Sacred site activist Wayland Gray will travel to Wetumpka, Alabama, next week when a jury will hear his appeal of disorderly conduct and misdemeanor criminal trespassing convictions resulting from what he maintains was his attempt to pray for his ancestors at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s sacred Hickory Ground ceremonial site two years ago.
The convictions resulted from charges filed by the Poach Band of Creek Indians against Gray, two other Muscogee Nation citizens and a Cherokee Nation American Indian Movement member, who were arrested in February 2013 by Poarch police when they tried to access Hickory Ground to conduct a ceremony. The men had previously notified Poarch officials of their plan. Gray was also accused by Poarch police with making a “terrorist threat”—a charge that could have carried a 10-year prison sentence but it was later dropped when a Grand Jury found no evidence to support it based on a video of the arrest. The trespassing charges against the other three men were dropped. Gray has declined an offer to plea bargain.
On May 4, the Poarch Band issued a press release with the following statement, “It is regrettable that Poarch Tribal law enforcement officials were not invited to show the Grand Jury video of the individual threatening to burn down our casino. That video, and other evidence, clearly shows that this individual has made threats to our property, our Tribal members, our employees and our customers.”
Hickory Ground, known as Oce Vpofa in the Muscogee language, 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 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.
The Poarch Creeks were not removed. They collaborated with the federal government and Jackson’s policies of removal, according to the Poarch Band’s website. “These ‘Friendly Creeks’ signed contracts with the new federal government to serve as guides, interpreters, ferrymen and river pilots for those traveling through the Creek Territory. They also operated inns and raised free-range cattle,” the website says. As a result, they were allowed to remain in Alabama.
Poarch was federally recognized in 1984 and acquired Hickory Ground with a grant from the federal government, which has held the land in trust for Poarch since then. Although Poarch said in its grant application that Hickory Ground would be preserved “without excavation,” the Band dug up dozens of sets of Muscogee ancestors during the ground preparation for its $246 million casino expansion project. That action prompted the Muscogee Nation to file a federal lawsuit in December 2012 against the Poarch for desecration of the Muscogee sacred site.
In a 2012 email to ICTMN, the Poarch Band said that it “understand[s] and respect[s]” the importance of the land to the Muscogee Nation and has tried for years “to reach a harmonious resolution with the Muscogee Nation to address both sides’ interests in the proper reinterment of the remains and funerary objects found there,” but “as cultural affiliates of Hickory Ground and beneficial owners of the property, we have the cultural and legal rights to determine the handling and reinterment of the remains and funerary objects ... The Poarch Band did not feel that our history, our ancestors, and our culture were being honored by delaying reinterment any longer.” So in April , the Band reinterred the remains and funerary objects “according to specific Indian traditions that they had requested.”
The lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.
RELATED: The Battle for Hickory Ground
In August 2013, a district court judge in Wetumpka sentenced Gray to 120 days combined for both the trespassing and disorderly conduct charges, reduced the sentence to three months, then suspended it, Gray told ICTMN. Gray was also fined $350, put on two years’ probation and barred from visiting the Hickory Ground site until the resolution of the pending lawsuit. Under state law, Gray invoked his right to appeal the convictions to a jury trial.
Gray said he’s been offered four plea bargains. “They asked me to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and they’d drop the trespassing charge and there’d be no jail time or plead guilty to trespassing and they’d drop the jail time and disorderly conduct, variations like that,” Gray said. “But I’m not going to plead guilty to anything, because if I do it means I was wrong and I wasn’t wrong. Anybody has the right to go pay respect to their ancestors—it’s a natural law. The ancestors are the reason we exist. If we protect the sacred, the sacred will protect us. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not guilty and I don’t feel guilty. I’m good with whatever happens. Whatever the outcome is maybe that’s what it needs to be. Creator is in control and I’m ready.”
Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November for her lifelong work in support of American Indian rights, said Gray and the other men should never have been prevented from going to Hickory Ground, let alone arrested. A poet, writer, lecturer, curator, and policy advocate, Harjo is famous for initiating the movement to ban the use of the Redskins name as well for the development and passage of federal legislation protecting Native sovereignty, arts and cultures, language, and human rights, including the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protects Natives’ rights to practice traditional religion and rituals, and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which allows tribes to reclaim their human remains and ceremonial items from publicly funded institutions.
“This is exactly the reason why we worked hard to get the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which says it’s the United States position to preserve and protect American Indians’ practice of traditional religion,” Harjo said. “It’s so clear: it guarantees access to sacred sites. It couldn’t be clearer. And it’s being ripped to shreds by other Native people. That’s just disgusting, I think.”
The act says in part, “That henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”
Poarch did not respond to emails seeking comment before Gray’s trial, but in 2013 Poarch Band spokeswoman Sharon Delmar said in an email 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.”
Gray said an entourage of around 25 Muscogee Nation citizens, including Mekko (Traditional Chief) George Thompson, Medicine Man Tim Thompson, a group of warriors, some elders and others will accompany him on the 12-hour road trip from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, to the state court in Wetumpka for the trial, which could begin as early as Monday, January 12, after jury selection.