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Traditional Creeks Ask Poarch Band to Stop Hickory Ground Casino Construction During Ceremony

A group of traditional Creek Indians has asked the Poarch Band to stop construction of its controversial casino at Hickory Ground on Valentine's Day.

A group of traditional Creek Indians has asked the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to stop construction of its controversial $246 million casino at Hickory Ground tomorrow, February 14, while they hold a ceremony to honor the ancestors who were buried there, but the Poarch Band says it has the right to stop people from accessing the construction site.

The request from Save Hickory Ground, the traditional Creek Indians group, to the Poarch Band’s tribal council is the latest move in an ongoing struggle between the Poarch Band and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation over Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, Alabama, an historic Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Town that includes a ceremonial ground, a tribal burial ground and individual graves.

In December, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Hickory Ground Tribal Town, and Muscogee traditional chief Mekko George Thompson filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Poarch Band and others to stop the construction of the casino. A crucial claim is that the Poarch Band excavated 57 sets of human remains of Muscogee ancestors from Hickory Ground in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Save Hickory Ground announced its plans for the ceremony tomorrow in a press release on February 12. The group includes traditional members of the Poarch Band who oppose the casino construction on the sacred site and plan to participate in the ceremony.

“We are planning to pray at the ceremonial ground,” said William Bailey, a traditional chief of the Hvsosv Tallahassee ceremonial ground of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who formerly served on its tribal council. “We are concerned about our ancestors who were excavated for the casino development.”

The group is likely to run into opposition from the Poarch Band, however. Responding to an email request asking if the Poarch tribal council will stop the casino construction during the prayer ceremony, the tribe’s public relations liaison Sharon Delmar wrote, "The tribe reserves our right to restrict access to a construction site for safety reasons and in consideration of pending litigation. The Muscogee Nation and Hickory Ground Town of Oklahoma filed legal action against the development in December of last year. When re-interment took place last year, a ceremony and prayer was conducted by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians' Tribal Historic Preservation Officer."

But the Muscogee lawsuit says that the Poarch Band reburied the excavated 57 sets of human remains at a different location in violation of a number of federal laws in addition to NAGPRA. The lawsuit asks the court to order the Poarch Band to provide an inventory and location of all of the human remains, “to cooperate” with the nation to reinter the remains and the funerary objects in the places where they were originally buried and to preserve Hickory Ground “in accordance with Muscogee Creek religious customs and tradition.”

The nation is not seeking monetary damages, the lawsuit says. “From the beginning, it has been our stance that the remains should be put back where they were excavated,” Mekko Thompson said in a press release. “The ceremonial ground is sacred so it is not a proper place for a casino.”

The Muscogee Nation also says in its lawsuit that its citizens are experiencing severe emotional distress because of the violation of their religious and cultural beliefs, “including but not limited to their inability to respect their ancestors, pray on the ceremonial ground, and keep Hickory Ground sacred.” The nation asks the court for a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop the desecration of Hickory Ground “along with a declaration of their rights under the laws of the United States.”

Several Muscogee Nation citizens have traveled to Hickory Ground to participate in the ceremony on February 14. “We traveled here from Oklahoma to perform a peaceful ceremony for our ancestors,” Wayland Gray, a member of Hickory Ground Tribal Town, said in the Save Hickory Ground press release. “Their remains may have been excavated, but their spirits remain.”