The crowd at the United Methodist Church Camp above Wallowa Lake had gathered to be part of a historic moment that many had not believed would happen in their lifetime.
A formal presentation was made of the land deed for 1.5 acres of Wallowa River riverfront from the United Methodist Church to the Nez Perce Tribe was made Aug. 1. As part of the ceremony, a small rock taken from the river and presented to the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee June 15 was returned to the riverbank.
The importance of the gesture could not be overestimated.
“I never thought I would see this day,” said Nez Perce Elder Mary Jane Miles. “I never thought we would see the day come when we would have a hand of friendship from the larger community to the Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce).”
Miles, who represented the Nez Perce as a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, is also a Presbyterian minister and doubly hurt by the “Doctrine of Discovery” supported by Christian religions since the 1400s and used to justify the destruction of indigenous cultures and people.
Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Secretary of State, recognized the doctrine as law in 1792. The law declared that ownership of land came into existence by virtue of “discovery” of that land by Europeans.
The International Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church began addressing the culpability of its organization in the matter in 2012.
“We declared a four-year period of repentance and educating ourselves and repenting for the ways in which the expansion harmed the people who lived here before Europeans came,” said Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky, Bishop of the Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.
At the “returning” ceremony along the Wallowa River, Stanovsky repeated a passage from the formal apology issued by the church to all indigenous peoples.
“To our native and indigenous brothers and sisters we say, we have destroyed your way of life, dehumanized your people, and degraded your cultures along with your dreams your peace and your great love of the land. Today we acknowledge that all this is not in the past. We pray to God to give us a new heart and a new spirit so that we may truly repent of our grave sins, petition for forgiveness and work towards healing.”
The sincerity of the apology and the astonishing acceptance of responsibility for ongoing pain were not lost on the Nez Perce representatives.
“My heart is singing,” said Miles.
The United Methodist Church originally purchased 110 acres of land along the Wallowa River above Wallowa Lake in 1923 and over the years sold portions of that land to support projects. It now owns 58 acres and operates one of six camp and retreat ministries in two states.
Over time, the property along the Wallowa River became landlocked and unsuitable for development. The idea of returning that land to the Nez Perce came to Wallowa Lake Camp co-director David Lovegrin in 2017 when he was walking along the river and realized that the stretch owned by the church was great Sockeye salmon spawning habitat.
“It seemed like a great thing to do to gift this land to the tribe as they have been very active in restoring fish habitat and re-establishing fish populations,” said co-director Peggy Lovegrin.
Conversations began immediately.
“It’s been a learning experience as we build a respectful relationship with the tribe,” said Todd Bartlett, executive director of camp and retreat ministries for the Oregon-Idaho area. “We’re working to honor tribal culture so we want to do this in partnership.”
The partnership between the church and Nez Perce culture has been deepening for some time, Bartlett said. Culture camps held twice a year at Wallowa Lake Camp are a favorite for Nez Perce youth.
“Youth are given a choice of campsites for culture camp — they always choose Wallowa Lake Camp — it’s home,” Bartlett said.
Nez Perce Culture Camp was in session when the Aug. 1 returning ceremony took place, and Nez Perce youth played an important role.
Students distributed gifts to all attendees as part of the ceremony, sat in the drum circle and performed sacred songs with Elder Pete Wilson of Spirit of Renegade Drum, and were honored to formally return the stone to the river.
Miles addressed the gathered youth specifically.
“As you (young people) become our leaders you are going to lead us into some more wonderful things that are going to happen just like this because I know you have a heart for the Nimi’ipuu and a heart to return us to where we belong,” she said.
Elders, native speakers and language teachers Bessie Scott and Florene Davis also encouraged the youth to “always remember this beautiful day in the heart. You have been a part of it. Always remember.”