Muscogee Nation renews lawsuit over Alabama casino they say desecrated a sacred site
Jul 22, 2023, 9:52 AM
ATLANTA (AP) — The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has asked a federal appellate court to reinstate its lawsuit against the Poarch Creek Band of Indians and Auburn University for improperly removing graves from a sacred site in Alabama to build a casino.
The Oklahoma-based tribal nation alleges that Wind Creek Casino and Resort in Wetumpka, Alabama, was built at Hickory Ground, a sacred site and capital when federal troops forced the Muscogee out of Alabama nearly 200 years ago. Workers removed 57 sets of human remains and the artifacts buried with them, storing some of them in containers without proper ventilation or temperature control, according to the lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2012.
A federal judge threw out the suit in 2021, but on Friday the tribal nation asked the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta to reinstate it, al.com reported.
A letter sent last month to the Alabama-based Poarch Creek tribe by David Hill, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s principal chief, says the tribe failed to meet its obligation to Muscogee ancestors, the news site reported.
“You made a promise to protect these lands and the MCN ancestors who remain there,” Hill wrote. “A promise that was broken when you removed our ancestors, stored them in boxes, and sent them off to a university to be studied by non-Indian archeologists. Some, still today, sit in a storage facility on site. You have yet to do right by them.”
Alabama is the ancestral home of the Muscogee nation and Hickory Ground was the tribe’s last capital before removal on the Trail of Tears — a brutal, 800-mile (1,287 kilometers) march to Oklahoma that claimed countless lives. The mekko, or chief, of Hickory Ground relocated the settlement to Oklahoma, the appeal said.
“Although violently and forcibly removed from the sacred ground where they held ceremony since time immemorial, the modern-day members of Hickory Ground have kept the traditions, culture, and ceremonies of their Muscogee ancestors alive at the present-day Hickory Ground on the Muscogee Reservation in Oklahoma,” the appeal said.
The dispute between the Muscogee nation and Poarch Creek has been ongoing for years. When the Alabama tribe first built a bingo hall on the site in 2001, it unearthed remains and artifacts. Archaeologists from Auburn University helped store and remove some of what was found, the complaint said.
A spokesperson from Auburn University said the university had no comment on the appeal, which contends it violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires federally funded museums and universities to return ancestors and items buried with them to their descendants.
The appeal seeks to stop further development of the land that is part of Hickory Ground and to have the Wind Creek Casino torn down. It also seeks to have ancestral remains returned.
Hickory Ground was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The Poarch Creek Band acquired the land the same year, in part with federal preservation grant funds, according to the appeal. In 1999, Poarch Creek asked the National Park Service to delegate its preservation duties to the tribe and began planning to build a bingo hall that later expanded into the casino.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama in 2021 dismissed the 2012 lawsuit, which had been renewed in 2019. Because the Poarch Creeks are a federally recognized tribe, they have qualified immunity and cannot be sued for developing their land, according to his opinion.
Poarch leaders could not be immediately reached for comment about the appeal.