Back in 1998 when I was last spending a solid chunk of time at my mom’s in Molino, Florida, I drove 26 miles north to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal offices near Atmore, Alabama to see if I could volunteer in some capacity while I was home.
I said I had gotten so much from the tribe growing up and going to the annual Thanksgiving Day powwow, that being Creek had been such a powerful influence in the way I experienced the world and what I wrote about, that I wanted to give something back. The office managers and tribal officers I talked to didn’t understand why I was willing to work for free.
“What are you hoping to get out of it?” asked then-tribal enrollment officer Gail Thrower.
I shrugged and said I didn’t necessarily expect to get anything specific out of it, but I hoped that by spending more time there I’d learn more about our culture and traditions.
Thrower gave me a patronizing smile. “Oh, honey,” she said, shaking her head. “We’re not that kind of Indians.”
I recoiled as if I’d been struck. Thrower was a respected elder and this is how she represented us. But how painfully true seemed the callous remark Thrower made. And 16 years later, after the desecration of the burial mounds at Hickory Ground and this week’s trial beginning against Muscogee Nation warrior Wayland Gray, how painfully still those words seem to represent the Poarch Band.
I can’t remember which of the other women in the office responded to my cringe, but she gave me a secret look and motioned me to stop by her desk before I left. She whispered of a group who still very much cared about culture and traditions. She passed a folded note to me with the Creek elders’ name and phone number on it who called at the stomp dance, telling me that if I wanted to learn about our culture and traditions, I should talk to the stomp dancers.
I stopped by the gift shop before I drove back across the border to Florida. I bought a Ziploc bag of pralines to take home to my mother and grumped a big stink eye at the postcards for sale by the register. Poarch Elder Bill Smith sat atop an Appaloosa stallion with a full Lakota style headdress flowing down his buckskin.
I grabbed my heart. It made good art but we’re not even remotely close to that kind of Indian.
With federal recognition in 1984 came the opportunity of legitimacy for the Poarch Band. With it also came the federally mandated and spiritually commanded responsibility to protect the burial sites at Hickory Ground, the Muscogee Creek nation’s historic center in Wetumpka, Ala.
Poarch tribal leaders betrayed that trust. They betrayed the shared histories of the Alabama and Oklahoma Creeks when, in the early 2000s, they defiled those ancestors buried at the ceremonial grounds. The Wind Creek Casino and Hotel is the abominable symbol of that betrayal, of that worst kind of greed, and has all but brought closure to the friendships being initiated and forged between the two Creek nations.
Poarch tribal leaders today betray our common histories in the criminal trespassing charges pressed against Gray, whose 2013 conviction is being challenged this week in Elmore County Circuit Court.
A necessary movement has grown beyond Indian country in support of Gray and his attempts to pray at and protest the unforgivable sacrilege of my relatives in Alabama. All around the world prayers are being made on Gray’s behalf – and on behalf of the ancestors who were defiled and burglarized.
May these prayers and this fight continue until Gray’s innocence is declared and until the remains of his ancestors, and their funeral objects, are ceremoniously returned to whatever new place will bring them and us the most peace
But I must insist that the descendants of Hickory Ground know that prayers of support and pleas of forgiveness are also being made in Alabama.
I don’t speak for the whole tribe and the whole tribe doesn’t speak for me, but I can assure Wayland Gray and the greatness of Indian Country behind him: there are Poarch tribal members and other Alabama Creeks praying as fervently as Gray’s nation is for his justice. We also pray for the justice of the disturbed ancestors at Hickory Ground.
That last full summer I lived at home, I did spend time with the stomp dancers in Alabama, and I did learn a great deal more about our culture and traditions, those that separate us from other tribal nations and those that demonstrate our unification, despite the notions and outright declarations of the contradiction.
That summer the tribe also found me a part time job (paid by the hour since they sure didn’t want to feel like they might owe me something) in the Pensacola, Florida office of the Poarch Creek headquarters, where I helped organize paperwork and input data with the only full-time staff member, a non-Creek and a non-Native. It was immediately clear there was not enough work to even keep her busy – back in 1998; things have certainly changed since then—and so after a couple of weeks, I tendered my resignation. I didn’t pick up my paycheck. It wasn’t worth the drive to Pensacola.
Though I am a direct descendant of two of the Poarch Band’s original families through Susannah Hosford and Richard L. Taylor, I am not an enrolled tribal member; I do not receive per capita from the casino revenue and I do not want that blood money. I don’t ever want to be that kind of Indian.
I hold Gray high in my thoughts as his trial begins in Alabama. I pray he witness the ancestors enter the courtroom and see them standing beside him. I pray he hears the honor songs sung in his name and know that I will learn what kind of Indian to be from his example. Wayland Gray shows the commitment to protect what we should all hold so sacred. May we all strive to become that kind of Indian.
Chip Livingston is the mixed-blood Poarch Creek author of Naming Ceremony; Crow-Blue, Crow-Black; and Museum of False Starts. He is a faculty member in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.