‘A blessing for our people to come back home’

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Lee Bourgeau, a descendant of the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce cries tears of joy during the return of Wallowa UMC to the Nez Perce Tribe on Thursday, April 29.

For generations the Nez Perce have told the story of their ancestors being forcefully removed from the Wallowa valley of what is now northeast Oregon due to white settlers’ colonization of their people and land.

When the U.S. government forced the Wallowa band of the Nimiipuu people to abandon their ancestral homeland more than 150 years ago, they looked back at the valley – one last time – with tears of sorrow in their years.

“They looked back and thought, ‘We may never see this land again,’” said Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Shannon Wheeler.

From left: Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Vice Chairman Casey Mitchell, Chairman Shannon Wheeler, Rev. Dr. Allen Buck an and Rev. Karen Hernandez, exchange greetings and the deed and keys to the Wallowa UMC property for the Nez Perce Tribe.

But as he looked out at the crowd gathered outside of Wallowa United Methodist Church last week, after the keys and deed to the church property were handed over to the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) Tribe by The Oregon-Idaho Conference of The United Methodist Church, his words were filled with kindness.

“Those tears are OK,” he said. “They are tears of joy today.”

For more than 144 years Wallowa United Methodist Church served the community, ending up at its current location in 1940 and remaining there until the church closed in 2019. Congregants kept meeting in the community until early 2020 when the pandemic hit. The church owned the building – originally built in 1910 and owned by the Presbyterian Church – the lot it sits on, as well as a vacant lot behind the church until its closure, at which point the property came under the care of the Conference’s board of trustees.

Sage District Superintendent, Rev. Karen Hernandez, presented the deed and keys to the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. Wallowa United Methodist Church has served the community well over generations with love and hospitality and she hopes it will continue to be a place of love and hospitality for the Nimiipuu.

“As United Methodists, we have much work yet to do on our slow journey toward right relationships with the earth and the children of God,” Hernandez said. “We are grateful that you, in a gracious spirit of friendship, are willing to meet us here as we take a small step toward justice. It blesses us knowing that this land, which was never rightfully ours, is now in your hands.”

Rev Allen Buck handing out gifts
Rev. Dr. Allen Buck hands out gifts during the Wallowa UMC land return ceremony to the Nez Perce Tribe on April 29, 2021.

Rev. Dr. Allen Buck, pastor at Great Spirit United Methodist Church in Portland and a member of the Cherokee Nation, worked with tribal elders to create this event to honor the fact that the Nez Perce welcomed the opportunity to take over the church and its half-acre of land. He hopes that the Conference’s actions help model how acts of repentance and decolonization can be done by others to begin healing relationships with indigenous communities.

“It’s a good thing that the church is doing, but it also makes sense, right?” Buck said. “That’s what you do for your friends.”

Many members of the Nez Perce Tribe – some descendants of the Wallowa band – talked about the feelings of healing and hope they were experiencing just driving over the mountains into the Wallowa valley from Lapwai, Idaho. They expressed gratitude for the drum songs played and the fellowship shared.

Janet Black Eagle talked about arriving in Wallowa the night before and staying with friends and long conversations with distant relatives that lasted into the late night. She said she could hear the songs of her ancestors coming off the ground.

“There is something here that we’re returning to,” she said.

Casey Mitchell, vice chairman of the executive committee of the Nez Perce Tribe and a descendant of the Wallowa band of the tribe, said their people called this area home for thousands of years.

Wallowa United Methodist Church
Wallowa UMC has been in this community for more than 144 years and at this location since 1940.

The Nimiipuu people have connection to the land and water that is modern-day Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. The Nez Perce Tribe was established by the treaty of 1855 and included land in the Wallowa valley, but as more white settlers moved to the area and the gold rush continued the tribe was pushed further out of the area by the U.S. government – often through violence – and is now headquartered in Lapwai, Idaho. The federally-recognized tribe has more than 3,500 enrolled citizens and spans about 770,000 acres in northcentral Idaho – a small fraction of what once was their homeland.

“It’s a blessing for our people to get to come back home. A lot of us, we still call this our homeland. It’s a feeling I don’t get anywhere else when I see the top of those (Wallowa) mountains,” Mitchell said. “(This church) is just a small piece of land, but it means the world to us.”

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