When Andrew Jackson’s illegal and heavily censured actions during the First Seminole War in 1817 were used two years ago to support a controversial provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that allows the indefinite detention without charge or trial of anyone suspected of “terrorism,” Native Americans were alarmed that the federal government could use the legislation against them for asserting their right to self-determination, sovereignty and the protection of their lands and resources against exploitation by governments or corporations. They never imagined that a tribal government would do the same.
But now Wayland Gray, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, has been arrested by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians at the Muscogee sacred site at Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, Alabama, which is currently owned by the Poarch Band, and charged with an alleged “terrorist theat.” The Poarch authorities have not revealed the details of the charges.
Gray was arrested 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. They were arrested for attempting for the second day to go to the Hickory Ground burial site and pray for the Muscogee Creek ancestors who are buried there. Gray, Harjo and Deo are members of the Hickory Ground Tribal Town; Maggot is a member of the Alabama American Indian Movement, according to Native News Network. The attempted prayer ceremony is part of a large movement of opposition against the Poarch Band’s excavation of at least 57 sets of human remains and construction of a casino on the sacred site.
The four men were arrested for trespassing, handcuffed and taken to the Elmore County Jail in Wetumpka, Alabama. Harjo, Deo and Maggot were soon released on bonds of around $450 each, according to Muscogee Nation attorney Brendan Ludwick. Gray was given the additional “terrorist threat” charge, assigned a $30,000 cash bail, and kept in jail, Ludwick said.
In an exclusive phone interview with Indian Country Today Media Network from the Elmore County Jail, Gray said the Poarch Band has trumped up the terrorist charge against him. “We went to our graveyard to honor our ancestors and we were arrested and they put a bogus charge on me,” Gray said. “When I was getting into the [police] car I told them that one day we will be back and we’ll be able to honor our ancestors when this place [the casino] is torn down.”
Gray said his comment about the casino being “torn down” referred to a federal lawsuit filed by the Muscogee Nation against the Poarch Band last December. The lawsuit asks the court for a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop the casino construction from going forward, citing the removal of the 57 sets of ancestral remains as a violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and other federal laws. The lawsuit also asks the court for a declaration of Muscogee rights to Hickory Ground under the laws of the United States.
Gray said the Poarch officials twisted what he said about the casino being torn down. “They tried to say that I said I would burn it down. Why would I say that when I’m sitting out there on video?” Gray asked. The Poarch Band made a video of the arrest, but hasn’t released it, Gray said. “I challenge the Poarch Band to release that video but they haven’t because it would prove that’s not what I said. I doubt they’ll release it because they don’t work that way.” One of the Elmore County Jail police and the sheriff are Poarch Band members, Gray said.
“I wasn’t read my rights, never at any time,” Gray said. “When I got into the car I asked what I was being charged with and they said trespassing and when I got to jail, two hours later the Poarch Band cops came walking in and told me I was being charged with a terrorist threat.”
The “terrorist threat” charge is a felony. “This is a very serious charge,” Ludwick said. “But publicly, they’re not saying what he said, they’re just saying he made a threat, but we’re sure he never said anything about burning down the place and the other guys who were there confirmed that.”
Ludwick noted that Monday is a holiday and by arresting Gray on a Friday Poarch could “pretty much assure he’d be in there for a three-day weekend. The Poarch Band is very influential in Wetumpka, Ludwick said.
“They have control over the law enforcement and the local judiciary. This is a small town and almost the whole town is on the Poarch payroll.” Ludwick said the terrorist charge is a violation of Gray’s First Amendment right of free speech and an attempt to silence him, because he has led the opposition to the desecration of Hickory Ground. “He’s like a political prisoner,” Ludwick said.
Poarch spokeswoman Sharon Delmar did not respond to an email asking for details about Gray’s alleged “terrorist threat” and whether Poarch intends to release the video. According to Native News Network, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians issued a statement late Friday, saying, "The individuals were advised to leave. These individuals made threatening comments and were repeatedly warned that they were trespassing and facing imminent arrest. These individuals continued to challenge tribal police and were arrested." Neither Muscogee Nation Chief George Tiger nor Poarch Tribal Chairman Buford L. Rolin could be reached for comment on Sunday.
Hickory Ground is a historic Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Town that includes a ceremonial ground, a tribal burial ground and individual graves. It was the Muscogee Nation Creeks’ last capitol before the tribe was ethnically cleansed and removed to Oklahoma on the Trial of Tears following Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. The Poarch remained in Alabama and cooperated with the Americans.
