For over two thousand years the Our Father has enjoyed the distinction of being Christianity’s most venerated prayer. It is after all the only prayer Jesus would have taught his disciples, which is perhaps why reciting its words is the only ritual in which all believing Christians partake, despite the schismatic history of their religion.
When European Christians first reached the shores of this continent, they set about learning Cree to share the gospel with our people. Naturally, the Our Father was one of the first prayers taught and its numerous translations since the seventeenth century have also come to be venerated by Cree-speaking Christians. To this day its Cree translations are recited as opening and closing prayers at public assemblies and are taught to school children in Cree communities, much to the consternation of parents who expect a non-religious curriculum! But what exactly is the Our Father? What follows is a brief history of this timeless prayer and its translations into the Cree language, with a particular focus on John Horden’s translation, the version best known around the bay we call Wînipekw (James Bay).
The prayer commonly referred to as the Our Father is also known as the Lord’s Prayer and the Pater Noster. Two versions of the prayer are recorded in the Gospels, a short version in Luke and a longer one, considered the liturgical form, in Matthew. Although all churches are unanimous on this last point, Protestants tend to conclude the prayer with a doxology not endorsed by Catholics.
The Our Father would have originally been recited in Aramaic, the language Jesus presumably spoke (Aramaic was a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic). Although Aramaic manuscripts of what would later become the New Testament have survived through the ages, the English translations of the prayer are not based on these, but rather on early Greek and Latin translations. Despite the numerous attempts at translating the prayer into English, one version stands out as the popular liturgical form (though not necessarily the most accurate). This popular version reads as follows:
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
[Protestants then add the above mentioned doxology, as follows]
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
The earliest extant Cree translation of this timeless prayer was published in 1632 along with other short prayers and religious instructions attributed to the Jesuit Énemond Massé. His translation lacks the beauty of later attempts, but its introduction, however, would anticipate later translations. “Novtavynan ca tayen ouascoupetz,” Massé would write (the intrusive p might have erroneously crept in during the printing process). Indecipherable as his translation may initially seem, the introduction, when the spelling is standardized, becomes a clear Nôhtâwînân kâ ihtâyan waskohc.
Many missionaries would succeed Massé after his death in 1646. Their work among Cree-speaking peoples would have led them to produce various types of writings in the Cree language, many of which were undoubtedly religious in nature. Most of these, however, would have perished in a fire in 1699 in Chicoutimi. Consequently, the next extant Cree translation of the Our Father is found in a manuscript dated 1728 and attributed to the Jesuit Pierre-Michel Laure. Aided by a Cree-speaking woman named Pêšâpanohkwew, later baptized Marie, Laure would also compile an extensive French to Cree dictionary and various other Cree-language materials, some of which have unfortunately been lost. His translation of the Our Father would eventually be printed in 1767 in a religious book compiled by his successor, the Jesuit Jean-Baptiste de La Brosse. In this book, which is often credited as the first book printed in Canada, La Brosse would be the first to provide the prayer with a Cree name, “K’utshimaminau u-t-aiamiheuin,” a translation of ‘our Lord’s prayer.’ Laure’s translation is notable in that it would continued to be printed into the mid-nineteenth century, being recited for over a century by eastern Cree-speaking peoples.
As Cree country became increasingly accessible to foreigners in the nineteenth century, missionaries from various churches would start drawing our people into distinctive denominations. Anglicans, Methodists, and Catholics would all be involved, many of their missionaries providing new translations of the Our Father. The Oblate Flavien Durocher would publish his version in 1848, which would become the standard form in the eastern regions of Cree country into the twentieth-century. His translation would be republished in 1889 by the Oblate Charles Arnaud in his book of prayers. In the west, Jean-Baptiste Thibault would publish his translation in 1855. His would also become a standard that would be republished by Albert Lacombe, an Oblate who would also compile an extensive dictionary and grammar of the Cree language.
Protestant denominations would become increasingly active in the nineteenth century. The first Anglican translation of the Our Father can be attributed to the James Hunter and his wife Jean Ross, the latter of whom had learned to speak Cree as a child. The prayer would have first been included in their translation of the Gospel of Matthew, published in 1853. It would then be republished in their translation of the Book of Common Prayer in 1855 and would go on to become the inspiration for successive protestant translations of the prayer in the western regions of Cree country. The version of the Our Father in the New Testament in Western Cree (2000) would largely be based on the couple’s initial translation. Being a protestant version, its version and all subsequent protestant translations would naturally include the doxology absent from earlier Catholic translations.
