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Opening of Casino On Hickory Ground a Day of Shame

On December 17, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians celebrated the grand re-opening of its Wind Creek Casino in Wetumpka, Alabama. Normally, I would share the excitement of the Poarch over their new facility. As the former Chairman of the Resources Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has jurisdiction over all matters affecting Indian Tribes and the Department of the Interior, I am a strong supporter of tribal gaming. But considering the disgraceful history of this project, I can have no excitement at all over its opening – only sadness, shame and disgust.

As patrons gaze at sharks circling a 16,000 gallon tank on their way to over 2,500 new slot machines, the Poarch no doubt hope that these prospective customers view their facility as unique. Indeed, Wind Creek Casino is a unique place, but not for reasons Poarch would want you to know. It is unique in that it is the only tribal casino in America that should have never been built in the first place. It is unique in being a disgraceful affront to American Indians and American taxpayers alike. It’s unique because it is the only tribal casino ever to be built by destroying a National Historic Landmark, the historic Hickory Ground.

Hickory Ground is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, due to its great cultural and historic significance. It was the last Capitol of the Creek Nation before forced removal from Alabama to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). It is the site of many cultural and religious ceremonies. It is the burial place of countless elders and chiefs, who are the ancestors of today’s Hickory Ground Tribal Town in Oklahoma, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. As one of the starting places on the Trail of Tears for the Muscogee Nations, it is a tragic memory still fresh in the minds of the Muscogee people.

In 1980, the Poarch acquired Hickory Ground with historic preservation grant funds provided by Alabama and the U.S. government. In return for this taxpayer money, the Poarch promised to preserve Hickory Ground forever on behalf of Creek Indians in both Alabama and Oklahoma. That promise has been shamefully broken.

With this historic and sacred place being desecrated by the circus atmosphere of bright lights, swimming sharks and noisy slot machines, we should understand just how much has been lost, and by how many. And I’m not talking about those who will lose money gambling there.

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The Poarch are denying access to Muscogee Creek people for observances at the burial place of their ancestors, and for ceremonies at their sacred place. The Poarch have exhumed the remains of dozens of individual Muscogee Creek people, whose associated funerary objects have disappeared. Taxpayers have been defrauded, in that funds intended for historic preservation were ultimately used to build a casino on top of what the funds were intended to preserve.

Congressional and public support will no doubt decline for tribal gaming. The chance that Congress will legislate a Carcieri fix -- a tribal priority for taking lands into federal trust status -- will be greatly diminished because of the Poarch example of gaining trust status for preservation purposes, and then desecrating graves and ceremonial grounds. Tribal opponents will now be able to make the factual accusation that one Native American tribe has willfully desecrated a sacred place and the ancestors of another tribe, just to build a bigger casino. You can be assured that the next step will be to smear all tribes and insist that none can be trusted with the ability to acquire any more land in federal trust.

Poarch’s actions will also cripple forever the efforts of Native Americans nationwide to preserve important sacred and cultural places. I can assure you that developers are watching this situation closely, and cannot wait to tell the story of the tribe that willfully destroyed hallowed grounds in order to build a casino to skeptical Members of Congress.

The final tragedy of the Hickory Ground desecration is that it never needed to happen at all. Poarch has another casino less than 15 miles from the Wetumpka site. There is no reason that the nearby casino could not have been expanded instead, and Hickory Ground preserved.

Thankfully, there is still a chance Hickory Ground can be saved. To do so will require action either by Congress or the federal courts, where a lawsuit has been filed. Congress should also get involved. As a former Chairman of the Resources Committee, I am encouraging the Committee to immediately open an investigation into the apparent misuse of taxpayer-funded grants in this matter. I am also suggesting that my former colleagues tell the federal agencies to act immediately to stop all gaming operations at this site. The Poarch should ultimately be forced to restore Hickory Ground, and build their casino at some appropriate place instead. It is not too late to do this, and it would give us all something to truly celebrate.

Richard Pombo was a Member of Congress from 1993-2007, and served as Chairman of the House Resources Committee from 2003-2007, where he was known as a top expert on federal Indian policy.