It started out as a peaceful prayer service, and ended in handcuffs. Four members of the Muskogee Indians of Oklahoma tribe were arrested in Wetumpka for trespassing on Wind Creek Casino property.
Now two of the men are speaking out to Alabama News Network about what happened. Mike Harjo and Michael Deo say they traveled from Oklahoma to hold a prayer ceremony for their ancestors this week.
The land, known as Hickory Ground, is considered sacred by the Muscogee people. They say their ancestors' bodies were once buried there, but removed from Wetumpka's Wind Creek Casino to make way for the building.
the group of twelve men, which included two local pastors, was turned away by Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribal Police. On Friday, four of the men returned to try to hold the prayer service on the site, which is currently under construction for an expansion of the casino.
"They pulled their tasers and threatened to shoot us with the taser and they said they was going to arrest us and they arrested us right here on the spot," said Mike Harjo.
"We were asking them, you know, do you get to see your grandparents, you know, go visit their graves? Do you get to say a prayer without having to go through all this?" said Michael Deo.
Elmore County Sheriff nor casino officials would speak on-camera about the arrests. but PCI gaming officials sent a statement, saying "Today four individuals were arrested at Creek Casino Wetumpka. The individuals were stopped by property management and advised to leave. These individuals refused to leave, made threatening comments, and were repeatedly warned that they were trespassing and facing imminent arrest. These individuals continued to challenge Tribal police and were arrested. The men had been warned yesterday that no one other than the professionals involved with the project would be allowed at the construction site. At least one of them men repeatedly made threats to property management and security during these encounters. While some many see these individuals simply as celebrity seekers, Poarch Band of Creek Indians and PCI Gaming must take these threats seriously, especially in light of the security climate in America today."
hree of the men spent two hours at the Elmore County Jail for trespassing, but a fourth, Wayland Gray, is still behind bars. Harjo and Deo say he's being held on a $30,000 bond on charges of making a terrorist threat, something they say didn't happen.
Neither Poarch Creek officials nor Elmore County Sheriff's officials would say exactly what the alleged threats were. The men's attorney, Brendan Ludwick, says all four men will fight the charges against them, based on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which he says guarantees the Muscogee people the right to access the ancestral land.
I was with Wayland Gray all day, and I never heard any kind of threat or terrorism or nothing like that," said Harjo.
Harjo and Deo say they don't regret making the trip or trying to hold the prayer service at Hickory Ground."I feel good that we actually opened some minds out there, woke people up, you know, a lot of people scared to make a move like what we done, but this is what it takes," said Deo.
The Muscogee Indians of Oklahoma have also filed a lawsuit to stop the expansion of the Wind Creek Casino onto the ancient burial grounds. In a statement on Thursday, PCI spokesperson Sharon Delmar said the men would not be allowed onto the property because of the ongoing litigation and safety concerns.