Terry M. Wildman, of the Ojibwe and Yaqui tribes, is the lead translator, project manager and general editor of the First Nations Version (FNV). The FNV is the first known translation of the New Testament into a culturally relevant style for the Indigenous peoples of North America. Wildman, founder of Rain Ministries, is also director of spiritual growth and leadership development for Native InterVarsity.
To compare how the First Nations Version may differ from other Bible translations, here is John 3:16-17 in the FNV and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):
(FNV) 16 “The Great Spirit loves this world of human beings so deeply he gave us his Son—the only Son who fully represents him. All who trust in him and his way will not come to a bad end, but will have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony. 17 Creator did not send his Son to decide against the people of this world, but to set them free from the worthless ways of the world….”
(NRSV) 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him….”
However, before diving into the interview, Wildman gave a land acknowledgement and explanation of why he pursued the creation of this particular translation:
My wife and I, we both live in Maricopa, Arizona. We live on the traditional lands of the Pima and the Tohono O’odham.
This First Nations Version is our attempt to capture the beauty, the simplicity of our native heart languages, but in English, while remaining faithful to the original language of the New Testament. So it’s a translation by and for native North Americans and for all English-speaking people. And the reason we believe it’s needed is because of the generations of government assimilation policies that were participated in by many church and mission organizations. And so because of them, many of our First Nations people do not read in their own languages. They read in English. So I just wanted to say some of those things upfront, so we have a base for what we’re talking about.
Are you looking to translate the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible as well? If so, what do you think that process will be like?
Well, for sure, we’re going to translate at least portions of it. We’re still praying about the whole thing because that’s a massive project. So to answer your question on the Hebrew Bible, we are praying about it. We’ve already worked on a few portions of it. If we do the whole thing, we’ll do it through the translation council and many Native reviewers. We’d use pretty much the same process we’ve used for the New Testament, except, of course, we’d be working with the Hebrew Scriptures and the Aramaic Scriptures.
Were there any particularly difficult passages to translate?
Well, I don’t know if I could identify individual passages that were difficult. It got easier as we went. It took me a couple of years to kind of develop this style. And then we added the translation council, we added all the reviewers and started a group process. So probably, for me, the hardest book would have been 1 and 2 Corinthians. And it’s because of all the issues that “Small Man” (Paul) is dealing with, with the Corinthians, the churches, and all the different things that he’s warning them about. And the issues that are happening, like the wearing of head coverings. Trying to get that idea across to our Native people… So we had to add some explanations here and there in the translation, to kind of make it clear what Paul may be talking about here and how to relate it to our Native cultures.
Recent months have resurfaced the reality of Catholic and Protestant boarding schools for Indigenous/First Nations children in North America. How do you see the First Nations Version’s place in the reality and history of Christian colonization of Indigenous peoples?
My wife and I traveled for 10 years visiting reserves and reservations and working at reconciliation between Native and non-Native people. And we have a lot of non-Native people who are pretty ignorant about what’s happened. They just don’t know, they weren’t taught in school. They weren’t brought up to learn these things. So I think it’s very important that people learn the whole story. The whole story needs to be told because it’s part of the story of this land. And what I love about the Bible is that it does not try to hide the bad parts of the story. There are bad parts to the story, things that we need to own up to—Israel had to own up to the bad parts of their stories. Peter had to own up to his bad part of his story. But he never tried to hide it, you know? And so we really desire this.
And let me read to you from the dedication of the First Nations Version, I think it might answer the question. It says:
“This translation of the good story is dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, (North America)—the Tribal Nations that call this land home. We pray the First Nations Version will bring healing to those who have suffered under the dominance of colonial governments who, with the help of churches and missionary organizations, often took our land, our languages, our cultures, and even our children. As our Tribal Nations work hard to reclaim what has been stolen, it is our hope that the colonial language that was forced upon us can now serve our people in a good way, by presenting Creator Sets Free (Jesus) in a more culturally relevant context.”
So that’s kind of how we see the First Nations Version. We have hope that non-Native people who have a great interest in this already will—some of the suspicion, some of the barriers, some of the misunderstandings—that it’ll create an interest in our Native people and our stories, and how we view the world, and to learn more about our Native people. For our Native people, I hope it’ll help break down some of the walls between the church and Native peoples and to present Jesus in a way that our Native people can make up our own minds about these things. You know, instead of being told what to believe, we get to read what’s there and figure out, “Do we believe this? Do we? How would we follow this if we believe that it is something for us?” And so we hope that this translation will stir those good things up.
How do you hope this book will be received by First Nations peoples? And what kind of feedback have you already received?
Well, our hope is that it will be received more and more in the way it’s already been received, which has been very positive. And in the beginning, we did Luke and the book of Ephesians. So we’d have one Gospel and one letter written by two companions. Luke and Paul knew each other in that day and age. So we actually sent that out to many, many different Native people all over the place, we sent out hundreds of copies. We set up a thing online where they could give us feedback, and the feedback was 90% positive. So, you know, my thinking is, “Wow, I didn’t expect 90% because I know this isn’t for everybody.” And some Native people have been so assimilated that they are just not interested in reconnecting with culture, for whatever reason. Maybe because the way they’ve been taught.
But we’re hoping that this will reach Native people who have not yet heard the story of Jesus in a non-colonial way. If you know it and hear it in a more Native-friendly way… we know it’s not a perfect translation. We know it’s not for everyone, but we do have hope. And already, we’ve had people that have written us and told us it’s been used in Bible studies for groups like Native InterVarsity, by Cru Nations, and different organizations. The Montana Indian Ministries, which is a Southern Baptist ministry run by a Native, Bruce Plummer. He has adopted it as his main translation for their ministry. And also the same with Native InterVarsity, they have adopted it as their translation. And they use it in their Bible studies. And they have given us reports that just from reading it in some of the meetings where Native people who are interested in the story of Jesus have read it, and come to faith just based on reading it. So we’re just amazed at that feedback, and that’s our hope—that Native people will decide on their own—”Yeah, there’s something about Jesus that fits who I am as a Native person, and I can follow him.”
How would your life have been different if you had this book when you were younger, or when you were first learning about Christianity?
My story’s a little different. I didn’t grow up on the rez, I grew up just not knowing, like a lot of our Native people have grown up, without being connected to our cultures. Many have been, but there are many who haven’t been. And I knew I had Native heritage, my family would talk about it. But we didn’t go to powwows, we didn’t connect. So it was later in life when I felt Creator’s calling in my life to connect with our Native people. I began a journey of connecting back to the Ojibwe and the Yaqui people. I sought out the elders, I sought out others. I sat and listened to the stories. And I actually went through a naming ceremony and was mentored for a couple of years by a Native Anishinaabe elder who helped mentor me in our Native ways. And so I’ve had to come to that, but I wish, you know, we would have had this when I first began my journey. It would have been very helpful.
As a matter of fact, my wife and I are musicians. We’re called Rain Song, Rain Song Music, and we we’ve traveled for years—we visited powwows, we’ve done our music in different places, and our music was kind of the beginning of taking the wording from, say, the Psalms, and different parts of the Scriptures, and putting it into song. And so that was kind of the beginning of making those connections and connecting with other Natives and elders who I could hear speak English in a more traditional way that was more connected with their heart languages. I read Black Elk, and Chief Joseph, and Chief Seattle, and all these older writings that gave a way of speaking by our elders.
And our hope was that Native people would hear this [the FNV] as an elder telling the story. In the feedback we’ve gotten, many people have actually said, “Oh, it felt like my grandpa was at the table telling me stories on the rez.”
How do you hope non-Indigenous people will receive this book?
