Anvil journal of theology and mission
Story of the First Nations Version project
by Terry Wildman
In August 2021 InterVarsity Press published the First Nations Version (FNV) of the New Testament. It is said to be the first English translation of the New Testament “done by Natives for Natives”, offering a remarkable gift not only to the First Nations peoples but to the wider body of Christ. In this short article Terry Wildman, a First Nations American, tells some of his own story of what inspired him to produce this translation and how he, working with a translation council of 12 Native Americans, brought this very distinctive version of the New Testament into being.
Boozhoo Niijii bimadazig, Terry Wildman nindishnakaz.
Hello my friends who share this life together with me. My name is Terry Wildman. I was born and raised in Michigan. My ancestry includes Ojibwe from Ontario, Canada, Yaqui from Sonora, Mexico, as well as English, German and Spanish. As a US Veteran, I completed two years of honourable service in the US Army at the end of the Vietnam era. I am married to Darlene Wildman and have five children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. My wife and I currently live in Maricopa, Arizona, on the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham and Pima.
Christian ministry has been my life for over 40 years, with over 20 years’ pastoral service, five years’ missionary work among the Hopi, 10 years travelling in cross-cultural evangelism with Native Americans, and over five years in Bible translation in partnership with OneBook of Canada. My education has been eclectic and informal, combined with some formal college classes. I have been serving with Native InterVarsity as the director of spiritual growth and leadership development since June 2020.
The seeds for the First Nations Version were planted in me nearly 20 years ago while living on the Hopi Indian Reservation and serving as a pastor with the American Baptist Sunlight Mission on Second Mesa. I found a Hopi New Testament translation in storage at the church building but soon learned that almost no one could read it. A little later I discovered this was true across North America for all the tribes. While the missionaries were translating the Bible into Native languages, the government, with the help of church organisations, was stripping our Native peoples of their languages through the boarding schools. Adults were not taught to read in their language, and in the boarding schools, children were forbidden to even speak their languages.
After much research on the internet and with different mission organisations, I soon discovered that there was no English translation specifically for Native people. I began to experiment with rewording portions of Scripture and using them in small groups and in jail ministry with Hopis and Navajos. The response was surprising and encouraging. The men and women began to interact more with Scripture, asking meaningful questions and relating more to what they were reading.
Since my wife and I were recording artists, with two music CDs at that time, I decided to record a spoken-word CD retelling the Biblical story in a Native way, as a condensed story from Creation to Christ. We called it The Great Story From the Sacred Book. We submitted it to the Native American Music Awards in 2008 and won the award for Best Spoken Word.
After that, my wife and I began travelling. We shared reworded portions of Scripture at Tribal centres, Native churches, powwows and more. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The CD became one of our best online sellers. As we shared these reworded Scripture portions, we kept getting requests for more. One Native elder told us, “You say it in English the way we think it in our language.” Many kept wanting to know which Bible we were reading from.
Finally, in November 2012 my wife and I attended a meeting on the Torres–Martinez Reservation, in Southern California, to explore reconciliation. Several organisations were involved. I was asked to share some of my Scripture rewordings. I also asked for prayer regarding the need for this kind of translation. After prayer and much encouragement from others, I finally became convinced that I was the one called to do this translation. I put out a request to our supporters and soon a significant sum came in that would cover me working on it for six months.
Beginning with the Christmas story, we soon published a hardcover children’s book, Birth of the Chosen One, to raise awareness of the project. Then, in 2014, we published When the Great Spirit Walked Among Us, a harmony of the Gospels told in the style of the FNV. Finally, in January 2015, I began the verse-by-verse translation of the New Testament. Early in my efforts, on 1 April 2015, we received an email from Wayne Johnson, then CEO of OneBook Canada, a Bible translation organisation. He had discovered our FNV project website from a Google search. In June 2015, after several phone conversations and a meeting together, Rain Ministries, our non-profit, entered into a partnership with OneBook to produce the First Nations Version of the New Testament.
I was encouraged to form a translation council to help guide the process. We formed a council of 12 from different tribal heritages and geographic regions, both elders and young people, men and women. In September and October of that year leaders from OneBook and Wycliffe Associates gathered our council together for a week in Orlando, Florida, and then three weeks in Calgary, Canada. These gatherings helped us determine the method of translation and establish over 180 key terms used in the New Testament.
It was decided that since I had been developing the translation style for several years, I would do all the initial translation, and then other First Nations volunteers would review and make suggestions. More detailed information can be found on our website: FirstNationsVersion.com
In the first two years of this project, Rain Ministries produced two paperback books, Gospel of Luke and Ephesians and Walking the Good Road: The Gospels, Acts, and Ephesians. Several ministries have adopted and adapted the use of these for their Native departments, including Foursquare Native Ministries, Lutheran Indian Ministries, Montana Indian Ministries, Native InterVarsity and Cru Nations. The response has been greater than we expected. The FNV New Testament has been published by InterVarsity Press and was released on 31 August 2021.
On 1 July 2022, InterVarsity Press agreed to publish the First Nations Version of Psalms and Proverbs. We anticipate a two-year time frame and have formed a new translation council to launch the project.
More information about the Psalms and Proverbs project can be found here: https://firstnationsversion.com/about/fnv-psalms-proverbs/
As far as we know, this is the first English translation done by Natives for Natives. Our prayer is that it will open Native hearts to Creator Sets Free (Jesus) and that it will be a gift from our Native people to the dominant culture in the US and to the body of Christ in English-speaking nations worldwide.
Miigwech Bizendowiyeg (thank you for listening)