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MUSCOGEE BURIALS THREATENED BY HARRAH'S CONSTRUCTION

AP wire service reported 08/28/02 that Harrah's Casinos will build a $100,000,000.00 gaming facility on one of the most historic sites in Alabama, despite the fact that the site contains untold burials and cultural artifacts, a ceremonial area which Muscogee (Creek) Indians were forcibly removed from in the 1830's, and additional archeological evidence of prior occupations.

The new owners, the Poarch Band of Indians, based in Atmore, Alabama (on the Florida border), are not related to the last native owners, Hickory Ground Tribal Town of Muscogee (Creek) Indians, who were forcibly removed to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the late 1830's. The 1832 U.S.-Muscogee Treaty had promised that the Creeks could remain as U.S. citizens or choose to remove. The site is just north of Montgomery, Alabama, and just south of the town of Wetumpka. Several historians have called the site "the last Capital of the Creek Nation in the East." Unlike all other Muscogee people, the Poarch Band do not retain or claim any Tribal Town identity.

The State of Alabama had tried to protect the site in 1980 by securing federal funds to purchase the site and transfer it to the Poarch Band with a preservation covenant. The Poarch Band accepted but limited the preservation covenant to 20 years, and it has now expired. Poarch Band has already built a small bingo hall on the site, on or near where independent archeologists identified the historic-period burial of a girl about 12 years old, probably of the Hickory Ground people.

Although surface archeological surveys have been performed by various people through the years, reports have varied. Independent experts have always reported significant findings and many burials; consultants hired by the Poarch Band have reported no burials and no cultural objects. The Hickory Ground people in Oklahoma, who still maintain a ceremonial ground and a close tribal relationship, do not understand how a site occupied over 60 years by 300 to 400 people could contain no burials.

Muscogee tribal members in Oklahoma oppose the Harrah's project, just as they have opposed the existing bingo hall. Comparing it to the Taliban's use of explosives to destroy ancient statues of Buddah, they claim the Poarch Band does not understand the ancient culture of the Muscogee people or share the common tribal belief that, once a burial is made, it is a sacred place not to be disturbed by human beings. Although the Muscogee are a confederacy, the different traditional cultures within the Muscogee Nation each have specific herbals medicines which must be used after visiting a gravesite.

Each time the Muscogee were asked to remove, their first response to federal negotiators was always that they did not want to leave the graves of their ancestors. The forced removal was a result of land frauds that deprived the Muscogee of their assigned lands, and the bitter disagreements which arose as a result.

Other Muscogee tribal members in Oklahoma pointed to a more distant animosity among the Poarch Band people, whose origins are lost among tribal members who left or were forced to leave their tribal communities, known as tribal towns because of their self-government, planned lay-out and permanent locations. Some of these isolated individuals farmed lands on the lower reaches of the Alabama River, just inside tribal territory, in the 1790's. By 1810, they had invited non-Indians to settle with them, a violation of tribal law. After many warnings from the National Council of the confederacy, the first of these illegal settlements was attacked at Fort Mims in 1813. Federal troops under Andrew Jackson and state militia from Georgia intervened, entered tribal lands and destroyed the "Red Sticks" who had enforced the tribal laws, but the ravages of war had destroyed the prosperity of the people who later became known as the Poarch Band. Although the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma officially supported the federal recog nition of the Poarch Band in 1980, many members now think the Poarch Band still wants revenge for the destruction they brought on themselves in 1813, and think the continuing desecration of the Hickory Ground site is a hate crime. They are shocked that an international corporation such as Harrah's would want to be a party to this desecration of human burials or the intentional diminishment of such an important historic site.

The Hickory Ground people in Oklahoma are a very traditional Muscogee community, maintaining a ceremonial ground and the strict traditional rules required to keep it sacred for future generations. Most of them are fluent in the Muscogee language, and some are not fluent in English. There are also several churches in the Hickory Ground community, and many of their people attend both church and ceremonial events. Even in good economic times, the area they live in sees an average 25% unemployment rate among Indians, with reports as high as 43% in some communities. The Hickory Ground people have limited resources, and have not yet been able to secure legal counsel to represent them in this controversy.

Many Muscogee people blame the U.S. Department of the Interior for this controversy. Interior provided the funding for the grant which Poarch Band used to secure the site, but did not insist on a permanent preservation covenant. Interior also pushed this purchase at a time when the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma was involved in a lawsuit over the reorganization of their tribal government, which had unrecognized since Interior had illegally refused to allow the Muscogee to hold their 1907 elections. Further tribal turmoil kept the Muscogee government from stabilizing until 1982, and by that time the Poarch Band had acquired the Hickory Ground site, become federally recognized, and placed the lands in trust with the twenty-year preservation covenant. During all this time, Interior never consulted with the Hickory Ground people, a requirement of Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act.

The Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma officially adopted a "government-to-government relationship" with the Poarch Band shortly after their federal recognition, but the announcement of the bingo hall plans for the historic site caused a rift that resulted in the suspension of that relationship by the Muscogee National Council.

Recently, one Muscogee tribal member testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, requesting that the trust status of the Hickory Ground site be suspended by Congress until an agreement between the Hickory Ground people and the Poarch Band can be negotiated. When asked by a journalist if this was about money, he responded that, no, this was about protecting burials that these people had been forcibly removed from in violation of a federal treaty, and that a monetary settlement was out of the question.

Muscogee tribal leaders in Oklahoma have not had a chance to prepare any official response to yesterday's announcement. It is known that they want to be careful not to appear opposed to economic development for native people, but they want to be clear that this site must be protected.

For more information, please contact:

Inter-Tribal Sacred Land Trust ([email protected]) 1055 HIllcrest Road, Chattanooga, TN 37343 423-842-7960,

OR

Inter-Tribal Sacred Land Trust, Oklahoma Regional Office ([email protected]) P.O. Box 9853, Tulsa, OK 74157-0853

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