Today is the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Katrina Tjitayi’s house is the last on an unnamed street on the outskirts of Pukatja (also known as Ernabella), in the Pitjantjatjara community on the APY Lands in the northwest of South Australia. The Musgrave Ranges rise in the distance; the red earth glows beneath the setting sun and the bray of feral donkeys echoes through the dusk. It’s been a long day. We were up at dawn for an Easter Sunday church service, where we made our way to the top of the hill behind the community which is topped with a giant white cross. From there we watched the sunrise and thanked God for a new beginning, with prayers in the local Pitjantjatjara language, and in English.
The day also saw the launch of the Book of Daniel, the first book of the Old Testament to be published in Pitjantjatjara since a new project was started in 2011 to complete Australia’s first traditional Aboriginal language Bible.
The Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia have the New Testament in their own language, which was dedicated in 2002. In 2011, a new generation of Bible translators – mostly children of the Indigenous translators who worked for many years to complete the New Testament – came forward to finish the job.
“I was thinking for a long time, we should have the whole Bible done,” Katrina tells me. “It was in my heart all the time.”
Katrina’s mother and father were Bible translators before her. Now, she is one of the leaders on the project. She’s gone to Bible college to study translation. So for her, the launch of the Book of Daniel at Easter was a big moment.
“The people were really happy about the Book of Daniel. And I’ve seen and heard a lot of people talking about it, who’ve read it for the first time,” she says.
The Book of Daniel translation was a collaborative effort from Pitjantjatjara people in Pukatja and Amata to the west, another of the six main Aboriginal communities on “The Lands”. The process of translation draws people together, which is one of the things Katrina loves most about the work she has committed her life to.
There are over 30 Pitjantjatjara translators working on the Old Testament project, with translation consultant Paul Eckert from Bible Society Australia working with them. Almost 15 more Pitjantjatjara people from Fregon, another community in “The Lands” expressed their interest earlier this year to learn more about how to become volunteer translators. The team is now working on translating Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Psalms, 1 and 2 Samuel, Joel and Job.
“When the translators come together to talk and share about the stories we’re working on, it really helps us,” says Katrina. “It’s a good way for us to have a good relationship and work together to do the drafts. We go to the old people and look for words. Sometimes we get stuck with how to translate a word. I often call my mother and say ‘I can’t translate this word, can you help me?’ We’re always learning about our language through the older people and those around us.”
Paul Eckert, a Bible Society translation consultant who has been working with the Pitjantjatjara people for close to 30 years, says the depth of Bible knowledge in the Pitjantjatjara community has grown exponentially because of the translation work itself, let alone the final product that allows even more people to read it.
“In many ways, becoming a volunteer translator is like doing a Bible college course. The Pitjantjatjara translators are really getting into the Word very deeply and understanding it really well. They like to work together, and talk things through, so the discussion about God’s Word that happens within these communities is really exciting.
“It means that while we’re translating, there’s Bible study happening and people are leaving our translation sessions and talking to their relatives and friends about what they’ve just translated. The messages from each book we’re translating start filtering through the community before the words themselves are even printed,” says Paul.
Katrina says the Bible translation work is a good way for young people to learn more about the Pitjantjatjara language too, something she is passionate about. “They’re losing some words,” she says of the young people in her community. “They’re speaking in different ways. But we want them to be strong in reading and writing and for them to learn the language.”
“I have a heart for children,” she says. She and some other Christian women in the community helped run a camp and taught the stories about Joseph and his rainbow coat. Her theme: “You are special.”
“Sometimes kids here think that they are not wanted.”
For Katrina, that sentiment couldn’t be more wrong. Her heart is for children, like her grandson Errol (on the cover), to know they are loved by their creator. She shares that commitment with other community leaders, such as Yanyi, who tells me she is worried that not many children and young people in Pukatja are interested in Christianity.
“Only God will bring our kids back to him,” she says. She wants the Bible in Pitjantjatjara to teach the younger people in the community in their own language and show them how important it is.
Already, with years of work ahead on completing the Old Testament translation, Katrina is looking for ways to use the newly published books of the Bible, such as Daniel, to teach the Pitjantjatjara children.
“We can make more activities through those stories for kids and young people to learn the Bible,” she says. Some of the translation team is working on a comic book of the recently completed Book of Daniel. Deborah Burton, one of the translators in Pukatja, is drawing her drafts on canvas.
“This is a big job for us. Our parents and old people have been working for 20 or 30 years on this project. We all think that God will help us. That’s my future, on this project. There’s a lot of translation to do. When we finish the whole Bible, we’ll have all the activities for kids and young people to do the Bible study. That’s our future and we’re thinking ahead about what we’re going to do next.”
Top image: Katrina (centre) watches the sunrise over Pukatja in Central Australia with two other Pitjantjatjara translators before a day of worship and thanksgiving on Easter Sunday. Source: Kaley Payne