Muscogee Creek Nation (MCN) reignited its legal challenge against the Poarch Creek Indian Band and Auburn University on Friday, asking a federal appeals court to reinstate a lawsuit alleging the parties illegally removed remains and artifacts from a sacred site to build an Alabama casino.
The Oklahoma-based Nation’s lawsuit alleges that Poarch built Wind Creek Casino and Resort in Wetumpka, Alabama, at Hickory Ground, a site sacred to the Muscogee.
Federal troops forcibly removed the Muscogee and other tribes from Alabama almost 200 years ago during the Trail of Tears migration.
During the Wild Creek excavations, workers recovered human graves and artifacts. The lawsuit alleges those in charge improperly stored some remains without ventilation or temperature control.
Notably, Poarch Creek’s gambling ambitions have long been frustrated by Alabama’s prohibitionist stance.
In 2018, they bought the former Sands Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, transitioning it to Wind Creek. The move allowed Poarch to launch Wind Creek Casino online in the state.
Poarch also operates a free-to-play social casino app throughout the US. Called Casinoverse, it promotes Wind Creek’s rewards program and various retail properties.
Ties Remain 200 Years After Trail of Tears Migration
With the development at Hickory Ground, Poarch abandoned its obligations to Muscogee Creek ancestors, David Hill, Muscogee Nation’s principal chief, said in a letter to Poarch Creek tribal chair Stephanie Bryan.
The letter, sent to Bryan in June, accused the Poach of broken promises.
You made a promise to protect these lands and the MCN ancestors who remain there. 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.
Hickory Ground, said the appeal, is one of the most important sites for the Creek nation on its ancestral Alabama lands. The area served as the tribe’s last capital before the brutal migration to Oklahoma that claimed so many lives.
Tribal members walked over 800 miles to the new Oklahoma settlement.
Despite this, modern-day members have maintained ancestral ties, according to the filing:
“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.”
Clash Over Wind Creek Site Over 20 Years Old
The dispute between the Muscogee and Poarch started over two decades ago.
In 2001, the Alabama tribe began developing lands for a bingo hall.
The work unearthed human remains and funerary artifacts. According to the complaint, archaeologists from Auburn University helped survey, store, and remove some of the graves.
However, the Muscogee objected to plans to study and rebury the remains at a new location.
Additionally, according to court documents filed in 2020, MCN believes burial grounds are sacred and should be undisturbed.
George Thompson, Hickory Grounds mekko (chief), is the lawsuit’s named plaintiff.
Thompson told AL.com the Muscogee’s Alabama link remains recent, “We have a close connection there.”
Court documents also call into question the Poarch Band’s ancestral connection to the land, instead tying the Band with land further south.
The appeal also alleges Auburn violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The act requires federally funded museums and universities to return ancestors and artifacts to their communities.
Bonus contacted Auburn University for comment. The university responded that it “does not comment on pending litigation.”
Muscogee Want Development Halt, Casino Torn Down
Notably, Muscogee Creek seeks to have Wind Creek Casino torn down and halt further land development at Hickory Ground.
The Nation also wants to have remains returned to descendants, as required under federal regulations.
The appeal documents spell out the site’s import:
Although the Trail of Tears separated Mekko Thompson and the members of Hickory Ground Tribal Town from the final resting place of their relatives, the protection and preservation of the original Hickory Ground site remains of paramount importance to their spirituality, religion, and general mental health and well-being.
Muscogee Allege Poarch Use of Federal Funds Violates Law
Hickory Ground was first placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
According to the appeal, the Poarch Indians acquired the land with help from the federal preservation grant that same year.
In 1999, Poarch asked the National Park Service to hand over preservation duties to the tribe. Shortly after that, explained the filing, the tribe built a bingo hall that later became Wind Creek Casino & Resort.
In 2012, Muscogee Creek filed its first lawsuit against Poarch. However, that effort stalled when officials told the parties to find a compromise instead.
However, the lawsuit was reinstated seven years later when the tribes failed to find common ground.
At the time, Mary Kathryn Nagle, an attorney representing the Muscogee Creek Nation, said:
The federal government refused to do its job and allowed Poarch to use federal funds to violate federal law.
Likewise, MCN asked Poarch to abide its promises to protect Hickory Ground. But Poarch, and Auburn University, refused to listen and instead chose to engage in conduct that violates federal law and continues to cause serious, ongoing harm today to one of the most sacred and historic sites in the United States.
Poarch Saddened by “Unwarranted Action”
However, US District Judge Myron Thompson dismissed the lawsuit two years later.
In his opinion, Poarch Creek Indians have qualified immunity as a federally recognized tribe. As a result, they cannot be sued for developing their land.
In contrast, Muscogee Creek Nation has argued immunity doesn’t apply because Poarch Creek violated the National Historic Preservation Act. As yet, the claim has not been tested in court.
Muscogee leaders could not be reached for comment ahead of publication.
Kristin Hellmich, Poarch’s director of external communications, told Bonus via email they “cannot comment on active litigation.”
However, Bryan spoke on the lawsuit in 2019.
It deeply saddens us, as extended family to the Muscogee Nation, that they have taken this unwarranted action against us.
We have attempted to preserve historical remains in a suitable manner. In that effort, we have had numerous conversations with the Muscogee Nation and Hickory Ground Town in an attempt to balance the historical interests with the current use of the property. We wish that as family we could have reached a mutual understanding, and we continue to hope that we can move forward together.