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Fire Takes the Vulnerable Ones

Medicine is powerful. It protects, but it also can turn against the vulnerable. That’s what old tribal people say. Lots of old people in lots of tribes.

That’s almost what was said by a Muscogee man from Hickory Ground in Oklahoma to a leader of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Wetumpka, Ala., on May 9: “That fire is powerful. That fire will get you.”

Nine days later, Poarch Band Tribal Chairman Fred L. McGhee died. He was 56.

I didn’t know McGhee. I observed him in that meeting at the Wetumpka City Hall and sat across from him at the dinner afterward at “Catfish Country.” He struck me as a sincere, decent person, who was trying to do the right thing after his predecessors and colleagues had committed a lifetime of wrongs, some in his name and some under his signature.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians was a nonrecognized group in Atmore and Poarch, not far from Mobile, until they gained federal recognition in 1982. They descend from people who stayed behind to become Americans when the Muscogee (Creek) citizens were chained and marched at bayonet point to Indian Territory in the 1830s.

That infamous forced march is part of the Trail of Tears.

Federal recognition of the Poarch Band came with a 20-year covenant to protect the historic Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, just north of Montgomery on the banks of the Coosa River. Hickory Ground, Ocheopofau, was the capital of Muscogee Nation at the time of removal.

Muscogee people in Oklahoma read the covenant to mean that historic Hickory Ground would be federally protected for 20 years and tribally protected thereafter.

Poarch Creeks interpreted it to mean that all bets were off when the clock struck 20 years.

The week the covenant expired in 2002, Poarch Band started constructing the mobile facility and parking lot for the present casino.

Construction was stopped briefly when human remains were discovered, but only long enough to move them to an undisclosed location. Then, digging resumed and slots were installed.

After Poarch Band became a federally recognized tribe, its then-chairman, Eddie L. Tullis, began closing doors on Muscogee Nation, especially the traditional people. He worked with intertribal groups to exclude traditional Native people from forums and as a consulting class in federal laws.

Tullis’ mantra is “Indian sacred lands can be protected, but not at the expense of Indian businesses.” I cringe every time I hear that. Like many other Native people, I wonder how this is different from statements by non-Indian developers.

Tullis joined forces with Chief Philip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to keep the Mowa Choctaws in Alabama from being federally recognized. Disgraced lobbyist and felon Jack Abramoff was hired as the attack dog to keep the Mowa Choctaws and others from competing for gaming business.

Poarch Band teamed up with Harrah’s to build the proposed mega-casino, but they never consulted with Muscogee Nation or Hickory Ground in Oklahoma, in violation of a bushel of laws.

In response to a Muscogee complaint, the National Indian Gaming Commission launched an investigation. The Atmore Advance newspaper reported that the Poarch Tribal Council suspended Tullis from making gaming decisions in its meeting in September 2005 and discussed an FBI investigation into a rumored $4 million in missing casino monies in its meeting in October.

The NIGC inquiry led to Poarch’s invitation to visit the site. A delegation from Muscogee Nation, Hickory Ground and the Inter-Tribal Sacred Lands Trust toured the site on May 9.

Although two other sites in Atmore and Montgomery are available for the project, according to a December 2005 environmental assessment, it was clear that Poarch and Harrah’s weren’t waiting for an environment impact study, an NIGC ruling or any Muscogee consultation.

A multilevel cement parking garage had already been built atop land that Poarch admits was not excavated at all.

Poarch employees laid out a lunch spread on picnic tables on the second floor of the garage, overlooking huge, yellow John Deere excavators, backhoe loaders and crawler dozers as they scooped up and flattened the earth. I don’t know if the lunch was planned out of meanness or ignorance, but it was an assault on the sensibilities.

I busied myself taking pictures of the construction site and talking with six archeology students from Auburn University who work at the site. Their sifting station is a wooden platform under a green awning with a single word in white letters: BINGO.

The students told me that there is occupation evidence all over the site – from archaic to the present.

They appeared worried about the salvage archeology operation. They told me that a contemplated memorial site was changed three times because of the remains found in each place.

When I pressed for details, two of them said, “They move us around and we dig.” “They don’t tell us anything.”

We were interrupted by their boss, a round white man, who told me to be at the 1:30 p.m. meeting at City Hall and “all will be revealed at that time.” I pointed out that they were in Phase 3 of the project, but there had been no consultation. I asked if the Phases 1 and 2 reports would be available at the meeting. “Yes, we’ll have them,” he said.

At the meeting, another Poarch employee said, “Yup, we have ’em.” They’re at the office. We’ll send ’em today.” It was agreed by everyone that the reports would be sent overnight to the Muscogee Chief and Hickory Ground Mekko, but they had not been received by May 30, when I last checked.

The Poarch Band tribal representatives said their people had lost all the Creek things – language, religion, culture – and they wanted to learn from the Muscogee people who knew.

By way of apology for the failure to consult, a Poarch Council member said, “We were held in the dark for a long time” about the Poarch/Harrah’s plans for Hickory Ground.

Most of the afternoon’s presentations were made by white men. There was not a single Native person, let alone a Creek person, on the archeological or architectural teams. There were no Native people as monitors (if there were monitors at all) at the site.

Even the sculptor was a white guy, as if there aren’t myriad Muscogee artists who could do the job and use the work. Muscogee artists would have gotten the clans right, at the very least, and would have sculpted a warrior that looked Muscogee, rather than like a generic Plains Indian.

And none of the artwork even hinted that there are Muscogee women, something a Muscogee artist likely would not have overlooked.

The plan that was revealed was a rather bizarre casino/

cultural center, complete with a “Memorial Garden” and “Spiritual Path.”

Their piece de resistance is an above-ground mausoleum for 5,000, where each set of human remains is to be stored in a concrete coffin, stacked on top of each other and “covered with mother earth,” as one of the Poarch employees explained it. It seemed to be some “Bodies ‘R’ Us” filing system for the convenience of future people who want to study dead Muscogees.

The Poarch attorney later told me that the plan was to “bring our people home from all the universities and we could keep other tribes’ members, too.” One of the Oklahoma delegation members speculated that it would be a convenient repository for all the state’s developers who were clearing land and title.

As Muscogee people say, the ceremonial people who were removed from the homelands carried the sacred fires on their backs. Today, the ceremonial fires are in Oklahoma, where new tribal towns have the same names as the old towns in the Southeast.

The old towns, like Hickory Ground in Alabama, hold deep historical, spiritual memory and meaning for Muscogee people.

The historic Hickory Ground is a place where babies were born, children became adults and real life happened. Ceremonies were held, stickball and other religious and social games were played, medicines were used and the sacred fire burned.

It is also a place where Muscogee and other people have been buried for millennia.

The integrity of such a place cannot be destroyed as long as there are Muscogee people who remember it.

It was clear on May 9 who remembered and who forgot, and who cared and who didn’t give a hoot.

Despite the horrors of that day, I enjoyed McGhee as a dinner partner. He was humble and disarmingly honest. He said his term of office was up and he wasn’t confident that he would be chairman after May.

He was trim and seemed fit and healthy. He told us of his 22 years working on tug boats on the Mississippi River. His love of that grandfather water shone through in his comparison of it with other rivers he knew. He said it was a steady, peaceful river.

I was taken with his own steady and peaceful countenance, and his vulnerability. He was very different from most politicians.

News of his May 18 death was stunning. I immediately thought of the warning from Hickory Ground.

“That fire will get you.”

I also remember what elders say. It’s not the evil people who are taken by medicine. It’s the vulnerable ones around them.

<i>Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.