I have been curious to find stories from the early days of encounters between Natives and settlers from the early days around Cape Cod, from the moment when two worldviews met, to see what was in the air in the moment before one assumed dominance over the other. I have been following the story of Richard Bourne who lived in my hometown of Sandwich and was an early minister and missionary to the Wampanoag people. He helped to establish the neighboring town of Mashpee and was frequently called upon as the arbitrator when it came to land deeds and to drawing the first borders around Sandwich and Barnstable. The intention of the settlers was to recreate as closely as possible the English-style towns they left and to gather Natives willing to convert to Christianity into “Praying Towns” led by Native converts under colonial jurisdiction. Bourne spoke some Wampanoag language and is credited with translating the Lord’s Prayer into Wampanoag.
This detail piqued my interest, as learning a language requires relationship and a strong desire to communicate and to be understood. Who was teaching Bourne the Wampanoag language? And what were those first communications like with the ones he was learning from? I can hardly imagine the many hours spent of mistakes, misunderstanding, and then understanding.
After the Lord’s Prayer, the English Bible was translated into Algonquin and printed at the press at the Harvard Indian College in 1663. It is known by the name of the missionary who oversaw the project, John Eliot.
Lisa Brooks points out that the Eliot Bible project gained momentum when James the Printer, the Nipmuc man who ran the printing press at the Harvard Indian College, and 4 or 5 of his Native companions became involved in the translation.
The other sign that makes it clear it was Natives who translated is the way they brought to the text their own way of seeing the world. Translation is never direct letter for letter. The indigenous worldview is infused throughout the translated version, and the Algonquin spiritual cosmology speaks through it. It contains points of view that Puritan ministers at the time would have found blasphemous to their cultural worldview.
One example Lisa Brooks gives is that in the Psalter, “My God” is translated as “Num-Manittoom,” where “Manittoom” is the animating spirit that flows through all things. It is the life force itself. There is no concept in Algonquin of good and evil, heaven or hell, and so this life force is one that has the potential for both creation and destruction. And Manittoom has the pronoun “Num,” “my dearly beloved,” where “my” is relational and not possessive. There is no way to talk about a divine power that was only externalized. In these two words we can understand that there is a personal relationship to the life force that runs through everything.
This is the worldview that has long been woven in to the landscape of the Northeast, still multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and trans-national. These worldviews are well supported to be reincorporated into our society and the way we live in this place today.