When a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen faces trespassing and disorderly conduct charges in an Alabama court this week for trying to pray at the sacred Hickory Ground ceremonial site, the trial will be documented by a Native filmmaker.
Sterlin Harjo has joined sacred land advocate Wayland Gray and a delegation of more than 50 members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who are traveling from Oklahoma to Wetumpka, Alabama to attend Gray’s criminal trial for attempting last winter to pray for Muscogee ancestors buried at Hickory Ground where the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has a $246 million casino expansion project underway.
“It’s important to document this issue because gaming on sacred land is an issue that will likely affect Native nations in the future,” Harjo said in a statement. Harjo’s film, “BACK TO NATURE – The Battle for Hickory Ground” is about the conflict between the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians over Hickory Ground was released last fall.
RELATED: The Battle for Hickory Ground
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.
Gray and three other men 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.
Gray, who was seen as the leader of the group, was additionally charged with “making a terrorist threat”—a charge that was dismissed in May after a Grand Jury found no evidence to support it.
Responding to an e-mail request for comment, Poarch Band spokeswoman Sharon Delmar said, “We have 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 the band has no comment on Gray's court date.
This is the second trip south for Muscogee Nation citizens. In June around 60 supporters accompanied Gray to a hearing in the Wetumpka court where trespassing charges against Muscogee Creek Nation citizens Mike Harjo and Mike Deo and an American Indian Movement Cherokee Indian known as “Maggot” were dropped.
Gray declined a plea bargaining offer by the court. “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.
Gray’s bench trial on the criminal trespass and disorderly conduct charges before Elmore County District Judge Glenn Goggans is scheduled to begin Thursday, August 22 at 9 a.m.
“We are only here to honor our ancestors and protect sacred land,” Gray said in a statement. “Regardless of the outcome we know the Creator is on our side.”