Sacred site advocate Wayland Gray was convicted by an Alabama court of disorderly conduct and misdemeanor criminal trespassing for trying to pray at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s sacred Hickory Ground ceremonial site last winter.
District Court Judge Glenn Goggans in Wetumpka, Alabama, sentenced Gray to 120 days combined for both charges, reduced the sentence to three months, then suspended it, Gray told Indian Country Today Media Network. Under state law, Gray invoked his right to appeal the convictions to a jury.
“Now we go to a jury trial,” Gray said. “And if that doesn’t work we’ll take it to the federal level. Natives have been run over for centuries. We’ve had our land taken, we were put in boarding schools and beaten for speaking our languages. Now they’re trying to take what we have left—our sacred places, our burials. We have to fight this battle for our children’s sake. We can’t leave this fight for them.”
Gray and two other Muscogee Nation citizens and a Cherokee Nation AIM member were arrested last February by 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. The Poarch Band has a $246 million casino expansion project underway and dug up almost 60 sets of Muscogee ancestors during the ground preparation. Gray was also accused by Poarch police with making a “terrorist threat”—a charged that was dropped in May after a Grand Jury found no evidence to support it. The trespassing charges against the other three men were dropped in June. But Gray declined an offer to plea bargain.
More than 50 Muscogee Nation citizens traveled to Wetumpka to attend Gray’s trial on August 22. Gray was also fined $350, put on two years’ probation and barred from visiting the Hickory Ground site until the resolution of a pending federal lawsuit filed by the Muscogee Nation against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians last December to stop the ongoing casino construction.
“We were pleased the trial judge suspended Wayland's sentences so he will not be serving any jail time,” Brendan Ludwick, one of Gray’s attorney’s, said. “The defense witnesses, including a local pastor, Dr. James Troglen, all testified that the Muscogee Creeks were attempting to pray peacefully at the ceremonial ground before they were arrested at taser point by Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal police.”
Poarch police officers testified on behalf of the prosecution that they were aware of the skeletal remains that were excavated from Hickory Ground, but that the Poarch tribal council passed a resolution prohibiting the Muscogee Creeks from accessing the ceremonial ground, Ludwick said.
Poarch Band spokeswoman Sharon Delmar said in an email before Gray’s trial that the band had “gone to great lengths to ensure that the Hickory Ground ceremonial site is preserved and protected, and the additional 17 acres of Hickory Ground will be preserved in a pristine, natural state. This is Poarch land and we will protect and preserve our culture while providing for our community.” She said then that the band had no comment on Gray's court date.
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 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.”
Ludwick said the judge did not seem to understand that federal law guarantees Native Americans access to sacred places. “As the case works its way through the appeal process, we will reassert that these state laws as applied violated Wayland’s constitutional right to free exercise of religion. Apparently, Native American religious activity constitutes disorderly conduct in Wetumpka, Alabama,” Ludwick said. “We don't believe a jury in Alabama will unanimously uphold the convictions after they consider the burial grounds were excavated to build that casino, and Wayland went there peacefully to pray for them.”