• Matt Windsor

Reflections on Kawawachikamach, Part 1

About a week ago Caitlin and I returned home to the Comox Valley after a three week trip to Kawawachikamach, Quebec. It was our first time visiting a northern community and it’s hard to imagine a place exists within Canada that is so culturally different. Kawawa has around 1200 people in about 120 houses organized around a big loop with public buildings in the middle – the band office, the community center, the radio station, the Naskapi Development Corporation, the school. We stayed in the church rectory, which was a ten minute walk from anything in town and about 20 steps from the Naskapi Development Corporation (NDC) where I spent my weekdays helping the translators edit a collection of Naskapi legends.

The church and rectory, where we stayed.

     I was thankful I got to spend my days working with the translators, following along in the stories with them. For the last week we were listening to true stories from Naskapi history – conflicts with the Inuit, Iroquois, and Hudson Bay managers, stories of hunts and bad winters. There was a real sense of history in the room. When someone 80 years old can recount a story their grandfather told about himself when he was younger, you are suddenly talking about the era of the fur trade. Often the translators had to explain the cultural background of the stories for translation into English – like what kind of arrow was being used, or how respect was shown by entering tents in a crouched position. Most days there was a retired, elder translator present to help explain traditional knowledge or older vocabulary the younger translators weren’t familiar with.

From left to Right: Amanda Swappie (translator), Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie (linguistics professor emeritus, MUN), Ruby Sandy-Robinson (Administrative Director), Tshiuetin Vachon (translator)

Small languages like Naskapi sometimes change very quickly, for various reasons. The children in Kawawa sometimes have a hard time understanding the elders, especially when they start using more technical language about living in the bush. We were thankful we got the chance to spend time with different groups of people and hear the different ways people speak Naskapi. After all my time at the NDC listening to the elders’ Naskapi, I got a different language experience by making paper airplanes and playing basketball with a mass of children (wapimina! means “shoot!” And chipayi! means “hurry up!”). The school recently put in a new basketball court, and I could tell many of the kids practiced every day. After the first day of basketball, all the kids knew my name. Our private evening walk the next night quickly turned into a parade of children with bikes and balls, so we turned it into a game of skipping stones by the lake.

Caitlin was sick for the first couple days we were there (as was everyone else in their turn) but we learned to appreciate the casual style of working in a place where plans continually flow and change as the day progresses. Breaks happen at unspoken consensus when the group feels tired, and work pushes forward when people are feeling engaged. We appreciated how easy it was for Caitlin to join in or go home for a nap without anyone blinking an eye.

The Naskapi Development Corporation (NDC) is a really unique place to work. It was founded by a visionary Naskapi leader and former Bible translator Joe Guanish to develop Naskapi language materials and cultures funded by the Naskapi Nation to develop materials for Naskapi language and culture. The NDC has a lot of potential projects on the table, but one of their consistent high priorities since the New Testament was published has been translation of the Old Testament into Naskapi. There is a felt need for this within the NDC, in the local church and in the community at large. When we were at a baby shower a man was asking Bill when the book of Job would be translated so he could read it. A woman at a Bible study we went to said that reading the Bible in her own language made her feel “complete somehow” even though she was able to read the bible in English. Often Christians who speak minority languages feel that having the Bible in their own language helps them identify with their spirituality on a more personal level. The Naskapi church is built of believers who have come to understand the gospel as it applies within Naskapi culture, and the Naskapi scriptures are instrumental to this understanding.

Our first Sunday we attended a baptism (left) and the following celebration (right).

Some Old Testament books are almost completely drafted, such as Exodus, but it will be awhile before many books including Job will even be started. It all depends on the motivation and resources available to the NDC translators. Please pray for the translators and the NDC staff, that they would have the endurance to keep working at the Old Testament and pass the value of the Naskapi language to the children of Kawawa.

Our first day in Kawawa we went berry picking up “the sliding hill” and were joined by a friend (niwichiwakin).