By Greg Nelson
In a moving ceremony filled with song, word and action under the shadow of Chief Joseph Mountain, The United Methodist Church took a small step toward righting an historic wrong on Wednesday.
As 115 people gathered from the Nez Perce Tribe, United Methodist Church, camp supporters, and community, The Oregon-Idaho Conference returned a 1.5 acre parcel of land in Oregon to the Nez Perce nation.
“I never thought I would see a day come when we would have a hand of friendship from the larger community to the Nimíipuu.” Said Mary Jane Miles, a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
In 1923 predecessors of the Oregon-Idaho Conference purchased 100 acres of land for what is now known as Wallowa Lake Camp. Parcels of the property have been sold off over the years and the camp now stands at about 60 acres in size. Left behind in the land sales was 1.5 acres of Wallowa River property, surrounded by vacation homes, and bordering the Wallowa Lake State Park. This land was part of the historic homeland of the Nez Perce people, taken from them in treaty violation.
Arthur Boncheau (left) and Mary Jane Miles receive the ceremonial deed from Larry McClure and Bishop Stanovsky.
The ceremony was held under the flags of two sovereign nations, the stars and stripes of the United States and the eagle of the Nez Perce Tribe. A commemorative deed was passed from church leaders to tribal leaders marking the return of the land. Tribal Executive Committee members Arthur Broncheau and Miles accepted the deed from Oregon-Idaho Trustees Chair Larry McClure and Bishop Elaine Stanovsky.
Nez Perce Tribal fisheries department will manage the property to provide habitat for kokanee, trout, and possibly sockeye salmon. Before sockeye can return Wallowa lake, an aging dam at the bottom of the lake will need to be rebuilt with a fish ladder.
Among those present were 40 youth from a Nez Perce Culture Camp, an annual event for learning Nez Perce language and history in a retreat setting.
“As you become our leaders, you’re going to lead us into some more wonderful things that are going to happen just like this. Because I know that you have a heart for the Nimíipuu, and a heart to return us to where we belong," Miles said.
Nimíipuu is the Nez Perce tribal name in their own language.
Since 2000 the Nez Perce tribe has held a Culture Camp for youth at the Wallowa Lake Camp. The camp offers an opportunity for deep learning of Nimíipuu language and culture with their elders. It became a tradition to fly the Nez Perce flag during the weeks of the camp. However, seeing the United States Flag lowered and replaced with the Nez Perce flag was a sad moment for many of the elders who are U.S. military veterans. In 2015 new flag poles were installed and, with the permission of the tribe, the U.S. and Nez Perce flags now fly side-by-side at the camp as recognition of the two sovereign nations.
In a portion of the ceremony, native and non-native voices shared a litany for promoting peace and friendship. Non-native participants shared the words, “we are sorry for the pain caused to you by our ancestors, whose hearts were made of stone, who inflicted undue pain and suffering through unjust actions. May the actions we take and the words we speak, this day and every day, be steps in our journey to break open hearts of stone that we may live as friends in peace with you and with one another.”
Youth from the Nez Perce Culture Camp return the ceremonial stone to it's place in the Wallowa River.
For Stanovsky, presiding Bishop of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, it seemed like a special time, “We experience the power of small acts to heal and transform us. Today was one of those moments.”
The ceremony ended with a walk to the river. There a stone was returned to the river after traveling to the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference session in June 15 in Boise, Idaho – and to the tribal offices of the Nez Perce in Lapwai, Idaho – and now back to the river in Northeast Oregon; symbolizing the connection and journey of these two groups.
- Learn more about how the Wallowa River can one day see the return of Sockeye Salmon in this video.
- See a photo album of the return ceremony
- In 2012 The United Methodist Church declared a four-year period of repentance and learning for the ways in which European westward expansion has done harm to native people. Learn more on the UMC.org website.
*This story was updated 8/8/18.