Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

WALLOWA LAKE — A ceremony of peace and reconciliation brought Nez Perce Tribal members, United Methodist Church leaders and Wallowa County residents together on the banks of the Wallowa River near Wallowa Lake Wednesday afternoon.

The ceremony marked the transfer of ownership of a 1.5-acre parcel of land within the United Methodist Church Camp at Wallowa Lake.

Since 1922, the Wallowa Lake camp has welcomed campers and retreat-goers, and for nearly 20 years, Nez Perce Tribal teens have gathered there for a culture camp where students learn traditional singing, drumming, language and crafts.

The camp and the tribe already had a relationship through the culture camp, so it seemed natural to give the parcel to the tribe — or return it to them, for all of Wallowa County was once home to the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce.

Wednesday afternoon, the campers attending the Nez Perce culture camp, tribal leaders, leaders of the Methodist Church and members of the community gathered in front of Bailey Hall at the Wallowa Lake Camp for a service honoring traditions from different cultures.

Mary Jane Miles, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe Executive Committee who spoke at the ceremony, said it was appropriate to have the ceremony during the camp so the youth could experience the historic event.

“We are tied to the Homeland and we want you young people to know about this so when you become leaders you can think about the future,” Miles said.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, indigenous people camped on the shores of Wallowa Lake. Not long after the Nez Perce War in 1877, the lake became a popular destination for tourism, fishing and canneries. By the early 20th century, visitors to the lake moved out of their wall tents and into accommodations like the Wallowa Lake Lodge, built in 1923.

According to Greg Nelson, communications director for the Methodist Church, in 1922, the church realized the value of building a camp and retreat center in this idyllic setting. The church purchased 100 acres, but with the growing market for privately owned cabins at the lake, the church initially sold 10 acres to help pay for the camp. Over time, more parcels were sold off for private home development, leaving a landlocked, undevelopable 1.5-acre parcel of river shoreline.

At the ceremony marking the return of this parcel to the Nez Perce, Methodist Bishop Elaine Stanovsky — who oversees the United Methodist churches of Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Oregon — said in 2012 the church began talking about the damage done to Native Americans and subsequently spent four years of repentance and education.

“Now we have a new heart and spirit of forgiveness and healing,” Stanovsky said Wednesday. “Since 1922, the Methodists have cared for the land and now we return a portion to its prior inhabitants. This marks a new relationship for this place and people for a life of peace and plenty.”

Gifts were exchanged among tribal members and church representatives and each in attendance was given an origami coyote and a “Wallowa Land Return” button. The Nez Perce elders were presented with a deed to the land, and all in attendance recited a litany for promoting peace and friendship.

Wednesday’s ceremony also included the Lord’s Prayer recited in Nez Perce, drumming and singing of a 163-year-old song that Nez Perce elder Wilfred Scott said is the equivalent of the Star Spangled Banner.

Following the ceremony in front of Bailey Hall the crowd gathered on the bank of the transferred parcel of land. Scott burned sage to bless a stone symbolizing the land transfer and a sign written in Nez Perce that translates to “Let all of us people of the earth come together in peace.” The ceremony concluded when the eldest of the campers returned the symbolic stone to the river’s bank.

The Joseph Office of Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries will manage the tribe’s new land parcel adjacent to the Wallowa River, which is prime kokanee and bull trout habitat for spawning and juvenile rearing.