In the central regions of Cree country, around the bay we call Wînipekw, a contemporary of James Hunter would also endeavour to communicate the gospel to our people using the written word. The Anglican John Horden, known to Cree people as John Moosonee to this day, would eventually produce numerous publications in the Cree language, including a grammar. Horden’s translation of the Our Father into the local dialect would be published in 1859 as part of his translation of the Book of Common Prayer. It would first be published in the western syllabics style and it reads as follows:
ᓄᑖᐎᓈᐣ, ᑭᒋᑭᔑᑯᐠ ᑳ ᐃᑖᔭᐣ,
ᑲᐟᑕ ᐎ ᒥᓗ ᒥᑐᓀᓕᒋᑳᑌᐤ ᑭᐟ ᐃᔑᓂᑳᓱᐎᐣ᙮
ᑭᐟ ᐅᑭᒫᐎᐎᐣ ᑲᐟᑕ ᐎ ᐅᑎᒋᐸᓕᐤ᙮
ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᓇᑕᐌᓕᑕᒪᐣ ᑲᐟᑕ ᐎ ᑐᒋᑳᑌᐤ ᐅᑕ ᐊᐢᑮᐠ, ᑖᐱᐢᑯᐨ ᑭᒋᑭᔑᑯᐠ᙮
ᒥᓕᓈᐣ ᐊᓄᐨ ᑳ ᑭᔑᑳᐠ ᑫ ᐅᐟᒋ ᐱᒫᑎᓯᔮᐠ᙮
ᐌᐯᓕᑕᒪᐎᓈᐣ ᒫᑲ ᓂ ᐗᓂᑎᐎᓂᓈᓇ,
ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐌᐯᓕᑕᒪᐗᑭᒋᒃ ᐊᓂᑭ ᑳ ᐗᓂᑐᑕᐎᔭᒥᒋᒃ᙮
ᓀᐡᑕ ᒫᑲ ᐁᑳ ᐎᓚ ᐃᑐᑕᐁᓈᐣ ᑫ ᐃᔑ ᑲᑴᒋᐃᑳᐎᔮᐠ;
ᒥᑖᑴᓇᒪᐎᓈᐣ ᒫᑲ ᒪᒋ ᑫᒀᓇ:
ᐌᓴ ᑭᓚ ᑭᐟ ᐋᔮᐣ ᑭᒋ ᐅᑭᒫᐎᐎᐣ,
ᓀᐡᑕ ᓱᑳᑎᓯᐎᐣ, ᓀᐡᑕ ᒫᒥᒋᒥᑳᐎᐣ,
ᑳᑭᑫ ᓀᐡᑕ ᑳᑭᑫ᙮
Horden would eventually endeavour to simplify the syllabic spelling system and subsequent reprints of his works would all feature what is now called eastern syllabics. Aside from a change in orthography, his subsequent version of the prayer, published within his 1876 translation of the New Testament, would also feature a few lexical changes, improving the beauty of the translation. He would, however, take a literal approach to its translation, which would have him favour the word ‘debts’ to ‘trespasses,’ resulting in a replacement of “ᓂ ᐗᓂᑎᐎᓂᓈᓇ” and “ᑳ ᐗᓂᑐᑕᐎᔭᒥᒋᒃ” by “ᓂ ᒪᓯᓇᐃᑲᓂᓈᓇ” and “ᑳ ᒪᓯᓇᐃᑫᑐᑕᐎᔭᒥᒋᒃ,” respectively. The translation from Matthew 6:9-13 thus reads as follows:
ᓄᑖᐎᓈᓐ ᑭᒋᑭᔑᑯᒃ ᑳ ᐃᑖᔭᓐ
ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᐸᓓᑫᓕᒋᑳᑌᐤ ᑭᑦ ᐃᔑᓂᑳᓱᐎᓐ᙮
ᑭᑦ ᐅᑭᒫᐎᐎᓐ ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᐅᑎᒋᐸᓕᐤ᙮
