Mike Harjo and Mike Deo—all Muscogee Creek Nation citizens—and an American Indian Movement Cherokee Indian known as “Maggot” were arrested in February and charged with criminal trespassing when they arrived at Hickory Ground to pray for their ancestors after notifying Poarch officials of their plan. 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. 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,” so Gray will face both trespassing and disorderly conduct charges. (Related story: “Grand Jury Discards Terrorist Charge Against Hickory Ground Protestor”)
Known as Oce Vpofa in the Muscogee language, Hickory Ground 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. The Poarch Creeks remained in Alabama and collaborated with the federal government and Jackson’s policies of removal, according to the Band’s website. (Related story: “The Battle for Hickory Ground”)
The four men are scheduled to appear before District Court Judge Glenn Goggans in Wetumpka, at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 18. The men are represented by former Alabama Attorney General William Baxley, of the law firm Baxley, Dillard, McKnight & James, according to a press release issued by Muscogee Creek Nation attorney Brendan Ludwick.
The case will set a precedent for other efforts to protect sacred lands, Gray said in the press release. The charges against the four men “are a smokescreen to divert attention away from the desecration of Hickory Ground. The issue is respect for ancestors, and the precedent this case sets for all Native people trying to protect sacred land and burials,” added Gray.
Mekko George Thompson, the traditional chief of Hickory Ground Tribal Town, is among the delegates who chartered a bus to travel from Oklahoma to Alabama to support the men at the hearing and express opposition to the excavation and development at Hickory Ground. (Related story: “The Battle for Hickory Ground as Told by the Muscogee in Video”)
Calls made to the Poarch Band were not returned before posting time.