Melissa Harris-Perry: A new interpretation of the Christian New Testament is reframing biblical text, infusing them with indigenous storytelling traditions. Take the Lord's Prayer.
Terry Wildman: Oh, great father, the one who lives above us all, your name is sacred and Holy, bring your good road to us, where the beauty of the world above is reflected in the earth below.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Terry Wildman reading the Lord's prayer and his wife Darlene is playing the flute in the background. Now, the version he's reading comes from an adaptation of the First Nations New Testament published last year. Terry is of Ojibwe and Yaqui descent and served as lead translator on the project. I spoke with him about this translation.
Terry Wildman: This version is considered to be a dynamic equivalence translation. What that allows for is the translator can make edits as needed so that translated text is comprehensible. Oftentimes the target audience isn't familiar with the source language or the culture, and so idioms need to be used and references explained or localized to make sense.
That was the philosophy behind this. We wanted it to be in English because of generations of government assimilation policies many times participated in by church and mission organizations, most of our Native people do not read their tribal languages. These translations are only being used by a very small percentage. Maybe less than 10% of the Native people can actually read these translations.
We felt there needed to be a translation in English, but that uses idioms and phrases and word choices that relate culturally to our Native people, but yet maintain the same accuracy to the meaning of the Greek. Not necessarily word for word, but thought for thought and idea for idea.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to ask for one more example around that. I'm thinking here of the beatitudes as they're often called right in Matthew 5. I was wondering if maybe you could also just read for us a bit some of what is now translated to be blessings of the good road.
Terry Wildman: Creator's blessing rest on the poor, the ones with broken spirits, the good road from above is theirs to walk. Creator's blessing rest on the ones who walk a trail of tears, for He will wipe the tears from their eyes and comfort them. Creator's blessing rest on the ones who walk softly in a humble manner, the earth, land, and sky will welcome them and always be their home. Creator's blessing rests on the ones who hunger and thirst for wrongs to be made right again, they will eat and drink until they are full. Creator's blessing rest on the ones who are merciful and kind to others, their kindness will find its way back to them full circle.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What made you and others involved in the project say, "This translation is what we need in this moment"?
Terry Wildman: Ever since the year 2000, that's when my wife and I moved onto the Hopi Indian Reservation to serve with a couple of evangelical organizations, we would do small Bible studies and different things and I just noticed that a lot of the Native men and women who we worked with, in my opinion, it was hard to get them to interact and connect with the scriptures.
We used a standard English translation, a simple one, NIV, but there was something about it that wasn't connecting. I just began to want to experiment with some things. I worked with a group of Native men and women and we started rewording the scripture in a way that would relate more in English to our Native people.
What happened was, over the years, that would've been about 2003, and as my wife and I began to travel and share our music and our storytelling, we would use these portions of scripture we had reworded, and everywhere we went, people would say, "What Bible were you reading from?" I said, "Well, we don't have a Bible like that," and they said, "Oh, we need a Bible like that." One Native elder said, "You say it in English the way we think it in our language," and so I felt like, "Wow, we're on track. People want this."
In 2011, 2012 I think it was, we started the project with myself and a few other Native people that were helping me out with ideas of ways to word things. I got serious with my Bible software, my Hebrew and Greek studies that I had done, and after I had published a children's book with this kind of wording, and then we published another book that had the four gospels harmonized into one story, and we wanted to see how that would be received. It was so well received that we just took it as a sign that this is needed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, clearly First Nations peoples are many peoples. There's an S, that's a plural. How did you account for that diversity and plurality?
Terry Wildman: One of the things that we did is, our translation council that helped decide on the kinds of wording we would use was selected from a cross-section of Native North Americans. We have elders and pastors and young adults and men and women from different tribes and diverse geographic locations. This council represents a diversity also of church and denominational traditions to minimize bias there.
What's happened, because of colonialism, because of the way the gospel was brought to our people, because of the way many times it was forced on us and our children were taken out of our homes and put into boarding schools, and because of colonialism, we are all speaking English. We've come to learn that we're not the same exactly, but there is a general way of thinking, a way of viewing the world that almost all of our tribes relate to. Because we're all speaking English and because there's some commonalities, we focused on those commonalities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to us about the choices of some language that simply does not appear although concepts that are related do.
