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Saving Hickory Ground: Muscogee Nation Fights Casino Spread

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians acquired the Hickory Ground site in Elmore County, Alabama in 1984. Designated as a sacred site, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

The site, also known as “Oce Vpofa” in the Muscogee language, holds immense cultural and historical significance. It was the final capital of the Muscogee Nation before their forced removal to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

In 2012, the Poarch Band sought to expand their casino in Wetumpka and construct a 20-story hotel on the Hickory Ground site, worth $246 million. This action ignited a decade-long legal battle with the Muscogee Nation, who demanded an end to the construction.

The Muscogee Nation recently filed a brief in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking a reversal of a previous decision and the opportunity to pursue the case further. Attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle, representing the Muscogee Nation, accuses the Poarch Band of breaking their promise not to disturb the sacred site when they acquired the property.

Nagle alleges that 57 bodies of Muscogee individuals were exhumed and removed from the historic ceremonial ground, and a casino was built atop it. The disturbance of the site is seen as a violation of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, which seeks to protect sacred sites like Hickory Ground. Auburn University, contracted by the Poarch Band, currently holds the remains discovered at the site.

The legal battle began in 2012 when the Muscogee Nation initially filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court, Middle District of Alabama. However, the district court dismissed the Nation’s claims against the United States, the Poarch Band, and Auburn University.

In 2021, a federal judge ruled against the Muscogee Nation’s suit due to a lack of standing. Now, the Muscogee Nation hopes to have that decision overturned, arguing that the federal government failed in its duty to protect the sacred site.

Principal Chief David Hill, in a letter addressed to Poarch Band of Indians tribal chair Stephanie Bryan, emphasized the broken promise to protect the land and the ancestors of the Muscogee Nation.

Hill expressed that the Hickory Ground site predates the United States and that Hickory Ground ceremonial site members carried the sacred fire to Oklahoma, where they re-established their sacred grounds.

Nagle contends that sovereign immunity should not apply in this case due to ongoing activity on the sacred site that violates federal law, specifically NAGPRA. The Muscogee Nation seeks the repatriation and reburial of their ancestors’ remains, without demanding monetary damages.

With the Muscogee Nation filing their brief, the Poarch Band, Auburn University, and other defendants will have the opportunity to respond. A trial could potentially be scheduled for later this year.

In 2012, Robert McGhee, a former member of the Poarch Band tribal council, stated that the band values their heritage and respects their ancestors. He claimed they took great care to honor history while securing a future for their tribe.

However, then-Principal Chief George Tiger of the Muscogee Nation disagreed and accused the Poarch Band of not sharing their cultural values or respecting their traditional ways.

Current Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill, in his letter to Poarch Band Tribal Chair, emphasized that the legal status of the site should not permit its desecration, as it was never rightfully owned by the Poarch Band, but rather a consequence of the federal war and massacres against the Creek people.