A Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, who was jailed by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians for allegedly making a terrorist threat when he attempted to pray on the Hickory Ground sacred site in Alabama last week, has been freed.
Wayland Gray left Elmore County Jail in Wetumpka, Alabama, late in the afternoon on Tuesday, February 19, after the Muscogee Nation’s Principal Chief George Tiger negotiated his release.
“It's great to be out of jail,” Gray told Native News Today. “I would not change a thing. If nothing, else it has brought [to] life how Natives feel about sacred site[s]. It's not just about Hickory Ground; it's about all sacred sites.”
Jason Salsman, multimedia producer for the Nation’s Mvskoke Media, who traveled to Alabama with Tiger and documented the trip in a video (see below), said Tiger was able to reduce Gray’s $30,000 cash bond to a $15,000 posted bond. Tiger and his entourage went to the Elmore County Jail for Gray’s release. “We were the first people he saw when he walked out the door. The chief shook his hand and embraced him,” Salsman said. Gray told Salsman that his four nights at the jail “weren’t horrible, it was just jail—but he was so happy to be released.”
Gray was arrested by the Poarch Band’s police on Friday, February 15, along with Mike Harjo and Michael Deo, also Muscogee Creeks from Oklahoma, and a man who identified himself as a Cherokee Indian named Maggot, according to Native News Network, The men had attempted for the second day to go to the Hickory Ground burial site to pray for the Muscogee Creek ancestors who are buried there. The site is currently held in trust by the Interior Department for the Poarch Band.
The attempted prayer ceremony was a protest against the Poarch Band’s excavation of at least 57 sets of human remains and the $246 million expansion of the Wetumpka Wind Casino on the sacred site, which Gray and others view as desecration. All four men were charged with trespassing; Harjo, Deo and Maggot were released within hours, but Gray was given the additional charge of making a “terrorist threat” and jailed. The Poarch Band claimed he had threatened to burn down the casino—a claim denied by Gray and the other men at the scene.
William Bailey, the Mekko, or Traditional Chief of the Hvsosv Tallahassee ceremonial ground of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who formerly served on its tribal council, told Indian Country Today Media Network Tuesday night after Gray’s release that protests at Hickory Ground would continue. He has opposed the desecration of the site since the mid-1980’s, he said.
“I’ll be going back for sure,” Bailey said. He feels a strong attachment to Hickory Ground—“they’re my ancestors too”—and he said several Poarch Band members feel the same way. Several were on the scene earlier in support of Gray “and they were holding up signs saying, ‘Save Hickory Ground.’” Around 300 of the Poarch Band’s 3,000 members showed up at a meeting last year regarding the sacred site and “around 30 to 40 percent are against [the desecration],” Bailey said. “But a lot [of people] don’t even know about it, they live far away or they’re old and don’t understand what [the Poarch officials or protesters] are talking about.”
Tiger flew from Oklahoma to Alabama on Tuesday to free Gray, and take him back to Oklahoma. Harjo and Deo drove back to Oklahoma in Gray’s car soon after they were released on February 15 “I must say it’s good to be back in the home of our ancestors here in Alabama,” he said at the opening of a press conference Tuesday. Alabama is the Muscogee Creeks’ aboriginal home. They were forced to relocate to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears under Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act in order to make room for the ever-expanding white settler population that was then moving south and west.
Referring to the Poarch Band as “our relatives,” Tiger appealed to the band to work out their differences with Muscogee. “Just like anything else, relatives can have disagreements. Our tradition and our culture say we should be able to sit down at the table and work these things out… To some degree we feel like this has gotten out of hand.” He offered Muscogee “resources” to help resolve the issue. But further desecration of the sacred Hickory Ground is not acceptable, Tiger said.
“Our hope is that the two sovereign nations can work through this, but really we don’t see a resolution to this issue unless construction is stopped… We all have a common respect for our cultural values, our traditional values, and we all regard Hickory Ground as a very sacred place… Our traditional sacred fire was taken from this area to what is now Oklahoma and we feel that there are some things that we must keep sacred.”
The Poarch Band itself acknowledged in 1980 when it was applying with the Alabama Historical Society for possession of Hickory Ground that it is the ancestral home of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and promised at the time that “their home in Alabama is being preserved… The Hickory Ground site will continue to enhance their understanding of their history, without excavation.” But Poarch broke that promise shortly after the Interior Department took Hickory Ground into trust in 1984, when the Band unveiled plans to develop a casino on the site.
During his press conference, Tiger recalled that the Muscogee Nation “was happy to assist the Poarch Band with their federal recognition back in the 1980s with the understanding that we would work together on some of these issues [and] it would benefit everyone involved.” Unfortunately, Tiger said, the Muscogee Nation has been “forced to file a lawsuit to prevent the Poarch Band” from continuing to desecrate the Muscogee ancestors’ resting place.
Gray must have made an impression on his jail mates, because an extraordinary thing happened on his way out, Salsman said. “When Wayland left the jail and started walking out to the parking lot with the chief, we heard pounding on the windows of the jail from all the inmates—that was their way of saying goodbye. Wayland pointed up and waved and they just continued pounding,” Salsman said. “According to Wayland, those prisoners understood his frustrations over Hickory Ground and some of them even shared his frustrations about the political climate there in Wetumpka. According to them and the things he heard, it might even be difficult for him to get a fair trial there.”
Gray is due back in court in Wetumpka on April 11 for the trespassing charge and May 9 on the terrorist threat charge, Salsman said. It’s not known at this time whether Gray’s attorneys will seek a change of venue.
The below video is courtesy of Mvskoke Media and was produced by Jason Salsman: