Parishioners reclaim Ojibwe language through hymn translation

Larry Martin, retired director of American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, is pictured in this undated photo. He leads music at Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis and helps translate hymns and psalms into Ojibwe for the Indian ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (CNS photo/Maria Wiering, The Catholic Spirit)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) – Holding a wooden flute, Larry Martin stood during a recent Mass and welcomed the congregation to join the responsorial psalm. He began: "Aw ge-chi-twaaa-wen-daa-go-zid, Gi-gi-zhe-ma-ni-doo-mi-nann."

The language was Ojibwe, and the words translated to "Our God is one who is glorious," taken from Psalm 19.

Martin, a 79-year-old director emeritus of American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, worked with another language expert to convert the English to Ojibwe, the traditional language of many of the American Indian Catholics who worship at Gichitwaa Kateri in south Minneapolis, Martin's parish.

Most of them can't speak their ancestors' language, but it's meaningful to pray in it, he said. "It helps them give voice to their Indian identity," he said.

Gichitwaa Kateri is home of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' Office of Indian Ministry. Since 2018, Martin and fellow parishioner Rick Gresczyk have translated into Ojibwe most of the responsorial psalms used in the church's three-year Sunday Mass cycle. Their work built on a project they began years earlier to translate popular hymns such as "Ode to Joy," "Hail, Holy Queen" and "How Can I Keep from Singing?"

Their accomplishments caught the attention of Catholics planning Pope Francis' visit to Canada this July. At the request of the visit's organizers, Martin submitted a few hymns for consideration, including "Wezhitooyan Gakina Go" and "Hymn for Kateri Tekakwitha."

The first, an Ojibwe creation song Martin and Gresczyk composed, was inspired by three sources: an Old English creation hymn, an Ojibwe creation story and a hymn attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great.

The second hymn was created by Father Jan Michael Joncas, a well-known liturgical composer and recently retired priest of the archdiocese. In 2012, he collaborated with the Gitchitwaa Kateri community to craft a hymn to celebrate the canonization of the parish's namesake.

Although the hymns he submitted were not ultimately used during the papal visit, Martin thinks that might be partly due to regional difference: The Ojibwe dialect spoken in Canada differs from the dialect Martin and Gresczyk use, he said. He feels it was an honor for the hymns to even be considered.

In addition to translating popular Catholic hymns and psalms, the two men have set to music Ojibwe-language prayers of Bishop Frederic Baraga, the first bishop of Marquette, Michigan.

Like elements of Pope Francis' Canadian pilgrimage, Martin and Gresczyk's translation initiative is tied to culture reclamation efforts underway in the U.S. and Canada, in response to the Indian boarding school era, where American Indian and Indigenous children were removed from their homes and sent to government-funded schools, some run by Catholic religious orders and dioceses, where they were often not allowed to speak their native languages or express their cultures.

"The church is responsible for damage to language, so we thought we should do something about bringing it back," said Martin, who is Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe.

For the translations, Martin credits Gresczyk's deep knowledge of Ojibwe. Martin doesn't consider himself fluent, but says he can tweak grammar and align Gresczyk's translations with the chosen melodies.

Gresczyk now lives in northern Minnesota, so the two mostly collaborate by phone.

Shawn Phillips, director of the archdiocese's Office of Indian Ministry and pastoral minister at Gichitwaa Kateri, said the translations help parishioners pray and learn more about their culture and heritage. He hopes one day there will be a similar effort to translate prayers into Dakota, so both of the primary Native American cultures in Minnesota would be represented, he said.

The translation effort is important, Phillips said, because "God will speak to them in their own language."

"That was the Pentecost message," he said. "It wasn't that the Gospel be in Greek or in Roman, but ... all of these people could understand it. It's that God cares about us and speaks to us in our own language and knows us intimately."


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