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USA News

Dream of a Mohawk Bible realised by Chief’s great-grandson

by Ros Mayfield

The first complete translation of Mohawk language Bible has been published in Canada.  Portions of the Bible in Mohawk were first published in 1715 in New York as part of a book of Morning and Evening Prayer.  Further translations and revisions appeared over the next couple hundred years, but this is the first time the entire Bible has been in print in the language, indigenous to North America.

Harvey Satewas Gabriel has been studying his native Mohawk language all his life, and dedicated decades of his life to his goal.  When he was 17, Harvey was amazed to hear his United Church minister, John Angus, translate the Scriptures into Mohawk as he preached.  It was the first time he had ever heard Mohawk read aloud.  From that day on, he began to think about translation. 

Fluent in Mohawk, Harvey was eventually asked to read the Scriptures in Mohawk at church, which required him to translate short passages. In 1980, these efforts led him to take on the challenge of translating the entire Bible. 

For more than 40 years he worked, with the support of his wife, Susan, and the support of the Mohawk community and the Canadian Bible Society (CBS).

Some of the work had already been done - an 1880 edition of the four Gospels, by Harvey’s great grandfather Chief Sosé Onasakenrat of Kanesatake, has been in use since its initial publication.  A team of helpers worked on 7 more books, which were published by the The Canadian Bible Society over the last twenty years, as they were approved:  2 Corinthians (2001), Jonah (2002), Ruth (2005), Daniel (2005), Esther (2006), Proverbs (2007), and Genesis (2014).  The remaining 55 were down to Harvey.

Funding from the United Church of Canada Foundation, the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake, and CBS – who also contributed linguistic and translation expertise, helped complete the task. In a recent interview with the Canadian Bible Society, 84-yr old Harvey said, “You never get tired, working with the Word of God. Never. You don't get tired.” 

In many Indigenous Canadian communities, the translation of and engagement with the Scriptures is seen as strategic and valuable for the revitalization of language and culture. The Canadian Bible Society says it hopes having the whole Bible in print will make a positive contribution to the life of the Mohawk church and to efforts to revitalize and teach the Mohawk language.

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