On September 9th, 2023, members of the Mohawk community, who reside in Canada and the U.S., celebrated an important milestone when they received the full Bible in their heart language, at the Kanesatake United Church, in Caledonia, Ontario. For principal translator, Harvey Satewas Gabriel, who has worked on the translation for decades, the new Bible represents a lifelong journey of passion for the revitalisation of the Mohawk language, family, and faith.
In 1715, the first portions of the Bible were published in Mohawk. In 1880, Harvey’s great-grandfather, Sosé Onasakenrat, also known as Rev. Joseph Swan, completed the translation of the Gospels into Mohawk. There matters remained until the 1950s, when 17-year-old Harvey went to church with his mother and heard the Scriptures read in English.
Harvey went home and asked his mother, Gladys Jacobs, why there was no Bible in Mohawk.
That conversation sparked a decades-long passion that culminated in the publication of the Mohawk Bible.
Both Harvey and his mother, Gladys, have fought to retain the Mohawk language. For Gladys, it began as a child when she was placed into a residential school where she was forbidden to speak Mohawk. These were boarding schools which were designed to isolate indigenous children from their language and culture and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture.
But Gladys and her sister and other children refused to give up their language, and they spoke it among themselves. “If they got caught, they would be put in a dark room for a very long time. They never got caught,” says Harvey. Gladys passed on her passion for the Mohawk language to Harvey and his siblings, who are fluent speakers.
In the 1980s, Harvey started translating Bible passages into Mohawk when he was asked to do readings at his church. In the 1990s, he was invited to join a translation team. Together, they translated 2 Corinthians, Esther, Ruth, and Proverbs into Mohawk, before disbanding. Harvey continued, working evenings and weekends before his retirement.
When asked what motivated him, Harvey’s reply is simple: “language.” Harvey, who has also written a Mohawk dictionary, believes that translating the Word of God into his language means that it can never be lost. Already, young people who are learning Mohawk have told him that they are eager to use the Bible as a resource. “I kept going because when you start something for the Creator, you can’t stop,” says Harvey.
Now 83-years-old, it was a special moment for Harvey when he unveiled the long-awaited Mohawk Bible at Kanesatake Church. But when he was recognised for his work, he was quick to humble himself. “It is not my word. It is not about me, it is about Him,” he says. The event was attended by Mohawk community members, church leaders, Six Nations officials, and Bible Society leaders.