ᐁ ᐃᑌᓕᑕᒪᓐ ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᑐᒋᑳᑌᐤ ᐅᑕ ᐊᔅᑮᒃ ᑖᐱᔅᑯᒡ ᑭᒋᑭᔑᑯᒄ᙮
ᒥᓕᓈᓐ ᐊᓄᒡ ᑳ ᑭᔑᑳᒃ ᑫ ᐅᒋ ᐱᒫᑎᓯᔮᒃ᙮
ᐌᐯᓕᑕᒪᐎᓈᓐ ᒫᑲ ᓂ ᒪᓯᓇᐃᑲᓂᓈᓇ,
ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐌᐯᓕᑕᒪᐗᑭᒋᒃ ᐊᓂᑭ ᑳ ᒪᓯᓇᐃᑫᑐᑕᐎᔭᒥᒋᒃ᙮
ᐁᑳᐎᓚ ᒫᑲ ᐃᑐᑕᐃᓈᓐ ᑫ ᐃᔑ ᑲᑴᒋᐃᑲᐎᔮᒃ,
ᒫᑲ ᒥᑖᑴᓇᒪᐎᓈᓐ ᒪᒋ ᑫᒀᓇ:
ᐌᓴ ᑭᓚ ᑭ ᑎᐱᓚᐌᐎᓯᓐ ᐅᑭᒪᐎᐎᓐ,
ᓀᔥᑕ ᑲᔥᑭᐅᐎᓐ, ᓀᔥᑕ ᑭᔥᑌᓕᑖᑯᓯᐎᓐ,
Horden’s 1889 edition of the Book of Common Prayer would feature yet more changes to the Our Father. His last modifications to the doxology were retained, but the literal translation of ‘debts’ was reverted to his original translation of ‘trespasses.’ Curiously, Horden changes his translation of ‘hallowed be thy name’ for a third time, finally settling on ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᑭᔅᑌᓕᒋᑳᑌᐤ ᑭᑦ ᐃᔑᓂᑳᓱᐎᓐ. This third version of the prayer reads as follows:
ᓄᑕᐎᓈᓐ ᑭᒋᑭᔑᑯᒃ ᑳ ᐃᑖᔭᓐ,
ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᑭᔅᑌᓕᒋᑳᑌᐤ ᑭᑦ ᐃᔑᓂᑳᓱᐎᓐ᙮
ᑭᑦ ᐅᑭᒫᐎᐎᓐ ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᐅᑎᒋᐸᓕᐤ᙮
ᑭᑦ ᐃᑌᓕᑕᒧᐎᓐ ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᑐᒋᑳᑌᐤ ᐅᑕ ᐊᔅᑮᒃ ᑖᐱᔅᑯᒡ ᑭᒋᑭᔑᑯᒃ᙮
ᒥᓕᓈᓐ ᐊᓄᒡ ᑳ ᑭᔑᑳᒃ ᑫ ᐅᒋ ᐱᒫᑎᓯᔮᒃ᙮
ᐌᐯᓕᑕᒪᐎᓈᓐ ᒫᑲ ᓂ ᐗᓂᑎᐎᓂᓈᓇ,
ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐌᐯᓕᑕᒪᐗᑭᒋᒃ ᐊᓂᑭ ᑳ ᐗᓂᑐᑕᐎᔭᒥᒋᒃ᙮
ᐁᑳᐎᓚ ᒫᑲ ᐃᑐᑕᐃᓈᓐ ᑫ ᐃᔑ ᑲᑴᒋᐃᑲᐎᔮᒃ;
ᒫᑲ ᒥᑖᑴᓇᒪᐎᓈᓐ ᒪᒋ ᑫᒀᓇ:
ᐌᓴ ᑭᓚ ᑭ ᑎᐱᓚᐌᐎᓯᓐ ᐅᑭᒫᐎᐎᓐ,
ᓀᔥᑕ ᑲᔥᑭᐅᐎᓐ, ᓀᔥᑕ ᑭᔅᑌᓕᑖᑯᓯᐎᓐ,
ᑳᑭᑫ ᓀᔥᑕ ᑳᑭᑫ᙮
Horden’s third translation of the Our Father would eventually be adapted to the dialects spoken around Chisasibi by W.G. Walton. Walton’s translation would be printed in 1907 in his Portions of the Book of Common Prayer, edited and reprinted in 1943. The latter reads as follows:
ᓄᑖᐎᓈᓐ ᒋᒋᒋᔑᑯᒡ ᐋᑖᔭᓐ,
ᑲᑕ ᐎ ᒋᔅᑖᔨᑖᑲᓂᐎᐤ ᒋᑦ ᐃᔑᓂᑳᓱᐎᓐ᙮
ᒋ ᒋᒋᐅᒋᒪᐎᐎᓐ ᑲᑕ ᐅᑎᒋᐸᔨᐤ᙮
ᒋᑦ ᐃᑖᔨᑕᒧᐎᓐ ᑲᑕ ᑐᑖᑲᓂᐎᐤ, ᐅᑕ ᐊᔅᒋᒡ ᒧᔮᒻ ᒋᒋᒋᔑᑯᒡ᙮
ᒥᔨᓈᓐ ᐋᓄᒡ ᑳᔑᑳᒡ ᒑ ᐅᒋ ᐱᒫᑎᓯᔮᒡ᙮
ᐙᐹᔨᑕᒪᐎᓈᓐ ᒫᑲ ᓂ ᐗᓈᔨᑎᐎᓂᓈᓇ,
ᒧᔮᒻ ᐋ ᐃᔑ ᐙᐹᔨᑕᒪᐗᒋᒡ ᐊᓐᒡ ᑳ ᐗᓂᑐᑕᐎᔭᒥᒡ᙮
ᐋᑳᐎᔭ ᒫᑲ ᐃᑐᑕᐃᓈᓐ ᐊᑕ ᒑ ᑲᒀᒋᐃᑲᐎᔮᒡ,
ᒥᑯ ᒥᑖᒀᓇᒪᐎᓈᓐ ᐊᓐ ᑳ ᒫᔮᑕᒡ᙮
