ALASKA: New Testament 'Good News' now available in Gwich'in

Diocese, mission partnership aided by $50,000 grant to strengthen, preserve Native language
June 14, 2011

It took two teams of translators and nearly a half-century of painstaking collaboration, but now "Vit'eegwijyahchy'aa: Vagwandak Nizil," or "God: His Good News" is available in the Gwich'in Athabascan language spoken by Yukon River area residents in the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.

Wycliffe Bible translators Pierre and Meggie Demers, along with Mary Rose Gamboa, figure they've spent about 30 years working together to complete the New Testament translation "to help some of my people, the elders who speak Gwich'in and don't understand English very well, to really understand the Bible," said Gamboa during a recent telephone interview.

"Now that I think about it, I say to myself, how did we do that?" added Gamboa, 57, a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Venetie. "But then, with the help of God we did it. We didn't do it by ourselves."

Pierre Demers agreed. He and spouse Meggie Demers "were the second team of Wycliffe Bible translators sent to work in the Gwich'in area." A previous team, Susan and Richard Mueller, began the work in 1958, collaborating with the Native community and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to design a spelling/writing system for the language.

About 9,000 Gwich'in people represent the northernmost Indian Nation, living in 15 small villages from northeast Alaska in the United States to the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. "Gwich'in" means "people of the land," whose history in the Arctic pre-dates the establishment of political boundaries dividing Alaska and Canada. The Gwich'in language is believed to be spoken by about 700 people.

In 1979 the Demers moved from Santa Cruz, California, to Venetie, where "we learned language and culture and worked with various people, facilitating translation by local residents.

"As an outsider to the community I never will have learned the language as well as they know it," he said.

"It's what Wycliffe Bible translators do" worldwide, added Demers. "They start from scratch doing the translation … so there's a good chance the Native preachers will have the tools to be able to do their own teaching and evangelism.

It took him five years just to begin to learn the language "and I'm still learning it. I depend on Mary [Gamboa] and other translators to do the fine-tuning. I can do some translating, but I feel like a fifth grader as far as speaking it goes," he added.

And although the work was difficult and time-consuming, "God's sustenance kept us going and kept encouraging us. The thing about the word of God is, that it's so powerful in changing lives," he said. "If you really want to see an impact in people's lives, the word of God seems to be what God uses.

They worked from eight biblical translations, including the King James, Revised Standard, the Jerusalem Bible, and the Living Bible versions, taking turns checking each other's efforts, he said. Surprisingly, "the Gospel of John was the easiest of the four gospels to translate. One of the reasons why is because John spoke as a fisherman and he spoke everyday language, using metaphors similar to the way the Gwich'in do in everyday life. It was amazing. It was easier to translate than the Gospel of Luke -- that was the hardest one to do."

"It's been a very difficult time for our Native co-translators and us, too, but seeing how somebody's life is changed through the work that we do has been very encouraging, knowing it will live beyond us and be of help, is really a big help to us."

A May 22 ceremony at St. Matthew's Church in Fairbanks celebrated the translation, said the Rev. Scott Fisher, rector. "People are really excited about it."

Gamboa is also making audio recordings of the New Testament translation so those who don't read can still listen to the Scriptures. She also attended a recent "language summit" in Beaver to help organize efforts to revitalize and preserve Gwich'in, she said.

"Her efforts are greatly appreciated by our people," said Charleen Fisher, who organized a recent three-day gathering to develop a strategic plan for language and cultural preservation.

"During the gathering we had readings at St. Matthew's Mission in Beaver from the New Testament that she worked on with the Wycliffe folks," Fisher said. "The previous bible was in Takudh, which is an older orthography, so most people can't read it. Even if they know the language and the vocabulary and the words, you still have to have familiarity to decode the writing system.

Now, "it's easier for people to read and provides more access to Gwich'in terms and to a lot of people who want to hear it," said Fisher, 40, a principal teacher at a one-room schoolhouse in Beaver in the Yukon Flats school district.

The Episcopal Diocese of Alaska and St. Matthew's Mission are partnering, through a $50,000 state grant from Alaska's "Strengthening our Communities" initiative, to strengthen and further preserve the Gwich'in language, according to the Rev. Canon Ginny Doctor, diocesan canon to the ordinary.

Charleen Fisher, whose father is the Rev. Scott Fisher, wrote the grant. She said the gathering "brought together stakeholders, parents, policymakers, youth, educators, and also those working in preservation and documentation of cultural elements plus language." The ultimate goal is to come up with a strategic plan to work with elders to document cultural elements, including practices as well as the language," she said.

Doctor agreed. "The Diocese of Alaska has long been a supporter of the revitalization of the native languages in our Alaska Native churches along the rivers in central and northern Alaska," she said.

"The goal is to preserve the language while simultaneously aiming at a 'Department of Language' for the diocese. It was very powerful to hear many voices reading from the just-released Gwich'in New Testament, as we sat on the steps of St. Matthew's Church, on the north bank of the Yukon River," she added in an article summarizing the event.

Collaborating with the diocese "is really important as organizations begin to work together in the Native language revitalization effort," she added.

The diocese also received a grant from Executive Council's Committee on Indigenous Ministry for post-production costs and to supplement the cost for travel, Doctor said.

"We believe that restoring the language is instrumental in restoring the spirituality of the people of the land," Doctor added. "There is still much work to be done but all realized that it needs to be carried forth."