“The funny thing is we won’t discuss [Hickory Ground] among ourselves as tribal nations and leaders but we’ll go to court and discuss it in front of strangers.” — Dennis Welch, Colorado River Indian Tribes’ tribal council member and NCAI treasurer
Save Hickory Ground activists tried to hold a rally on the sidewalk outside the San Diego Convention Center during the National Indian Gaming Association’s Annual Tradeshow & Conference, but security guards quickly ran them off the public space, and it’s not clear who ordered their removal.
The attempted rally took place May 13. Wayland Gray, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who leads the Save Hickory Ground movement, and a group of indigenous sacred place activists, including other Muscogee citizens and Yakama-Pawnee painter and performance artist Bunky Echo-Hawk, traveled from Oklahoma to San Diego to the NIGA conference to rally for the protection of Hickory Ground.
Hickory Ground is a historic Muscogee Nation tribal town in Wetumpka, Alabama, with an established archaeological site that includes a ceremonial ground, individual graves and a sacred burial ground. The current day Muscogee Nation’s ancestors lived and were buried at Hickory Ground before the tribe was forced from its Alabama homeland to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears as a result of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830—America’s legalization of ethnic cleansing.
The current Poarch Band of Creek Indians, whose ancestors partnered with Jackson and remained in Alabama, purchased Hickory Ground with a federal grant and dug up the remains of almost 60 sets of Muscogee ancestors during the ground preparation for a $246 million casino expansion project. Poarch Band says it reburied the remains and restored the site, but the Muscogee Nation says the sacred site was desecrated. The Nation filed a pending lawsuit against the Band citing among other things, violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the National Historic Preservation Act; and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
RELATED: The Battle for Hickory Ground
The activists hoped for a repeat performance of the successful sacred places rally held outside the NIGA conference in Phoenix last year when sacred land activists from the O’odham, Navajo, and Havasupai nations helped organize and participated in the rally. The drumming, singing and round dances attracted hundreds of passersby, convention attendees, and celebrities, including actor Adam Beach of the Salteaux Tribe, and a speech by Dennis Banks, Anishinaabe from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota and co-founder of the American Indian Movement.
But the activists didn’t have time to attract any crowds. They had just finished setting up their sacred site handouts and t-shirts, and Echo-Hawk had just started a painting when Brian Sullivan, who identified himself as “the director of this event,” and about a half-dozen security guards appeared. Gray asked one of the security guards—a woman—if the group could stay for 15 minutes and she agreed, but Sullivan walked through the small crowd that had gathered repeating, “I want them out now.” Asked who ordered the rally to be cancelled and why, Sullivan walked away.
The Save Hickory Ground street rally had just started to attract a crowd when it was shut down.
NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. told Indian Country Today Media Network that he did not order the rally to be stopped.
Asked in an email if leaders of Poarch Creek, a major sponsor of this year’s conference, had the rally shut down, spokeswoman Sharon Delmar replied with a comment from Poarch Creek Tribal Council Treasurer Robert McGhee. “The first I heard of any protest at NIGA was when I received a request to comment on it from Indian Country Today. I was actually there. I guess I just missed it,” McGhee said.
Several people dropped by during the brief time of the rally, including Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians. Cladoosby and Gray shook hands and greeted each other, then Gray asked Cladoosby why organizations like NCAI didn’t openly support the effort to protect Hickory Ground.
“You’ve got all the organizations in one room signing resolutions to protect sacred places and in the other room accepting money from the Poarch Band—money that’s made off of the desecration of our ancestors through their casino, money made off of the Trail of Tears,” Gray said. “The people that dug up 60 of our ancestors and desecrated the land are part of their organization. That’s called hypocrisy.”
Asked to comment in response, Cladoosby said, “I’m good,” and moved on.
Dennis Welch, Colorado River Indian Tribes’ tribal council member and NCAI treasurer, said the conflict over Hickory Ground should be aired in public.
“I wish there would be a public debate on the issue at NCAI or one of the other big conferences with all the parties presenting their cases. That would be the appropriate place to have all the tribes, the leaders and the delegations sit in on it and have a two or three hour discussion,“ Welch said. “The funny thing is we won’t discuss it among ourselves as tribal nations and leaders but we’ll go to court and discuss it in front of strangers.”
Stressing that he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of NCAI, Welch said that the Hickory Ground controversy was being ignored. “If this was Wal-mart or Home Depot doing what one tribe is doing to another tribe there’d be a lot more protests and there’d be injunctions filed and members of Congress would be more aware,” Welch said. “I think tribal leaders throughout the country should be coming to [Muscogee’s] aid, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Because it’s an inter-tribal conflict—dispute, if you will—everyone’s staying out of it. For me, as a leader of my tribe, if I was in the same situation I would want support from other tribes saying this is not right.”
Artist Bunky Echo-Hawk painted this picture at the Save Hickory Ground rally in San Diego.