WALLOWA, OR – Sitting on the ancestral grounds of the Nez Perce Tribe and after 144 years of faithful ministry to its community, Wallowa United Methodist Church was returned to the Nimiipuu in a ceremony of friendship, celebration and repentance on Thursday.

The Oregon-Idaho Conference of The United Methodist Church handed over the keys to the church building and deed to the property in a ceremony that honored the friendship that exists between the church and Nez Perce community, while the church also laments the role it once played in colonizing indigenous people and their land.

“This small gift does not even scratch the surface of repayment for the many roles Christians have played in systems which work to take land, identity, and resources from those being colonized. Sadly, much of the church isn’t even awake to our complicity yet,” said Rev. Dr. Allen Buck of Great Spirit United Methodist Church in Portland and member of the Cherokee Nation. “This is a good and right thing for us to do. But we don’t honor ourselves, rather we celebrate our friends, and the potential for this gift to be useful for them. We celebrate with the Nimiipuu”

The Nez Perce people are exploring multiple uses for the property, which includes the church building, the lot it sits on and another lot located behind the church. Having additional space for tribal activities and gatherings in Wallowa is welcomed by tribal leaders. 

“We feel our ancestors smiling at this wonderful gesture of good will and friendship. It is well known that Wallowa has always been home to the Nez Perce people and when our ancestors were forced to leave, we know they left a part of themselves behind as well,” stated Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Vice-Chairman, Casey Mitchell. “We feel blessed and grateful that our friends of the Methodist Church have gifted us this opportunity to once again be part of our homeland. To take real action, such as this, is a tremendously positive step toward addressing past injustices.” 

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.

This is the second time in three years that the Oregon-Idaho Conference has returned portions of land to the Nez Perce Tribe. In 2018, more than 1.5 acres of riverbed property at Wallowa Lake Camp was returned to the tribe to use for fish spawning habitat, which has both ecological and economic benefits for the Tribe.

For 144 years, The United Methodist Church had a presence in Wallowa, landing at its current location in 1940. The church building originally belonged to the Presbyterian Church and was built in 1910. In 2019, the church closed due to declining membership and financial costs required for upkeep of the building, but continued meeting locally through 2020.  Though more than 100 years old, the building is in relatively good condition, with a new heating system installed in recent years.

“This is one of many acts of repentance, de-colonization and healing the church will continue to engage in as it actively works to dismantle racism,” said Laurie Day, director of connectional ministries for the Oregon-Idaho Conference and assistant to Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area of The UMC.

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Kristen Caldwell
A mom, a writer, a wannabe runner, Kristen Caldwell calls Vancouver, Wash., home and loves getting to tell stories of the people and places that make up the Greater Northwest Area.

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