The Muscogee Creek Nation has filed a lawsuit to stop the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from continuing construction of a $246 million casino expansion at Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, Alabama, on a sacred ceremonial site and burial ground of Muscogee ancestors.
The lawsuit was filed December 12 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. It is the latest action in a years-long conflict in which the Muscogee Nation has opposed the Poarch Band’s desecration of the Muscogee sacred site by disturbing the graves of the nation’s ancestors.
Plaintiffs in the case are the Muscogee Creek Nation, Hickory Ground Tribal Town, and Mekko George Thompson, who has served as Muscogee Creeks’ traditional chief for 42 years. The defendants are the Poarch Band and its officials, construction contractors Flintco LLC and Martin Construction Inc., Auburn University and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The lawsuit says that Muscogee citizens are experiencing severe emotional distress because of the violation of their religious and cultural beliefs, “including but not limited to their inability to respect their ancestors, pray on the ceremonial ground, and keep Hickory Ground sacred.” The nation asks the court for a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop the desecration of Hickory Ground “along with a declaration of their rights under the laws of the United States.”
The lawsuit claims, among other things, that in April 2012, the Poarch Band excavated around 57 sets of human remains and reburied them at a different location in order to build a casino on the sacred land in violation of various federal laws. The lawsuit also asserts that the federal government took the Hickory Ground site into trust for the Poarch Band in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, which ruled that the Interior secretary does not have the authority to take land into trust for tribal nations that were not “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians received federal acknowledgement in 1984. The Carcieri case has spawned more than a dozen complaints in federal and state courts and the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, according to the Native American Rights Fund.
The Muscogee Nation asks the court to void the Interior Department’s decision to take Hickory Ground into trust for the Poarch Band, to order the Poarch Band to provide an inventory and location of all of the human remains, “to cooperate” with the nation to reinter the remains and the funerary objects in the places where they were originally buried and to preserve Hickory Ground “in accordance with Muscogee Creek religious customs and tradition. The nation is not seeking monetary damages, the lawsuit says. “From the beginning, it has been our stance that the remains should be put back where they were excavated,” Mekko Thompson said in a press release. “The ceremonial ground is sacred so it is not a proper place for a casino.”
The lawsuit cites violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires consent by the lineal descendants to exhume the buried ancestors; the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protects ceremonial and burial grounds and requires consultation with traditional religious leaders before such sites can be disturbed; the National Historic Preservation Act; the Archeological Resources Protection Act, and others.
In justifying the inclusion of the Interior Department as a defendant, the Muscogee lawsuit says that the U.S. “owes a fiduciary duty to Indian tribes, and at a minimum this means agencies must comply with general regulations and statutes.”
Hickory Ground Tribal Town, known as Oce Vpofa in the Muscogee language, was the last capitol of the National Council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation from 1802-1814. 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 at Hickory Ground 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.
Hickory Ground was listed as a historic property on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 in response to a nomination from the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC). Later that year, the commission received a $165,000 grant from the Interior Department to purchase the property and transfer ownership to the Poarch Band. Poarch Band “entered a covenant with AHC to preserve Hickory Ground against development,” the lawsuit says. 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.” Poarch 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.”
“The band subsequently violated its covenant… by commencing construction of a gaming facility at Hickory Ground which was opposed by the AHC, the governor of Alabama, the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Creek Indians throughout the country,” the lawsuit says.
Tensions between the Muscogee and Poarch go beyond the current conflict over the desecration of Hickory Ground. Poarch Band members descend from Creek Indians who received a land grant in Tensaw, Alabama, as a reward for collaborating with the United States in fighting against and removing the Creek Nation from Alabama in the 1830’s, according to the lawsuit. The Poarch Band operates three casinos–the Wind Creek Casino at Atmore, Alabama, the Creek Casino Montgomery and the Creek Casino Wetumpka, according to the band’s website. The planned expansion of the Wetumpka casino includes a 20-story hotel with almost 300 rooms, and a 90,000-square-foot casino with 2,500 electronic gaming machines, according to the band’s August newsletter.
Because damages to Hickory Ground continue to occur, the Muscogee Nation has asked the court for an expedited hearing.