ᐙᓴ ᒋᔭ ᒋ ᑎᐱᔭᐙᐎᓯᓐ ᒋᒋᐅᒋᒫᐎᐎᓐ,
ᑲᔭ ᑲᔅᒋᐅᐎᓐ, ᑲᔭ ᒋᔅᑖᔨᑖᑯᓯᐎᓐ, ᒧᔥ ᑳᒋᒡ᙮
While Walton’s translations would become the standard recited form for Cree-speaking peoples around Chisasibi, Horden’s translations would continue to be the standard from the west coast of the bay to Mistissini well into the late twentieth century, despite the fact that the dialects spoken in the east are quite divergent from the more conservative dialect featured in Horden’s translations. This problem would eventually lead to the retranslation of the New Testament into the local dialect, which was published in 2001 and naturally included a new version of the Our Father. While this modern translation is commendable for being easier for local speakers to read, some expert speakers took issue with its inconsistent orthography, the colloquial feel of its vocabulary, and its tendency of being wordy. Its version of the Our Father is clearly influenced by Horden’s, but departs considerably from it, being neither a dialectal adaptation of it nor a literal translation of any known English version. This perhaps explains why Horden’s translation continues to be used by some speakers performing opening and closing prayers in public forums. This new translation, from Matthew, reads as follows:
ᓅᐦᑖᐐᓈᓐ ᑭᐦᒋᑮᔑᑯᐦᒡ ᑳ ᐃᐦᑖᔨᓐ,
ᓂᑕᔨᒥᐦᐋᓈᓐ ᒋᑎᔑᓂᐦᑳᓱᐎᓐ ᒉᒌ ᒋᔅᒉᔨᐦᑖᑯᓅᐦᒡ ᐁ ᒋᔅᑌᔨᐦᑖᑯᐦᒡ᙮
ᓂᑕᔨᒥᐦᐋᓈᓐ ᑲᔦ ᒎᒋᒫᐎᓐ ᒉ ᐅᑎᐦᒋᐸᔨᐦᒡ,
ᑲᔦ ᒋᑎᑌᔨᐦᑕᒧᐎᓐ ᒉᒌ ᐃᐦᑑᑖᑲᓅᐦᒡ ᐅᑕᐦ ᐊᔅᒌᐦᒡ ᒧᔮᒻ ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐃᐦᑑᑖᑲᓅᐦᒡ ᐊᓂᑌ ᑭᐦᒋᑮᔑᑯᐦᒡ᙮
ᒦᓈᓐ ᐋᐃᐦᑯᓈᐤ ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᑳ ᒌᔑᑳᒡ ᑖᓐ ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᓂᑐᐌᔨᒪᒋᐦᑦ᙮
ᒧᔮᒻ ᑖᓐ ᑳ ᐃᔑ ᐌᐯᔨᐦᑕᒧᐗᒋᐦᑣᐤ ᐊᓂᒌ ᑳ ᐗᓂᑑᑑᔨᒥᐦᑣᐤ᙮
ᐁᑳᐐ ᒫᒃ ᐃᑐᐦᑕᐦᐄᓈᓐ ᐊᓂᑌ ᒉᒌ ᑲᑴᒋᐦᐄᑯᔮᐦᒡ᙮
ᐯᒋ ᑲᓄᐌᔨᒥᓈᓐ ᑖᓐ ᐙ ᐃᔑ ᑲᑴᒋᐦᐄᑯᔮᐦᒡ ᒪᒋᒪᓂᑑ᙮
ᐌᔥ ᒋᔭ ᒋᑎᐱᔦᐅᓯᔨᓐ ᒎᒋᒫᐎᓐ
ᑲᔦ ᒋᔭ ᒋᑕᔮᓐ ᓲᐦᑳᑎᓰᐎᓐ ᑲᔦ ᒋᔅᑌᔨᐦᑖᑯᓱᐎᓐ
ᑳᒋᒉ ᑲᔦ ᑳᒋᒉ᙮
