Trespassing charges have been dropped against three sacred land activists who tried to pray at the Hickory Ground ceremonial site in Wetumpka, Alabama last winter where the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has a $246 million casino expansion project underway. A fourth man, Wayland Gray, declined a plea bargaining offer and will face trial on trespassing and disorderly conduct this summer.
The Alabama state court in Wetumpka dropped trespassing charges against Muscogee Creek Nation citizens Mike Harjo and Mike Deo and an American Indian Movement Cherokee Indian known as “Maggot” when they appeared in court for a plea hearing June 18. (Related story: “Hickory Ground Sacred Land Activists Appear in Court Tuesday”)
Gray, also a Muscogee citizen, said the court made him an offer he could refuse. “They said if I would plead guilty to disorderly conduct, they would drop the trespassing charge and I’d have no jail time,” Gray told Indian Country Today Media Network. The trespassing charge carries a possible three-month prison sentence and a $3,000 fine. “I refused to plead guilty on both charges. I did nothing wrong. I was guilty of nothing,” Gray said. A trial on the two charges will begin August 29.
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. The sacred site is now held in trust by the Interior Department for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. A bitter 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 casino expansion. Last fall, the Muscogee Nation sued the Poarch Band in federal court to stop the construction. The case is pending. (Related story: “Muscogee Nation Sues Poarch Band Over Hickory Ground Desecration”)
Gray and the other men were arrested in February by the Poarch police and charged with criminal trespassing when they tried to access Hickory Ground to conduct a ceremony after notifying Poarch officials of their plan. Gray, who was seen as the leader of the group, was accused of threatening to burn down the Poarch casino and additionally charged with “making a terrorist threat”—a felony punishable by 10 years in prison. A Grand Jury dismissed the charge in May after finding no evidence to support it. (Related story: “Grand Jury Discards Terrorist Charge Against Hickory Ground Protestor”)
A busload of more than 40 Muscogee Creek citizens, including Mekko George Thompson, the traditional chief of Hickory Ground Tribal Town, and War Chief Robin Soweka traveled from Oklahoma to Wetumpka to support the men at the hearing and express opposition to the excavation and development at Hickory Ground.
A day before the hearing, the entire delegation went to the area of the Hickory Ground ceremonial site where the four men were arrested in February, Gray said. “Me and Mike Deo and Mike Harjo stayed back at the bottom of the hill on Mekko’s order but we could see everything. Mekko and 43 others walked up the hill and they were met with a roadblock [as they were] going onto the property,” Gray said. “They did let them on the property. They let them look through the fence [at the ceremonial ground]. They wouldn’t tell them where the remains are. They wouldn’t tell them where the mass grave was.”
As the delegation led by the Mekko started walking toward the fence they were accompanied by around 10 Poarch police and security guards, Gray said. “As they started walking the wind went from zero to 62 mph and as they got up there to the Ground and started walking around the fence it was—bam!—it just started blowing and the wind started swirling and it went on for around 10 minutes like that. The hotel has about 18 stories completed now and the wind was so high it was blowing trash cans all the way across the parking lot and the debris from the ground was blown up above the hotel swirling like a tornado.” The sudden high wind ripped plastic and siding and other materials off the building. “One of the workers came down and told us, ‘You ‘all caused $4,000 worth of damage on the roof.’ The crane operator sitting up there at the top of the building clocked the wind speed on his gauge at 62 mph. He said he couldn’t even see the bottom floors of the hotel, there was so much dust. To us it was the Creator and ancestors letting them know they’re with us,” Gray said.
The Poarch Band issued a press release June 17 accusing the Muscogee Nation members of “once again making a very public visit to Alabama as part of an orchestrated campaign to control the use of our tribal land in Wetumpka. This is land for which they have no ownership claim, yet their actions concerning our property continue to overstep boundaries of reason and principles of tribal governmental sovereignty.”
The Poarch Band acquired the land in 1984 with the help from the Alabama Historical Commission and a $164,000 grant from the Interior Department.
In applying for the grant, Poarch promised that “Acquisition will prevent development on the property” and that the property would serve as a valuable resource for cultural enrichment of all Creek people. The application acknowledged that Hickory Ground is the ancestral home of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and speculated 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 a few years after Hickory Ground was taken into trust, the Poarch Band unveiled plans to develop a gaming facility there. (Related story: “The Battle for Hickory Ground”)
Poarch said in the release that contrary to the Muscogee’s “orchestrated campaign of disinformation” the Band has preserved “our” Hickory Ground and “respectfully reinterred” the remains of the Muscogee ancestors. In its lawsuit against the Poarch Band, the Nation insists that the remains must be reinterred in the places from which they were taken.
In its press release, the Poarch Band continued to accuse Gray of threatening to burn down the casino, despite the Grand Jury’s dismissal of the charge. “It is unfortunate for our Tribe that the videotape showing one of these individuals threatening to burn down our casino was not shown to the Grand Jury involved in this case,” the Band said in its press release. The video is viewable on the Save Hickory Ground Facebook page.