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Mohawk Bible is in the books

Kanehsata’kehró:non Harvey Satewas Gabriel began his translation of the Bible in earnest when he retired in 2005. Marcus Bankuti The Eastern Door

More than 150 years in the making, the first complete translation of the Bible into Kanien’kéha is not only a testament to one man’s faith, but a document that is no doubt among the most comprehensive Mohawk texts in existence.

Wrapped in the purple of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and printed on pages as thin and delicate as onion peels, Ohiatonhseratokénti: The Holy Bible in Mohawk hearkens back to a different era for the language, when Sosé Onasakenrat of Kanesatake, a reverend, translated the four gospels in the mid-1800s.

Onasakenrat’s great-grandson, Harvey Satewas Gabriel, grew up immersed in this legacy as a first-language speaker and devout Christian. The 83-year-old made it his mission over the past two decades to finish what Onasakenrat started.

Now, as Kanehsata’kehró:non and other Kanien’kehá:ka fight to fortify and preserve a language that was nearly extinguished by colonial violence – including at the hands of the church – Gabriel believes his translation represents a sophisticated record of the language that cannot be snuffed out.

“Jesus Christ said the heavens and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. My language is in the word of God; it’ll never be lost,” he said.

Gabriel traces the feat back to 1957. This is the year he first heard Kanien’kéha read aloud at church, when community member John Angus, an ordained minister of the United Church, was invited to deliver a service in Kanesatake.

“I used to go to church and there would be a white minister at the pulpit who’d be speaking only English. But reverend John Angus, when he started the service, it was all in Mohawk. That was like honey to my ears because I never heard any ministers speak Mohawk at the pulpit,” he said.

He was amazed as Angus translated Bible scripture on the spot from the English into Kanien’kéha as he read to the congregation.

When Gabriel got home, he asked his mother why there was no Kanien’kéha Bible. She replied it would be a big project. Who was going to do it? 

Those words planted a seed that sprouted in 1974 as he mowed his lawn: he would do it himself.

He planned to spend his retirement on the project, but in 1999, a group was formed to translate second Corinthians, a process in which Gabriel participated. It included Doris Montour, Josie Horn, Charlotte Provencher, Madeline Montour, and Mavis Etienne.

When he retired in 2005, he began translating the remaining books – all 58 of them – in earnest.

He frequently referred to Webster’s Dictionary to make sure he understood the nuance he needed to capture, determined to ensure his text captured the richness of Kanien’kéha.

“My language is my identity,” said Gabriel. “If somebody comes to me, I tell them who I am. I am a fluent Mohawk speaker. That’s the highest point for me.”

He worked with biblical scholars to ensure the quality of the translation, even translating his words back into English to demonstrate their fidelity to the Bible.

“This wasn’t just this guy sitting in his basement writing what he thought. The Canadian Bible Society was in there doing quality control of this with biblical language experts and academics who had been working with him over the years, just making sure there was the quality of the translation,” said Royal Orr, a board member of the United Church of Canada Foundation, which played a major role in funding the project in recent years.

“I just think the intellectual and artistic accomplishment here is remarkable. You think about sitting down and translating the bible, there’s all these different kinds of literary forms – poetry, narrative, legal codes – and he just did it and did it with an expertise that was recognized,” Orr said.

Gabriel’s wife, Susan Gabriel, views this literary depth as a vital tool now available to Kanien’kéha learners.

“The content of the language has every word you would ever need, from birth to death,” she said. “Social issues, war, peace, violence, marriage, gardening, farming – everything is in there, in terms of the words that are used to describe those things. A thing like that has never been written in Mohawk before as a whole, encompassing everything.”

She credited Harvey’s stubbornness and his devotion to the language as an important part of what enabled him to see such a massive project through to completion.

“Not much else rattles his cage other than people using the wrong words,” she said.

Harvey recalls instances when the professors he worked with would ask why he used different Kanien’kéha words in place of the same English word. “That’s the beauty of the Mohawk language,” he said. “You use the same word over and over again, it becomes like a kindergarten. I’m against that.”

Next, he hopes to record himself reading the book, so an audio document will also exist. In the meantime, he has welcomed local Kanien’kéha language students to his home to discuss the language. “I said when you get a copy, you’d better start reading it. There’s a lot of words in there that you will appreciate, the old Mohawk words.”

Three events will be held to mark the release of the translation.

The Canadian Bible Society will host a celebration in Caledonia, Ontario, on September 26. On October 1, a service will be held at 11 a.m. at the St. James United Church in Montreal in collaboration with the Montreal City Mission. It will be followed by a guided walk to the Mount Royal Cemetery grave of Onasakenrat at noon. A graveside gathering of Kanien’kehá:ka elders will take place at 1:30 p.m.

A dedication at the Kanesatake United Church will be held on Saturday, September 9 at 11 a.m. It will be followed by a banquet at Ratihén:te High School at 12:30 p.m.

This article was originally published in print on Friday, September 8, in issue 32.36 of The Eastern Door.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.