Indigenous voices praise God

During NAIDOC Week, First Peoples share their culture with the world

Indigenous women from remote Central Australia sang to the world last night as they shared songs, stories and their passion for translating the Bible into their own language.

The Ernabella Praise and Worship Singers were among the special guests who gave a “taste of indigenous culture” – during NAIDOC Week – to a room full of international delegates at the United Bible Societies (UBS) Roundtable conference in Sydney on Monday night.

“I feel very proud singing to the world on behalf of my people,” said Jennifer Ingjatji, one of the Ernabella singers. The showcase event at Roundtable was organised by Bible Society Australia and it employed music, painting and translation as windows into indigenous expression and belief.

They are community leaders, singers, Bible translators and artists.

“We grew up watching our fathers and mothers and our grandparents translating the New Testament, and we saw the strength it gave to them and the people that read it,” Pitjantjatjara speaker Makinti Minutjukur told the audience through a translator.

After singing traditional songs and a hymn in Pitjantjatjara to the hushed, receptive room, several members of the group also discussed their translation work. Minutjukur and Katrina Tjitayi are like others in their singing troupe. From the APY Lands (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) of Central Australia, they are community leaders, singers, Bible translators and artists whose works appear in the commemorative art book Our Mob, God’s Story.

Ernabella singers

Bible translator Paul Eckert discusses translation work with Katrina Tjitayi and Makinti Minutjukur. Bible Society Australia

Prominently acknowledging NAIDOC Week with a bright shirt emblazoned with this year’s theme “Our languages matter”, the Ernabella women conveyed their joy about and commitment to helping translate the entire Bible into Pitjantjatjara.

“I felt like I was there – being taken into the Promised Land.” – Makinti Minutjukur

“The Spirit spoke to our hearts and we knew there were a lot of stories in the Old Testament that had not been translated,” shared Minutjukur about being prompted, during a Bible study years ago, to seek the help of prominent translator Paul Eckert. Minutjukur was particularly struck by bringing the Old Testament book of Joshua into her heart language.

“As I was translating, I felt like I was there – being taken into the Promised Land,” said Minutjukur, referring to Joshua’s record of what happened to God’s people immediately after the events of the Exodus.

“This was really a revelation; I got to discover something.” – Terje Hartberg

Marina Lomova from Russia was at the event and she had no previous knowledge about Australian indigenous culture. “I am first time in Australia and I never have been working with these regions. I’m very excited by it and I thought their singing was extremely beautiful. I was very touched.” Lomova hadn’t seen anything quite like the Ernabella singers and she took many short videos of their performance.

UBS Global Ministry Exchange head of department Terje Hartberg, a Norwegian expat living in the UK, also didn’t know too much about Australian aboriginal people before the event.

“This was really a revelation; I got to discover something,” said Hartberg, who enjoyed the singing and artwork but was most struck by the translation work. “The most interesting part for us … was seeing how the Bible is being translated into indigenous languages. That’s the dessert for the meal that we had here.”

Max Conlon

Painter and pastor Max Conlon describes his commissioned Roundtable painting. Bible Society Australia

Also part of the main course at the indigenous cultural event was painter and pastor Max Conlon. A jovial and engaging speaker, Conlon explained several of his paintings, including the piece he was commissioned to create for the UBS Roundtable this year. The striking artwork was inspired by Mary Jones, the young woman who was instrumental in the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804.

“I was searching for something; She found something and it was the words of life,” said Conlon about his own quest for meaning as a teenager, and how Mary Jones found it in the Bible. “When I first heard her story, it stirred me up. We should be inspired by her passion.”