Through the Language of Their Hearts
God Speaks to Native Americans Through His Translated Word.
Who would have thought that Russian Glasnost would have a direct effect upon two Wycliffe missionaries who were translating the New Testament into Eskimo? It happened on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island, a large piece of land in the Bering Sea, 120 miles west of the town of Nome. The Eskimo people who live on the Island speak Yupik... Siberian Yupik.
In 1959, when Wycliffe linguists Dave and Mitzi Shinen accepted their translation assignment to the Yupik-speaking Alaskan Eskimo, they knew that half of the Yupiks lived in Siberia, USSR. Though there was only 40 miles of the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia, the relatives on both sides had been kept from seeing each other for over forty years, because of the "Iron Curtain." Incredibly, Soviet Glasnost began to open those curtains in 1989. A group of elated Yupiks from Siberia plowed their way through the freezing arctic sea in three walrus-skin boats to be reunited with their relatives at last.
They had a joyous time singing and dancing to the old familiar Yupik tunes each side remembered. With great excitement, the Alaskan Christians told their relatives about their Christian faith. And in the midst of it all, the Shinens discovered a problem they were delighted to tackle now, they'd have to print two Yupik New Testaments!
Why? During the time of separation, the Siberians had developed a written form of Yupik, just as the Shinens had done with the same language for the St. Lawrence Islanders. But the Siberians, who had learned to read their Yupik written with a Russian Cyrillic alphabet, could not read Yupik written in the Roman alphabet, developed by the Shinens. Since those first days of reunion, translation work was stepped up to take advantage of the open borders, for the opportunity could certainly be closed at any time. The Yupik New Testament is now only two or three years from completion. And Dave and Mitzi wil lsee it published in two alphabets!
Including the Yupik project, Wycliffe missionaries still have 30 active language projects among Native American peoples. These are located in six regions--Alaska, eastern and western Canada, southeastern and southwestern United States and the plains of both Canada and the U.S. There is no "typical" language project in North America. As with the Yupik project, each presents a unique situation.
The climates range from frozen Alaskan winters to steamy Florida summers. Second languages of the people may be English or French or Spanish. From the Eskimos of Alaska to the Sea Island Creole of South Carolina, from the Algonquins of Quebec to the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, the diversity of the projects is staggering.
Beginning with the Navajo New Testament, completed in 1956, Wycliffe translators have been committed to helping Native American churches grow strong on the Word of God translated into their mother tongues. Today, in nearly half the projects, the missionaries train Native speakers to do the translations themselves.
Georgina Dave, a Northern Paiute linguist, was so eager for her people to have the Scriptures in Paiute, she pushed and pushed her Wycliffe co-translators until the New Testament was finished.
On the Algonquin Reserve in Central Quebec, translators Roger and Ruth Spielmann had finished the rough draft of the Algonquin New Testament. Their next step was the difficult task of checking and re-checking each word... each thought. But about that time, the Spielmanns had to move from their home on the Indian Reserve to live in Ontario. To keep the exhaustive checking process going as scheduled, their dedicated Algonquin language associates back on the Reserve joined the Spielmanns in commuting for three years until the work was done.
God has truly inspired both Wycliffe and Native speaking translators alike, so that New Testaments in seven Native American languages have now been published -- the Navajo, Inupiat Eskimo, Apache, Hopi, Tewa, Papago-Pima and Northern Paiute. Within the next four years, six other tribes will join these seven and have the New Testament in their own heart language, including the Algonquin.
Researchers must do a great deal of preliminary investigation before Wycliffe can decide to assign a Native American language to a Bible translator. Since some Indian languages have become extinct and others are nearly so, it is essential to determine if there would actually be any speakers of the language left to read a New Testament by the time it is finished. After all, it can take a translation team over twenty years to bring a New Testament into print.
To determine if a Bible translation should be undertaken, researchers do an on-site survey among the Native speakers, gathering facts, such as the number and ages of the people who speak the language, how the language is actively used, and what other languages are spoken. They investigate just how different it is from these other languages, and to what degree it stands alone. Finally they can make an analysis to determine if there is a real need to render the language into written words.
This we know for sure it will take the prayers of God's people to sustain and empower the language projects that are already underway. Pray for swift completion of Wycliffe projects among the following tribes the Western Cree, the Dogrib, Beaver, Central Carrier and the Chilcotin of western Canada; the Eastern Cree, Naskapi, Montagnais, Algonquin, Atikamekw, and Micmac of eastern Canada; the Choctaw, Mesquakie, Cheyenne, the Sea Island Creole and Seminole of central and southeastern U.S.; the Alaskan Gwich'in and various Pueblo peoples of the southwestern United States.
Today's fast changing society and wavering social mores are seriously affecting the traditional lifestyle and heritage of North America's Native peoples. There never has been a greater need for God's Word in the language of their hearts.
Mary Lou Totten is the co-director of FACE (Fellowship of Artists for Cultural Evangelism) located on the campus of the U.S. Center. FACE brings teams of Christian artists to do creative ministry with Native Americans in Arizona. The photos in this article are used courtesy of Mary Lou Totten of FACE.