The gospel of ‘Creator sets free’

Scripture in an Indigenous voice is a gift to Native people — and the dominant culture

Terry and Darlene Wildman at Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, N.M. — Ken Gingerich Terry and Darlene Wildman at Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, N.M. — Ken Gingerich

For several years I’ve been attending two churches: Albuquerque Mennonite Church, where I’ve served in various roles over the years, and Good Medicine Way, a Methodist-related Indigenous church plant.

Good Medicine Way is led by Casey Church, whom I first met at a New Mexico Conference of Churches gathering where I was the representative Mennonite. A graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, Church is a descendant of Leopold Pokagan, leader of the Potawatomi band that bears his name in southwestern Michigan.

Church and I learned that we had been born within about 50 miles of each other and that I had grown up on the ancestral land of his people in northern Indiana.

He and Lora, his wife, who is Diné (Navajo), invited me to Good Medicine Way, a congregation of local and online attenders who use Indigenous spiritu­ality and culture in a non-Western expression of church.

This includes ceremonial practices like drumming and music created by Indigenous songwriters, smudging (incense), dancing, giveaways, occasionally the peace pipe and other forms of prayer.

Online guest speakers have included Indigenous theologians Randy Woodley and Mark Charles, and Sarah Augustine, who is Indigenous and Mennonite. Augustine leads the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, which I’ve been part of since its inception. This has sparked my interest in connecting with Albuquerque’s Native people.

A key resource for Good Medicine Way is an Indigenous translation of the New Testament, First Nations Version, which places Creator Sets Free (Jesus) within the context of Native culture. Published in 2021 by InterVarsity Press, it’s gained traction among Mennonites as we engage with the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.

The lead translator of First Nations Version is Terry Wildman of Maricopa, Ariz. Recently, Church and I joined Wildman and his wife, Darlene, who were visiting Good Medicine Way, at an Albuquerque restaurant. I was curious about how the vision for the First Nations Version came into focus.

Drumming at Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, N.M. — Ken Gingerich
Drumming at Good Medicine Way in Albuquerque, N.M. — Ken Gingerich

Terry Wildman is descended from Ojibwe and Yaqui people, along with English, German and Spanish settlers. Born in Michigan, he connected with his Indigenous roots as a young adult. Becoming a follower of Jesus at 18, he was called to ministry in Baptist congregations and eventually the Vineyard movement, where he honed his songwriting skills.

In the late 1990s, the Wildmans felt a call to ministry among Native people. After training with Youth with a Mission, they were assigned to the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona. There they had contact with the Mennonite-affiliated Hopi Mission School, now Peace Academic Center. One of their children attended the school. 

The idea of an English Bible for Native people developed over a long period. One catalyst was a Bible study in a tribal jail. As they searched for study resources, the Wildmans found a box of New International Version Bibles, which they passed out to the group.

“Many of the inmates had difficulty reading,” Terry Wildman said. “They usually responded to questions with answers they thought the leaders wanted to hear. The experience was less than satisfying.”

The Wildmans found a supply of Hopi New Testaments, but most of the people were not able to read from these either.

Ironically, while missionaries worked to translate the Bible into Native languages, the federal government, often with the help of church institutions, stripped Indigenous people of their languages through boarding schools and other means of cultural assimilation. Boarding school children were punished for speaking Native languages.

Terry Wildman began to experiment with rewording portions of scripture in a Native-friendly way, in English, to share in the prison ministry. Also, he used a talking stick passed around a circle, an Indigenous custom that respects all participants equally.

“The men and women began to interact more with scripture, asking meaningful questions and relating more to what they were reading,” he said.

During this time the Wildmans formed Rain Ministries. They had already produced a couple of music CDs and recorded the biblical story, from creation to Christ, in a Native way. They called it The Great Story from the Sacred Book. Submitted to the Native American Music Awards, it won Best Spoken Word in 2008.

As they traveled with their singing and speaking ministry, the Wildmans shared reworded portions of scripture at tribal centers, with Native congregations and at powwows. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

One Native elder said, “You say it in English the way we think it in our language.”

Terry Wildman began to feel called to create a more complete translation of scripture. In 2014 he and Darlene published When the Great Spirit Walked Among Us, a harmonization of the Gospels in a First Nations style. It caught the attention of OneBookCanada, a Bible translation organization.

In 2015 a partnership between Rain Ministries and OneBook moved the translation effort into high gear.

A 12-member advisory council from different tribal heritages and regions was formed. Advice from Wycliffe Associates led to identifying about 180 key terms and using them consistently. These included Creator Sets Free, a literal translation from Hebrew, as the name for Jesus.

The advisory process expanded as small groups, college classes and Native ministries began to use the First Nations Version. Readers sent ideas and critiques, not unlike the community approach Anabaptists are using to create our study edition of scripture, the Anabaptist Community Bible.

The First Nations Version has been used in hundreds of Indigenous circles, Native and non-Native churches, study groups and a secular university’s religious studies department. More than 70,000 copies have been printed.

Terry Wildman continues the translation work from his home office. A First Nations Version of Psalms and Proverbs is expected to be ready for publication a year from now.

“When I’ve needed inspiration, I often look to the writings of elders like Chief Joseph or Black Elk,” he said. “I try to think of the Bible as if our elders were telling us the stories. When I get stuck, Darlene encourages me to wait for the Spirit’s inspiration.

“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 North America and to the body of Christ in English-speaking nations worldwide.”

Ken Gingerich of Albuquerque, N.M., has been an artist, graphic designer and writer for Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Church USA and other Mennonite-related organizations. Now retired, he does design work for his passion projects and maintains an art studio at the Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque.

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