Rapid City man translating Bible into Lakota

Sep 05, 2003 11:46 PM EDT

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Some Christians are called to be missionaries to people and cultures in far-off lands.

Jerry Yellowhawk has a mission at home.

Yellowhawk is a retired Wesleyan minister who now devotes much of his time to translating the Bible into Lakota, a dialect spoken by the bands of the Teton Sioux tribe in South Dakota.

A lot of native people still understand the language and can speak it, but younger generations are "starting to lose it," said the 67-year-old member of South Dakota's Cheyenne River tribe. "I thought the translation work can help them today but also be used as a teaching tool in the Lakota language."

Yellowhawk is almost done with the gospel of Luke, which he hopes will be printed as a separate book before other New Testament books are translated.

Psalm 23 is complete and Yellowhawk would like to see it given out at funerals because of the comfort it provides. That's the chapter that begins with: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

The work is painstaking because Lakota uses a lot of imagery and is very different than English, Yellowhawk said. He uses a computer with special software that lets him see the English version of the Bible on one side and his Lakota translation on the other.

Yellowhawk and assistant Rosalie Little Thunder provide the time. Wycliffe Bible Translators Inc. provides the software.

Fred West, Wycliffe's regional director in Chicago, said about half of the roughly 6,000 languages in the world are oral only. The organization is currently working on about 1,200 Bible translations, he said.

"About every 13 to 14 days a New Testament is completed in the world," West said. "Most of our work is out of the United States because most of the languages in the United States and North America have been written down already."

The benefit of having a Bible written in a specific language is that people understand a passage much better when they read it in their native tongue, he said.

"It's very difficult to read the Bible in a foreign language, even if you can understand and speak it. We run into it all the time that someone reads something in the (translated) New Testament and says, 'That's what that means,'" West said.

Yellowhawk's work is not just limited to translating the Bible. He has also produced bumper stickers and other items with spiritual sayings in Lakota and helped narrate a videotape of the "Jesus Film" and tapes and compact discs of the Easter and Christmas stories.

"It's really proving to be a blessing to Lakota speakers and hearers," he said.

Many Indians are wary of Christianity because their ancestors were put in government boarding schools and given membership to churches that divided families and separated them from their culture, Yellowhawk said. Many of them view Christianity as the "white man's religion," he said.

"It seems like they viewed it as the church came with the government," he said, adding that his hope is to show people "it isn't really evil."

Central to that is sharing the message of love, the Great Commandment, Yellowhawk said.

"The gospel is for everybody. The good news is for all people."