Lawsuit over hotel site filed against PCIPublished 2:44pm Thursday, December 13, 2012
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians are facing a lawsuit at the hands of another Creek tribe this week as the Muscogee Creek Indians of Oklahoma filed a federal suit Wednesday in an attempt to halt construction of a new casino and hotel on what they claim is sacred ground.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, asserts that the expansion of Wind Creek Casino and Hotel in Wetumpka violates the sacred burial site known to them as Hickory Ground. The two tribes have held negotiations over the land for almost a decade, beginning when the Poarch tribe began exhuming human remains from the site eight years ago. The lawsuit claims PCI has excavated a total of 57 sets of human remains, which were relocated to another spot at Hickory Grounds in April, in order to build what will be a 20-story, $246 million casino.
Mekko George Thompson, who has served as a traditional Muscogee chief of the Hickory Ground Tribal Town, said the project is a desecration of the site.
“From the beginning, it has been our stance that the remains should be put back where they were excavated,” Thompson said. “The ceremonial ground is sacred, so it is not a proper place for a casino.”
In August, PCI Governmental Relations Advisor and Tribal Council Treasurer Robert McGhee said the remains have been relocated and were handled with the utmost care and respect.
“We kept the remains on the property in a sealed enclosure with security.” McGhee said. “We did it (buried the remains) by a ceremonial burial that put them back into Hickory Ground.”
In a statement released following the suit’s filing, PCI officials said they believe the Muscogee’s actions are unmerited.
“While we respect the Muskogee Tribe’s rights as a sovereign Indian nation, we cannot agree with the Muskogee’s efforts to control the use of our land,” the statement reads.
But the Muscogee tribe is challenging whether or not Poarch Indians should own the land at all. The lawsuit asserts that PCI acquired the land under the false pretense of preservation and the Muscogees are citing a U.S. Supreme Court case to dispute the tribe’s eligibility to hold any lands at all in federal trust, as they do the Hickory Ground site.
Similar allegations were made earlier in the year by the Escambia County Commission, claiming the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision by the Supreme Court dictates that under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the federal government has no legal authority to take land into trust for any Indian tribe that was not a recognized tribe under federal jurisdiction. The Muscogee tribe is now pointing to the same precedent as proof PCI should not even own the Hickory Ground site, much less be allowed to build on it.
In a recent press release, the Muscogee tribe outlined why they believe PCI is not eligible for the trust land.
“Poarch Band was not federally recognized as a tribe until 1984 and descends from Creek Indians who received a land grant in Tensaw, Ala. as a reward for assisting the United States to fight against and remove the Creek nation from Alabama in the 1830s,” the release reads.
The Muscogee’s lawsuit also asserts PCI: promised to protect the archeological remains located at Hickory Ground against excavation and received a federal historic preservation grant to acquire the property in 1980; violated a preservation covenant by developing a casino on the site; never received the permission required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of lineal descendants of those buried at Hickory Ground for exhumation; violated the Native American Religious Freedom Act; contracted with Auburn University in order to excavate the remains; were not stopped by the U.S. Interior Department, which subsequently failed to fulfill statutory and fiduciary duties to protect the burial grounds.
The lawsuit has been filed against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, construction contractors Flintco, LLC and Martin Construction, Inc., Auburn University and the U.S. Department of the Interior. The suit is asking for the preservation of Hickory Ground and is not seeking monetary damages.
The Poarch Creek tribe temporarily suspended construction of its new casino and hotel in what PCI officials called a “show of good faith” in order to meet with Muscogee officials, but resumed work in early November.
Following the resuming of construction, Tribal Councilman Arthur Mothershed said PCI could not justify disturbing the excavated remains from their new resting place.
“We have been extremely careful to plan a development that is culturally sensitive while ensuring the economic well-being of our Tribal members, our community and our state,” Mothershed said. “It is a balanced, reasonable approach for using land that we own, which has been met with increased opposition from some in Oklahoma. Now, we are being faced with demands to remove ancestral remains that have already been reinterred. We cannot change the fact that remains were found and removed. Those remains are now reinterred and we cannot support disturbing those remains again.”