My hope is that, again, since this project has been going on for five years, and since we published parts of it already, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback. And non-Indigenous people, non-Native people have loved it. I had an interview just the other day with a podcaster asking about the First Nations Version. He’s not Native, and he had a copy of it. And he says, ‘It’s the Bible’s coming alive to me again. I read the Beatitudes, and those old familiar words and ways of saying it, I was growing tired of. And all of a sudden here’s a new way to say it, it says the same thing but it brought it fresh and made it deeper.”
And so it’s really been amazing. We’ve had people from Ireland and Great Britain that have told us they love it. We’ve had Asian people tell us they love it, and use it, and read it. So we believe it’s going to go to a lot of non-Native people, and we think that as we look at other Indigenous cultures, this may be a tool, a way to help them connect. So we see this as not only a gift to our Native people, but a gift from our Native people to other cultures and people, and to the dominant culture.
Can you talk about the significance of the Indigenous practice of naming something or someone and what that process is like?
There’s so many different tribes and Native nations, and all of us have slightly different traditions for how we get our names. In my Anishinaabe culture, the Ojibwe, the names are usually given when the child is young and maybe comes up to a certain age, sometimes it’s when they’re born. The clan members will come together and give them several names, and the names are often based on prayer—they seek Creator, they seek the spiritual destiny of this person. And then they give a name that matches that idea or that destiny that they believe that the person or family member has. They’re not always given by family members, sometimes the medicine people will give names. Sometimes a name is given after a vision quest. Sometimes a name is given young, and then when the person’s older and is ready to become a full adult member of the Native society and the Native community, a new name is given at that time.
And that’s what we did in the First Nations Version, because the Hebrew people have the same kind of tradition of naming people with a meaning to the names. Of course, we know Abraham is “father of many nations.” That’s real clear, because the Scripture actually says his name means “father of many nations.” But all the names have meaning…Jesus’ name has meaning. Peter’s name has meaning. So we just gave a Native North American slant to the meaning of the name, but we looked up the meaning for every name and every place in the New Testament. And that was a challenge to get all those names figured out.
Of all the names you could have chosen for Jesus, why ‘Creator Sets Free?’
In the back of the First Nations Version New Testament, we have a glossary that explains why we translated a lot of different things the way we did, and we wanted to especially explain how we translated His name, because He’s the most important person there. I mean, he’s the Son of the Great Spirit, he’s the Creator in the flesh, you know, in the human body. So we just went to the Hebrew meaning of his name. So in the Hebrew, Yeshua would be his name. Yeshua is a breakdown of two words in Hebrew: one is the name of the Creator, the Hebrew name for “creator.” It’s the shortened version—yeh. And of his full name, YH’WH. And so the second part of the name, shua. I’m not sure how to pronounce it… I’m not a Hebrew scholar. But I can read what Hebrew scholars say. And that means “to deliver, to save, to set free.” And there’s a particular scripture in Matthew that says, “they gave Him the name Jesus because He would save His people from their sins.” We said that “He would set His people free from their bad hearts and broken ways.”
What is your prayer over this book as you go forward?
My prayer is that people everywhere, Native, Indigenous, non-Native, will find in these words the intention that the original authors who wrote these words meant when they told the story of Creator Sets Free. My prayer is that the words themselves and the spirit of our Creator, the Holy Spirit, will work together with these words to help people everywhere find this kind of life that He offers. That’s my dream. That’s my hope.
And I also have an idea: this isn’t a tribally specific version. It’s more a general group way of speaking English. I’m wondering if there’s people out there, Native people, say the Lakota or the Cree or another tribe might say, “Hey, we should do one that’s tribally specific for us.” And then maybe there could be an English version side by side with the Native language to revitalize our languages, which many tribes are doing right now—we’re working at revitalizing our languages, and it’s a hard job but we’re doing it. Doing an English translation in no way takes away from the beauty of our own tribal languages.
Our hope is that maybe there will be some other more tribally specific versions of this done by others. We hope to inspire something.
The Jesus Film Project is working on an animated short film series called “Retelling the Good Story” that relies on the First Nations Version translation.