The Poarch Band’s traditional home territory is in the area of Atmore, Alabama, more than 135 miles southwest of Wetumpka. Poach acquired the traditional Muscogee Hickory Ground site almost by fluke. Although the Poarch Band was not federally acknowledged until 1984, the Alabama Historical Commission received a $165,000 grant from the Interior Department in 1980 to purchase Hickory Ground then transferred it to the Poarch Band. The Muscogee Nation did not object to the transfer at the time because Poarch promised to prevent development. Poarch acknowledged at the time that Hickory Ground is the ancestral home of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and claimed that “they will be pleased to know their home in Alabama is being preserved… The Hickory Ground site will continue to enhance their understanding of their history, without excavation.” But shortly after the Interior Department took Hickory Ground into trust in 1984, the Poarch Band unveiled plans to develop a gaming facility there. The Muscogee Nation has been fighting the desecration of their sacred site ever since.
Gray thinks he was targeted for arrest “because of my stance against the desecration. I don’t want to say because of my leadership because my leader is my chief [Muscogee Mekko George Thompson, who has served as a traditional Chief of the Oce Vpofa Muscogee Creeks in Oklahoma for 42 years], but I’ve probably said more than a lot of people.”
Opposition to the Poarch casino on Hickory Ground is considerable. Last October, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes voted unanimously on a resolution supporting the efforts “of the lineal descendants of Ocevpofv (Hickory Ground) Ceremonial Ground/Tribal Town to halt the desecration and all future desecrations of Ocevpofv located in Wetumpka, Alabama, as should be afforded protection under Federal Laws.” The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes represents the united tribal governments of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations and more than 750,000 blood descendants of aboriginal peoples from the southeastern United States. The sharply-worded resolution says the Poarch Band has excavated more than 60 human remains and associated funerary objects, including the remains of seven Mekkos (Chiefs) that were buried in the arbors of the original ceremonial ground.
The arrests of Gray and the other men have provoked a fierce outcry on the Facebook pages Save Hickory Ground and Hickory Ground War. JoKay Dowell, of Quapaw, Cherokee, Peoria, Eastern Shawnee and Irish descent, posted the following on the Poarch page: “Your group's federal recognition was a sad day for American Indians. Your behavior of playing Indian (yes I've seen your powwows atop a mound) is repulsive. Having the DNA of the original peoples of this land is not enough to call yourselves one of ‘The People.’ Through the Bible and Christianity, you have been so far-removed from what it means to be Indigenous: Respect for your ancestors and ancestral life ways, instruction from the Creator on how to live, respect for the way you walk in this world, love for your one true mother whose name in English in EARTH. . . You have been respectfully requested to do the right thing by the 'real' TRADITIONAL Muscogee culture-bearers who know who they are—the real descendants OF THE ANCESTORS YOU HAVE DISRESPECTED…and you had them thrown in jail? You will suffer the consequences. Creator has a way of taking care of these things, ALL IN HIS TIME.” The post was quickly removed, Dowell said.
Gray said he has no idea when he’ll be released. He is confined in a cell with 20 other people and conditions are “not good,” he said. But there are lessons to be learned from his arrest. “I think it’s pretty sad that back in 1832 Andrew Jackson removed us from that land at gunpoint and here we are in 2013 and the tribe that calls itself our ‘cousins’ had me at gunpoint or taser point and arrested me for coming back on the land.” He promised to return and continue the struggle against the desecration of Hickory Ground.
“The lesson to be learned, for one thing, is never surrender, never give up your sacred sites and your burials regardless if it means going to jail. We’ve got to stand up for our rights, Idle No More. It’s a sad day in Indian country when a tribe does this to its own people for greed. When the Poarch got federal recognition, they pretty much just got a country club card. They lost their ways, they don’t care about their culture or their traditions—they’re just all about money.”
On Sunday afternoon, Gray’s supporters set up a “Free Wayland Gray” legal defense fund for him at Indiegogo.com.
In addition, Eli Grayson, an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, has set up an online petition asking the Interior Department to terminate its relationship with the Poarch Band. “In 1984, the Poarch was granted federal recognition under false information which has directly harmed the interest of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and its citizens,” the petition says. “The Poarch removed the remains of a Creek sacred burial place know as Hickory Ground and replaced them with an entertainment venue and casino instead [of] protecting the place from development as promised. The history that the Poarch provided to the federal government is in direct conflict with written history and the truth as to who they are. Their federal recognition is a fraud not only against the citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation but also against the citizens of the state of Alabama. Their recognition was about monetary gain and not tribal traditions as [evidenced by] the blatant removal of Indian graves for casino developments.”