Parishioners reclaim the Ojibwe language through the translation of hymns

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ST. PAUL – Holding a wooden flute, Larry Martin stood during a recent service and welcomed the congregation to join in 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 “Our God is glorious” are 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 English into Ojibwe, the traditional language of many Native American Catholics who worship in Gichitwaa Kateri in southern Minneapolis, Martin’s Parish.

Most of them cannot speak the language of their ancestors, but it makes sense to pray in it, he said. “It helps them express their Native American identity,” he said.

Gichitwaa Kateri is the seat of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and the Ministry of India of Minneapolis. Since 2018, Martin and fellow parishioner Rick Gresczyk have translated into Ojibwe most of the responsorial psalms used in the church’s three-year cycle of Sunday masses. Their work built on a project they had started years earlier, translating popular anthems such as “Ode to Joy”, “Hail, Holy Queen” and “How Can I Keep from Singing”.

Her performances caught the attention of Catholics planning Pope Francis’ visit to Canada this July. At the request of the organizers of the visit, Martin submitted a number of hymns for consideration, including “Wezhitooyan Gakina Go” and “Hymn for Kateri Tekakwitha”.

The first, an Ojibwe creation song composed by Martin and Gresczyk, 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 Archdiocesan priest. In 2012 he collaborated with the Gitchitwaa Kateri congregation to compose a hymn to celebrate the canonization of the congregation’s namesake.

Although the hymns he submitted were ultimately not used during the papal visit, Martin believes this could be partly due to regional differences: the Ojibwe dialect spoken in Canada differs from the dialect used by Martin and Gresczyk, he said. He feels it was an honor for the anthems to be considered at all.

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

Like elements of Pope Francis’ Canadian pilgrimage, Martin and Gresczyk’s translation initiative is linked to cultural reclamation efforts in the United States and Canada in response to the era of Native American boarding schools, when Native American and Indigenous children were taken from and sent to their homes state-funded schools, some run by Catholic religious orders and dioceses, where they were often not allowed to speak their mother tongue or express their culture.

“The church is responsible for speech damage, so we thought we should do something to bring it back,” said Martin, who is Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe.

For the translations, Martin credits Gresczyk’s deep knowledge of Ojibwe. Martin considers himself not fluent, but says he can tweak the grammar and align Gresczyk’s translations with the tunes chosen.

Gresczyk now resides in northern Minnesota, so the two work together primarily over the phone.

Shawn Phillips, director of the Archdiocesan Ministry of India Office and Chaplaincy in Gichitwaa Kateri, said the translations help parishioners pray and learn more about their culture and heritage. He hopes there will someday be a similar effort to translate prayers into Dakota so that both primary Native American cultures are represented in Minnesota, 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 like the gospel was in Greek or in Roman, but … all these people could understand it. It is that God cares about us and speaks to us in our own language and knows us well.”

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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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