Rights vs. Identity: Divisions Run Deep Over Hickory Ground

The recent arrest of Wayland Gray, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, has set off a firestorm of criticism against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Gray was arrested on February 15 this year for attempting to pray at Hickory Ground, a sacred Muscogee burial site in Wetumpka, Alabama, where Gray and many of his people’s ancestors were buried. He was not read his Miranda rights, and was forbidden from exercising his religious freedom to pray where his ancestors were buried. Gray’s rights were clearly violated, but as horrible as that is, the struggle over Hickory Ground reveals a much larger issue that many people are overlooking.

Much of the debate surrounding Hickory Ground has centered on rights, and everyone seems eager to take a side. On one side there’s the Muscogee Nation, seeking to protect the sacred remains of their ancestors, to protect their ancestral lands, to exercise their rights to self-determination and sovereignty. They want the Poarch Band of Indians to live up to their promise to leave Hickory Ground undisturbed. On the other side there’s the Poarch Band of Indians, ostensibly seeking to develop Hickory Ground, the property they now own, to build revenues from casino gaming, presumably to benefit members of their tribe. Both tribes are federally recognized, and both sides are Muscogee (Creek), albeit from what are now two politically separate and distinct tribes.

The fault lines have been clearly drawn, and many people across the country, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and Seminole nations, are understandably taking sides with the Muscogee Nation against the Poarch Band. I was one of those people myself. I find it heinous that anyone would think to desecrate a burial site by tampering with or removing human remains, or the sacred objects buried with them.

But when I started reading more and more about the situation, I learned that many in the Poarch Band and Muscogee Nation have been at odds with each other for some time, long before Hickory Ground became the issue that it is today. In the heat of the present battle, it is easy to overlook the larger, historical tensions between the Poarch Band and Muscogee Nation that helped set the current conflict over Hickory Ground in motion.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians and the Muscogee Nation are both descendants of the original Creek Nation, a union of tribes making up a larger people who once covered most of what is now Alabama and Georgia. In 1836 and 1837, the main body of the Creek Nation was forcibly removed on the Trail of Tears to the Oklahoma territory. The Poarch Band descends from Creeks who received a land grant as a reward for assisting the U.S. government in removing the Creek Nation from Alabama.

This understandably created a lot of tension and animosity between them. Some called them collaborators. Some questioned their Indianness. Others wondered how a tribe could do this to its own people. If this sounds a lot like what’s happening today over Hickory Ground, that’s because it is.

But back then this was the height of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. government created divisions and flamed the flames that would eventually give way to a sense of separateness of identity and values, setting Native peoples against one another as part of their efforts to take Native lands.

It is no wonder, therefore, that many, in their anger over Hickory Ground, have resorted to questioning the Poarch Band’s values and claims of Indianness. History is again repeating itself.

This helps explain why, for example, people like George Tiger, chief of the Muscogee Nation, have said, "We have attempted to convey to the Poarch Band why it is wrong to disturb the peace of our ancestors and burial grounds. However, the Poarch Band does not seem to share our cultural values and respect our traditional ways."

It also helps to explain why others, like JoKay Dowell, of Quapaw, Cherokee, Peoria, Eastern Shawnee and Irish descent, has said on the Poarch page that, “Your group's federal recognition was a sad day for American Indians. Your behavior of playing Indian (yes I've seen your powwows atop a mound) is repulsive. Having the DNA of the original peoples of this land is not enough to call yourselves one of ‘The People.’ Through the Bible and Christianity, you have been so far-removed from what it means to be Indigenous…”

But if the U.S. government hadn’t succeeded in setting the Muscogee peoples against each other in order to undermine their rights and take their lands in the first place, it is doubtful that we’d be witnessing this battle over Hickory Ground and Muscogee identity today.

Taking sides over Hickory Ground therefore means overlooking the fact that not everyone in the Poarch Band agrees with the actions of the tribal leadership. It means overlooking how the tribes were deliberately set against each other in the first place. And it means overlooking their common origins, their common culture, their common values. In short, it means overlooking any common ground that could be used to help both sides heal, and to ultimately resolve the battle over Hickory Ground. It also means making ourselves complicit in the division of the Muscogee people, a division that was set in motion nearly two centuries ago.

Hickory Ground presents an opportunity to heal historic wounds between the Poarch Band and Muscogee Nation. And with the outcome having the potential to set precedent for other inter- and intra-tribal conflicts, it’s important to avoid the temptation to take sides and begin looking for common ground and a common solution. Only then can there be healing, and only then can the real battle over Hickory Ground be won.

DaShanne Stokes writes about human rights, equality, and inclusivity and is a doctoral candidate in sociology. You can follow him online at DaShanneStokes.com.