Terry Wildman: When you're coming from the Greek language, you're actually coming a lot from the Greek and the Hebrew culture, and so there are cultural things involved in that and we try to find cultural equivalents. Then also, we try to stay away from certain words, for example, the word sin. Well, a lot of people, when the word sin is said, "You are a sinner," or "You are in sin," what do we mean? How do we define what sin is?
In the Greek language, sin was the word hamartia, basically to miss the mark, to take aim and miss. We understood that since the word sin was used in our boarding schools, and it was a sin to speak our language, it was a sin to cut our hair, it was a sin to pray with incense or smoke, so we had to give up our Native ways of understanding how to pray, how to acknowledge the spirit world, how to acknowledge the Supreme Being, the Creator as we call Him. There's other terms that are generally used, Great Spirit, Great Mystery, these words have the same meaning like sin.
We used broken ways and sometimes bad hearts and sometimes wrongdoings, depending on the context of what was being spoken about, for that word harmatia in the Greek because the word sin itself is not an inspired translation. There are other ways to translate those words, and for our Native people, it's better to hear the words that way, it relates better to how we understand the world and understand what it means to fail to live in the way the Creator wants us to live.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why try to rescue and make relevant the Christian traditions and religious practices at all given the fraught historic relationship between Christian institutions, given the violence, the colonialism, the theft of children, of language, of history?
Terry Wildman: I believe that the message of Creator sets free Jesus, this good story of the gospel has relationship to all tribes on earth. It needs to be presented in a good way and not in a forceful way or a paternalistic way. In this translation, we were hoping to remove some of those barriers and present this message so Native people could make their own mind up about who Creator sets free Jesus is.
There's so much common ground between the teachings of Creator sets free, and most of our tribal values and core values that we have actually match together. Our tribes have never been the kind who would not listen to another tribe's understanding of spiritual ways and then consider those ways. Many tribes would adopt into their tribe and to their cultural ways, another tribe's dances or prayers or things like that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Stay with us on The Takeaway more in just a moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, we're back with Terry Wildman, the lead translator of the First Nations Version of the New Testament. I hear you both reflecting on the deeply problematic history of Christian missionary work that often was, again, quite violent. I also hear in this at least some aspect of evangelical or missionary approach that, in part, the Bible written in this way might also bring new believers. I'm wondering the extent to which that kind of framework was important to you in this effort?
Terry Wildman: I know this that Native people have been storytellers and Native people always want to hear stories, this is what I've been told by the elders, stories from other people's, They love hearing the stories. For example, Native stories were traditionally told in ways that are unique to the storyteller, meaningful to the listeners, and they draw from history, tradition, and experience. A storyteller will ensure the essence of the story is preserved without the need to present a strict word-for-word recital.
Now, to answer your question about is this another form of colonialism, for example, or a softer form of it? Well, one of the things is, just because something has been presented wrongly doesn't mean that the message itself is wrong. Our Native people, generally, we would judge the messenger and the message by the messenger. Because the messengers came and presented it wrongly in so many ways, we feel the message needs to be heard in a new way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then a final question is just to bring it back to a very specific aspect because I just also think this seems quite beautiful and relevant. It is, in part, in the text and the language itself, around the earth. The ways that many of the passages that, again, might be familiar to some in terms of subduing the earth or having dominion over the earth, instead of written in ways that reflect a notion of care, something that goes even beyond stewardship. I'm wondering a bit about the ways that the earth shows up in this text.
Terry Wildman: Yes. Well, even in the Beatitudes that I just read, it talks about, "Creator's blessing rests on the ones who walk softly, and then in a humble manner, the earth, land, and sky will welcome them and always be their home." What it says in many translations, and as it says, the meek shall inherit the earth. That idea of inheritance is that the earth is welcoming. The land where we live welcomes us and we live in harmony with the land, and with creation, with the Creator, and with one another.
Again, the Bible talks about dominion, but Jesus redefined what that dominion was about. He says, "You're not going to be like these nations who force others to do what they want." He says, "You're going to be the servants of nations." In that sense of rulership being a servanthood, then we can define dominion in terms of caretaking. We have the authority and the commission from God to care for the earth, to care for each other. We do that under the Creator's authority that He gave us not to be rulers over, but to be servants under.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What a lovely conversation. Terry Wildman, thank you so much for joining us here on The Takeaway.
Terry Wildman: It's my pleasure to be here. We'll say Ojibwe, miigwech [Ojibwe language]. Thank you for listening.
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