Indigenous woman holding old Bible
Ojibwe artist Velma Sunday Smith of Christian Island, Ont. cherishes her Ojibwe-language Bible (Photo by John Sharpe Images)

Topics: Justice | Indigenous

United Church supports translation of Bible into Indigenous languages

In a bygone era, the Bible was a tool for subverting Indigenous cultures, but recent translations aim to preserve endangered Indigenous tongues


There’s a paradox in Velma Sunday Smith’s kitchen, an apparent contradiction. It’s the Bible she keeps on top of the fridge.

Smith is Ojibwe, a member of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island in Georgian Bay near Midland, Ont. At age 67, she’s a respected band elder, and a champion of Ojibwe culture.

Smith is best known for her porcupine quill boxes. As she shapes silvery birch bark, fastens seams with strands of sweet grass and decorates surfaces with porcupine quills, her fingers follow centuries-old Woodland Indian traditions.

As a keeper and teacher of traditional Ojibwe culture, Smith is not someone you would suspect of having great affection for Christianity, or the Bible, symbol of the religious movement implicated in the near destruction of her cherished Indigenous culture. But here is where the paradox enters. Smith values the Bible on the fridge above all other objects in the room, more than the quills, sweet grass and birch bark. But then Smith’s Bible is no ordinary Bible. When she opens the age-worn cover and turns to the first brittle page, the text is entirely in the Ojibwe language. Her language.

Christians in Canada have been producing editions of the Scripture translated into First Nations languages for about 150 years. Early publishers laboured with good will in the service of an idea now almost universally condemned.

Their Bible translations abetted the missionary push to convert and “civilize” the First Nations. To some, these translations are therefore still understandably perceived as what they historically undoubtedly were: instruments of cultural suppression. But the passage of time can work some strange changes. Today, translated Bibles are seen — even by First Nations leaders — to have the opposite impact, shoring up traditional culture by preserving endangered Indigenous languages.

That’s why the Canadian Bible Society is working unapologetically on a raft of new translation projects, and The United Church of Canada’s Healing Fund is supporting the venture, to the tune of nearly $80,000.

The first efforts in Canada to produce Christian texts in First Nations languages were haphazard. A “syllabic alphabet” of dots, dashes, curves, hooks and triangles was developed by Cherokee George Guest and codified in the 1840s by Wesleyan missionary James Evans of the Hudson’s Bay Region. It was then used by James Horden, first Bishop of Moosonee, to translate portions of the Book of Common Prayer into Moosonee Cree. In 1846, the Rev. Frederick O’Meara translated most of the Liturgy into Ojibwe, but in roman script, and, later, all of the New Testament.

Smith’s Bible, an Ojibwe edition of the New Testament in roman script, likely dates from this era, and might well be an O’Meara translation, but it is difficult to tell. The pebbled brown leather cover is as scuffed as an old pair of work boots, and the tape that binds the cover to the 716 remaining pages was applied too late to rescue the title page and publication information, including the date of printing. Still, Smith has an idea of the book’s approximate age. Her great-grandfather, John Sunday, was its first owner. Born on Christian Island, he lived out his days there, and died in 1948, “a very old man,” says Smith.

Bible translators found an improved sense of purpose and focus in 1904 with the incorporation of the Canadian Bible Society (CBS), an ecumenical organization dedicated to the proliferation of the Bible at an affordable cost. Hart Weins, the CBS’s director of scriptural translation, says the volume of such projects grew and continues to grow today. Bibles in First Nations languages are a booming business, he says.

At the Bible Society office in Kitchener, Ont., this fall, three Inuit priests stare intently at computer screens full of syllabic script. The pages will eventually become a new complete Inuktituk Bible. They read first to themselves, then out loud to each other, listening for nuance in the spoken language, correcting the written text. It’s not easy to make a story set among the  palm trees and deserts of 2,000 years ago intelligible in the contemporary Canadian North. Today’s technology helps. The Bible Society has developed sophisticated software to assist the translation process.

The Bible Society currently has 21 First Nations translation projects under way, including translations of the Bible into the Dogrib, Micmac, Nascapi and Montagnais languages, Atikamekw (a northern Algonkian dialect), and four dialects of Cree. The United Church is involved with a Bible Society-supported translation of Scripture into Mohawk. Since 2000, the church’s Healing Fund has invested $79,528 in the project, including $15,000 earmarked for a Mohawk-language CD of the Scriptures for those who understand but do not read the language.

Mary McDonald is acting manager of languages for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in Ottawa and a Mohawk from Akwesasne, a reserve that straddles the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York State. Two of McDonald’s cousins are working on the Mohawk Bible translation project, but her own feelings about it are deeply conflicted. While it is her job to promote the preservation of Indigenous languages, as she says, “by any means available,” Bible translations would not be her first choice of means. In her own family, Christianity was a destructive force. Her father’s family was devoutly Catholic. Her mother’s family observed Mohawk spiritual traditions. The tension between these two cultures “caused a big rift in the family,” she says. Merging them into one text is incongruous, she says, even faintly sinister.

McDonald’s concern is that Indigenous-language Scriptures may still be a kind of cultural Trojan horse, outwardly benign but carrying ideological freight hostile to traditional Indigenous culture.

Hart Weins parries this concern. He argues that translation projects have the effect of undoing damage done by the assimilationist policies of the past. Translated Bibles have the positive effect of standardizing languages, he says, and producing a text for use in church ensures that the language gets used. “The very frequent impact of a translation is that the language survives longer than it otherwise would,” says Weins.

Henry Hostetler, a Mennonite from Red Lake, Ont., shepherded the most recent Bible Society project to completion: a new Ojibwe translation of some of the Old Testament plus a reworking of the existing New Testament translation. The demand for an Ojibwe Bible comes from the Ojibwe community, Hostetler argues. “When cultures interact, they influence each other. Some Ojibwe have chosen to become Christian. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they disrespect or disregard traditional culture, but they make room in their lives for Christianity. For them, a Bible in their own tongue speaks to the heart.” To deny them their right to choose, he suggests, would be a throwback to the patronizing era of the bad old days.

The AFN’s McDonald grudgingly accepts this point. “If that’s what a community determines it wants, how could we disagree?” she asks. “Aboriginal languages in this country are teetering on the brink of extinction. An Ojibwe text expressing Christian values is better than no Ojibwe text at all.”

Velma Sunday Smith wonders what the fuss is about. She is one who has found a personal way to comfortably accommodate traditional culture and Christian values. Smith is an active member of the United Church congregation in her village. She is equally known for her quill boxes and for bringing Christian comfort to members of the community. When she arrives at the bedside of a dying friend, it’s with her Ojibwe Bible in hand and a Christian prayer on her lips.

Home again in her kitchen, amid the makings of her quill boxes, Smith puts her Bible back on top of the fridge, “where I can see it,” she says. “You don’t want to go running around for a Bible when God shows up at the door.” And when that happens, Smith fully expects that God will be speaking Ojibwe.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s November 2008 issue with the title “Ancient tongues, new respect.”

Richard Wright is a journalist in Toronto.


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