FARGO, N.D. — Native American Catholics are being urged to become language “warriors” and to help preserve their culture in liturgy and song.
Native language was a key topic at the Tekakwitha Conference held in Fargo this summer, and its diversity was evident in 750 attendees representing some 135 different tribes.
Beating a native drum, Sister Mary Shiose, a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament, treated a workshop to a Mass song in Keresan, a language of her people, the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.
Lawrence Martin of the Gichitwaa Kateri Circle of Minneapolis and the former director of American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, led a prayer service that included a responsorial psalm in the Ojibwe language. The response was sung: “Manidoo Aki” — pronounced “ma knee do ah key” — or “The Earth Is the Lord’s.”
At the conference’s closing Mass, the Our Father was sung in a Yupik language by members of the Aurora Lights Kateri Circle of Anchorage, Alaska.
Native Americans have good reason to be concerned about losing their languages.
There are 191 native languages in the U.S. and 87 in Canada that are endangered or already extinct, according to a UNESCO online atlas.
During a Tekakwitha Conference workshop titled “Native Language and Liturgy,” facilitators Martin and Rick Gresczyk, also from Gichitwaa Kateri Circle, asked a room full of people to raise their hand if they spoke their native tongue. About a third responded that they did.
Then they asked how many people in the room had translated contemporary liturgical music into their language. Five people indicated they had.
Rick encouraged those in the room to become “warriors for the language.”
“We have to get the language in front of people’s faces” if it is to survive, he said.
A professor of language studies, Rick also told the Tekakwitha gathering that cultural identity is closely aligned with language. If language dies, so may identity.
He said language preservation requires immersion education, the involvement of first-language speakers and commitment.
Both men of Ojibwe heritage gave examples of how the Ojibwe language is used in song and prayer each Sunday at Gichitwaa Kateri, an urban Minneapolis parish founded by Ojibwe and Dakota Catholics.
They have written original music in Ojibwe and also have translated traditional liturgical music.
Translating songs offers a unique set of challenges.
“In Ojibwe if you say ‘love,’ it takes six syllables,” said Martin. In English it’s one. And the same is true for the words faith and hope. “So, if you translate ‘faith, hope and love,’ that’s a whole verse,” he added.
He said setting translations to familiar music also has its difficulties, but noted that music notation applications can help. Since most people in their parish are not fluent in Ojibwe, they have had to experiment with ways to produce song sheets that include both the Ojibwe and English words.
Sources for Catholic prayers and music in native languages also exist in the special collections and archives at Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Archivist Mark G. Thiel oversees the university’s Native American Catholic archive, which is likely the largest of its kind.
“There’s quite a volume of material that we can provide electronically,” Thiel said.
The collection includes hymnals, Bibles, prayer books, pictorials and choir recordings in more than 30 languages.
The archive, located in the university’s J.P. Raynor, S.J., Library, is open to visitors and researchers. Information also is available online at www.marquette.edu.