Native elder translating the Bible into Cree

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IN 1929, when Margaret Ducharme was only 11, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and dispatched by train to a sanatorium in Prince Albert, Sask. It was hundreds of miles from her family on Red Pheasant Reserve near North Battleford. She arrived in September but her father was not able to visit her until Christmas. She had never been away from home and was “terribly lonesome.”

But on the train she met a 15-year-old Cree boy, Stan Cuthand from neighbouring Little Pine Reserve and they struck up a friendship. Stan, who was attending high school in Prince Albert, visited young Margaret often during her three-year stay at “the san” and brought along several school friends.

Today Rev. Cuthand, 82, and Mrs. Ducharme, 78, are still close friends and work as colleagues on a Western Cree Bible translation project. Mr. Cuthand is the primary translator while Mrs. Ducharme with her younger sister Hazel Wuttunee, 75, and Ethel Ahenakew, 58, review Mr. Cuthand’s drafts and make revisions.

Now, however, it is Mr. Cuthand’s health that is precarious. He has had a quadruple heart bypass, yet still manages to work at his computer several hours a day. He has translated a condensed version of the Old Testament and 25 per cent of the New Testament. It may take another two years to finish drafting the New Testament and another five years to review it.

Mr. Cuthand’s father had worked briefly in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and after visiting New York became convinced that aboriginals would be better served with a formal education. He wanted his people to be more than hunters and trappers. Nor did farming look promising during the Dirty 30s. It was Cuthand senior who persuaded church officials to establish Little Pine Day School on the reserve.

When only a Grade 7 student, young Stan was encouraged by his teacher, Annie Cunningham, to regularly interpret the sermons of a non-native priest. The boy interpreted so well that he eventually went on to preach himself.

He studied at Emmanuel College in Saskatoon, where most of the young men were being prepared to reach urban, middle-class congregations.

Ordained a priest in 1945, Mr. Cuthand was stationed in Lac La Ronge and travelled by dog team in winter and by canoe in summer to reach his remote congregations at Stanley Mission, Pelican Narrows and Deschambault Lake. Occasionally he would fly with bush pilots to minister to fishermen, hunters and trappers. He later served at Hines Lake and Punnichy Missions in Saskatchewan and Blood Mission in Alberta.

In 1979, Mr. Cuthand and his wife, Christina, served for two years as missionaries in Ecuador, where Stan oversaw five schools for the Quechua Indians.

Mr. Cuthand was the first person to teach Cree at the university level with former First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi as one of his first students. Mr. Cuthand currently teaches Cree culture and history, indigenous systems of religion and international indigenous issues at the University of Regina.

“A lot of healing comes from knowing who you are, knowing your identity. And the Cree language, the culture, is how you get the concepts. Then you understand yourself, and you understand the old people and why they say certain things. It’s all based on the language. You can’t separate language and culture.”

Mr. Cuthand helped write the constitution for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians. He also collaborated on several CBC Radio Ideas programs and co-hosted CBC North Country Fair. For pleasure he writes light fiction in Cree but it is Bible translation that he holds dearest.

Western Cree is the largest First Nations group in Canada with a population of over 50,000 people. At least 35,000 are fluent speakers. The Western Cree (the term refers to both Plains and Woods Cree) live on a broad swath across northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

A Bible should be revised every 50 years if it is to speak clearly to the next generation. In 1862, a Western Cree Bible was published and the Old Testament was revised in 1908. But Western Cree, like any living language, constantly changes and a completely modern version is crucial.

Early Cree culture was a hunting society so when the Bible was first translated into Cree, there were no Cree agricultural terms. Sheep were simply “small animals” and there was no term for shepherd or sheaves. Donkeys had been translated as “jack rabbits” and threshing as “boxing”. All terms for “discipline”, “chastisement” and “admonishment” were poorly translated with the one Cree word for “whipping.”

But Cree culture grasps some Biblical concepts better than European cultures do. Cree mythology is full of resurrection stories and self-sacrifice. The strong extended family is far more common in Biblical and Cree culture than in modern Western culture.

For the past 14 years, the coordinator of the translation team has been another Anglican priest, Rev. Bob Bryce, 64. Mr. Bryce ministered to native congregations for 20 years. It was while serving on Red Pheasant Reserve that he met Margaret Ducharme and Hazel Wuttunee.

Mr. Bryce so respected the sisters that he asked them to be godmothers to his two adopted native children.

As a priest, Mr. Bryce quickly found that “church services come alive when they are conducted in the language of the people. The Gospel in their own language grabs people where they live and changes their lives.”

After the committee revises Mr. Cuthand’s drafts, they will be tested in the wider Cree community with both church attenders and non-attenders and with young and old alike. Only after this community-wide revision will the Canadian Bible Society prepare the Western Cree Bible for publication. That may not be until 2008 – not a moment too soon for Stan Cuthand, who would then be 89, or the Cree community.

Sue Careless is a Toronto freelance writer.

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