In 2007 the New Testament was again translated into Cree, this time in the dialect spoken at Kawawachikamach. While this translation is clearly influenced by the 2001 translation mentioned above, it is less wordy and has retained more vocabulary from Horden’s later translations. It also features a local style of syllabics where long vowels and aspirates are unmarked. From the Book of Matthew, this translation reads as follows:
ᓄᑕᐎᓇᓐ ᒋᒋᒋᓯᑯᒡ ᐊ ᑕᔨᓐ,
ᓂᑦ ᐊᔭᒥᐊᓇᓐ ᒋᑦ ᐃᓯᓂᑾᓱᐅᓐ ᐊ ᐸᔭᒋᓯᒥᑲᒡ ᒐᒋ ᒋᔅᑕᔨᑕᑯᑕᑭᓄᐅᒡ᙮
ᒋᒋᓴᐅᒋᒪᐅᓐ ᒋᑭ ᐎ ᐅᑎᒋᐱᔪᐤ,
ᒋᑦ ᐃᑕᔨᑎᒧᐅᓐ ᒋᑭ ᐎ ᐃᑐᑕᑭᓄᐤ ᐅᑕ ᐊᔅᒋᒡ ᒧᔭᒻ ᒋᒋᒋᓯᑯᒡ᙮
ᒥᔨᓇᓐ ᐊᓄᒡ ᐊ ᒋᓯᑲᒡ ᐸᒂᓯᑭᓐ ᒐᐅᒋ ᐱᒪᑎᓯᔭᒡ᙮
ᐛᔅ ᑭᔭ ᓂᔭᓐ ᓂ ᐛᐸᔨᑎᒧᐅᓇᓐ ᒥᓯᐛ ᐊᐛᓐ ᑲ ᒥᒋᑐᑐᔨᒥᑦ᙮
ᐊᑲᐎᔾ ᒪᒃ ᐃᑐᑕᐃᓇᓐ ᐊᓐᑕ ᒐᒋ ᐃᓯ ᑯᒂᒋᐃᑯᔭᒡ᙮
ᒥᒄ ᐸᒋ ᒥᑕᒂᓇᒧᐅᓇᓐ ᐊᓐ ᑲ ᒪᔭᑕᒡ᙮
ᐛᔅ ᒋᔾ ᒋ ᑎᐱᔨᐛᐅᓯᓐ ᐅᒋᒪᐅᓐ
ᑭᔭ ᑭᔅᒋᐅᓐ ᑭᔭ ᒋᔅᑕᔨᑕᑯᓱᐅᓐ
ᒧᔅ ᑲᒋᒡ, ᐊᒥᓐ᙮
Horden’s translations of the Our Father are still recited to this day and continue to influence contemporary translations. Their popularity can probably be attributed to a number of factors, one of which is certainly the timeless appeal of the prayer itself. However, Horden’s later versions were also eloquently translated. This points to the likely possibility that he benefited from the support of his local assistants, all of which were native Cree speakers. But Horden’s translations, important as they may be, are but a few out of the countless versions of the Our Father that have been translated into the Cree language since the early seventeenth century. In fact, even though the majority of these translations can be attributed to foreigners who were neither Cree nor native speakers of the Cree language, every one of them benefited in some way from the help of Cree speakers themselves. And while competing churches and dialects have made it so there are nearly as many Cree version of the Our Father as there are English versions, Cree-speaking Christians can find comfort in the knowledge that the recital of this prayer is the one ritual they can all agree upon.