150 years of Aboriginal Bibles is worth celebrating

NEWS | John Sandeman

Wednesday 10 September 2014

There is only one copy left of the first edition of the “Scripture selections in Ngarrindjeri” the first part of the Bible published in an Aboriginal language 150 years ago. That small book had pride of place at a celebration of 150 years of Aboriginal Publishing in Adelaide this week. The Ngarrindjeri are the Aboriginal people of the lower lakes of the Murray River and their Bible has had a major role in preserving and now revitalising their language.

The celebration began with “The Old Rugged Cross” sung in English, Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna (the language of the traditional owners of Adelaide), led by Nelson Varcoe a Kaurna songwriter and singer, joined by Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna singers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

The first Indigenous Scripture published in Australia, 150 years ago, here displayed by Ngarrindjeri Elder, Verna Koolmatrie. It's the last known original of the 300 printed.

The first Indigenous Scripture published in Australia, 150 years ago, here displayed by Ngarrindjeri Elder, Verna Koolmatrie. It’s the last known original of the 300 printed.

The song brought many of the elements of the celebration together. God, who sent his son Jesus to die on that old rugged cross, gospel-centred religion in the heart language of Aboriginal people, together with joy for the work of the people who recorded the language.

Tribal elders, Bible translators and their supporters gathered for the celebration at Adelaide’s Tabor College, which also marked 60 years of Wycliffe Bible translators work in Australia, an organisation which greatly accelerated translation work.

Representatives of the Leipzig Lutheran Mission came bearing gifts, Kaurna documents from the 1840’s including pages written by children, on permanent loan to the Kaurna people and lodged in Adelaide University’s Barr-Smith Library. The University is a centre for the revival of Aboriginal languages including Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri.

Bible Society CEO Greg Clarke read from the 1864 minutes of the British And Foreign Bible Society South Australian auxiliary that resolved to print the Bible in Aboriginal languages.

Verna Koolmatrie, a Ngarrindjeri elder described how the Bible translation programme came as her people “were floundering and being dispossessed at the same time.”

“Heinrich Meyer, (a Lutheran Missionary) wrote the grammar of the Ngarrindjeri people. He went everyday and sat with the elders. He was a good student. They had to learn English first and then the language of the Aboriginal people.”

“Then George Taplin (who was to translate the Bible selections) was appointed by the Aboriginal Friends Association to find a safe place for the Ngarrindjeri people.”

“We feel blessed. We think it was a work of providence.”

“[Taplin] learned the language. Some of the Ngarrindjeri were amazed when he met them and he spoke their language.”

Koolmatrie recounted the story of Taplin arriving at Raukkan by boat and asking what the name meant. She is sure that on learning that it meant “Ancient meeting place” Taplin choose it for the site of the Ngarrindjeri people’s home.

“The Ngarrindjeri people knew this and are very grateful. He continued with the language work and the Ngarrindjeri started a new life.”

Of the early missionaries Koolmatrie says, “They felt they were failures. People were not converted in great numbers.

“I can imagine a conversation between Meyer and the Ngarrindjeri ‘If you teach me your words I will help your people to survive’. I have never seen that written but I feel it in my heart.”

Of Taplin the Bible translator, she say his journal is saturated in prayer, including “I pray these words will be used for the preservation of these peoples”.

“It is not lost on us that the Ngarrindjeri language was one of the first (Aboriginal) languages to be translated,” said Koolmatrie. “We are very proud of that.”

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