The First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament is a translation of the New Testament designed to sound like the oral stories of the Native people of North America. Around 2000, Terry M. Wildman, a Native Methodist minister and director for InterVarsity found a Hopi translation of the New Testament but couldn’t find anyone who knew the language well enough to read and translate it. Since most indigenous peoples in North America do not speak their ancestral language, he had the idea of a Bible translation in English that followed the oral storytelling traditions of Native people. Wildman started by rephrasing Bible passages for inmates in a prison ministry. He found the cadences and word choice resonated with other Native people also. In 2015, OneBook Canada, a ministry that helps translate the Bible into local languages, offered to fund Wildman’s translation efforts. The former head of Wycliffe Bible Translators, Canada, and over a thousand Native pastors and theologians from dozens of nations provided input. The translation was published in 2021 by Rain Ministries.
First Nations Version - Translation method
The translation is unapologetically thought-for-thought or dynamic but with specific word choices that reflect Native culture. For example, “boat” is “canoe,” “bread” is often “fry bread,” “rabbi” is “wisdomkeeper,” “temple” is “sacred lodge,” “synagogue” is “gathering houses,” and “baptism” is “purification ceremony.” Names are presented for the most part literally but sometimes symbolically, with the English name in parentheses after. Jesus is “Creator Sets Free,” John is “Gift of Goodwill,” Paul is “Small Man,” Herod is “Looks Brave.” Israel is “Wrestles with Creator,” Jerusalem is “Village of Peace,” and Rome is “Village of Iron.”
The names and titles of God are also translated. “The Lord” and “God” are “Great Spirit,” “Creator,” or “Honored Chief,” depending on the context. “Messiah” is “Chosen One.” Other passages use “Great Mystery,” “Maker of Life,” “Giver of Breath,” “One Above Us All,” and “Most Holy One.”
The First Nations Version also includes inline notations identified by italics. Some serve the goal of making the text more like an oral story by adding descriptions of the scene. Between Mark 2:9 and 10, for example, is this note: “The room became quiet as he waited for an answer from them.” Some add clarity to the text; in the NIV, Matthew 24:28 reads, “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.” The FNV reads, “In the same way that gathering vultures are a sign of dead bodies, so these things are a sign of the end.” Other notations add explanation that would be common in any study Bible, such as the note after Luke 14:12 when the Prodigal Son asks for his inheritance: “This was a great insult to the father, for this would not have been done until the father had crossed over to death.”
First Nations Version - Pros and Cons
The text itself has distinctive pros and cons. Interpreting names into their meanings isn’t an issue. Reading “Israel” as “Wrestles with Creator” is accurate to the Hebrew and adds an interesting nuance in that it hints at how the Jewish leaders rejected their Messiah. The notes are italicized for the purpose of pointing out they’re not original to the text. Those that add to the milieu of the scene are for the most part harmless—they have no bearing on the message of the text. Some of the commentary is helpful; notes in Matthew 5:27–32 make it clear that Jesus was telling His audience to respect women. Some, however, lead to a misreading of the original meaning. In that same section of Matthew, a notation on verse 32 claims Jesus’ problem wasn’t with divorce but with men who sent their wives away without giving them divorce papers so they could remarry.
Some people are going to have a hard time with the more contextual translations. Where Matthew 6:11 in the NIV simply says, “Give us today our daily bread,” the FNV says, “Provide for us day by day—the elk, the buffalo, and the salmon. The corn, the squash, and the wild rice. All the things we need for each day.” And John the Baptist is described as wearing “a buffalo robe, with a deer-hide sash around his waist” (Matthew 3:4). Readers will have to decide if the contextualization impedes their understanding of theological truths and whether such changes categorize the First Nations Version as a paraphrase rather than a translation.
Some theological concepts are rendered in a way that may be confusing to those familiar with more common translations. “Creator’s good road” means “kingdom of God.” “Land of Creator’s good road from above” means “kingdom of heaven.” “Broken ways” and “bad hearts” mean “sin,” and “released from your broken ways” means “forgiven.”
More traditional Bibles are a result of taking a 2,000-year-old sacred text from the region of the Mediterranean Sea and translating it into English. It’s difficult for people from a European-based culture that has been so influenced by that text to judge a version that is contextualized into the Native American culture. We might have concerns that equating the God of the Bible with the Great Spirit or calling Jesus’ temptation a “vision quest” will cause misunderstanding. However, reading the Bible in a more familiar form may help the intended audience understand that Jesus’ offer of salvation is for them, too. More refined theology, hopefully, comes later, as it would for anyone who started by reading The Living Bible, for example. It would be important for those reading the First Nations Version to be able to consult a pastor or another grounded believer.
First Nations Version - Sample Verses
John 1:1–2, 14 — “Long ago, in the time before all days, before the creation of all things, the one who is known as the Word was there face to face with the Great Spirit. This Word fully represents Creator and shows us who he is and what he is like. He has always been there from the beginning, for the Word and Creator are one and the same. Creator’s Word became a flesh-and-blood human being and pitched his sacred tent among us, living as one of us. We looked upon his great beauty and saw how honorable he was, the kind of honor held only by this one Son who fully represented his Father—full of his great kindness and truth.”
John 3:16 — “‘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.’”
John 8:58 — “‘I speak from my heart,’ he answered. ‘I was there before Father of Many Nations (Abraham) was born—for I AM.’”
Ephesians 2:8–9 — “It is by trusting in the gift of his great kindness that we have been made whole. It is not because of any good thing we have done, but only by accepting a gift that we could never earn. In this way, no one can brag or boast about themselves, but only humbly give thanks.”
Titus 2:13 — “For we are looking and waiting for the blessing of the bright-shining appearance of the one who set us free and made us whole—our Great Spirit, Creator Sets Free (Jesus) the Chosen One.”