WALLOWA, Ore. — Land in northeastern Oregon is back in the hands of the Nez Perce Tribe, returned by the United Methodist Church.
Shannon Wheeler is tribal chairman and was part of a ceremony in Wallowa at the end of April. He said the land is sacred to his people, even after they were forced to leave it.
"Dated back 16,500 years, so we've been here a while," he explained. "Our culture and preserving who we are is a benefit to the world."
The emotional ceremony involved drumming, chanting, prayers and speeches of pain and gratitude.
"[The land] is already theirs, it always was theirs," said Rev. Dr. Allen Buck of the United Methodist Church.
Buck represents Great Spirit Portland, a Native-focused United Methodist Congregation. He attended and helped facilitate the ceremony in Wallowa. As a citizen of another tribe, the Cherokee Nation, Buck said he understands the pain native people face.
"The church is complicit, we know, in colonization all over the planet, not just in the past," Buck said. "We want to do better, we want to be friends. We recognize there can't really be reconciliation without some sort of conciliation and decolonizing."
This is not the first time the United Methodist Church's Northwest region has committed to such a gesture.
In 2018, the it also returned part of Wallowa Lake to the Nez Perce for fishing.
One elder who attended the more recent ceremony expressed her feelings through tears.
"I can remember my aunties and some of my grandmas talking about how precious this land is," she told the crowd. "I just wanted to say I'm so thankful for today. It is a blessing for our people."
"Those tears of sorrow turned to tears of joy," Wheeler said. "This is a part of healing, and recognizing things have happened to our people ... The hurt that goes along with that and the scars that are carried for generations."
Delegates from the church handed over keys to the Wallowa United Methodist Church and the deed to the surrounding land. With that, the deal was done, part of the church's commitment to dismantling systemic racism.
"It's a good start," Buck said. "Be a neighbor, love thy neighbor and don't insist your way is the only way."