07 February 2010
The First Book - Final Print
Japanese woodblock (moku hanga)
Paper size: 19" x 14.5" (48 x 37 cm)
Image size: 16" x 12" (40.5 x 30.5 cm)
5 shina plywood blocks
5 hand-rubbed impressions and painted English tea
Almost exactly one year ago, on a trip to Boston for a long weekend, I first encountered John Eliot's Indian Bible at an exhibit at Harvard. Eliot's Bible was the first Bible printed on American soil, printed in 1663 at the Harvard Indian College, and it was entirely written in the Wampanoag Algonquin language.
Eliot's intention for the Bible was to aid in making the Algonquians into Puritans, but since Eliot never really became a fluent speaker, his translations were done with the aid of Massachuset Indian minister John Sassamon, Algonquian journeyman James Printer, and probably others. Although the Eliot Bible did help make Indians into Christians, the multicultural nature of the translation process also helped make Christianity an Algonquian religion, as the translators made the Bible their own.
The Bible was used for nearly 200 years until about 150 years ago when the language died out. In 1993-94, six generations after the last native speaker of Wampanoag had passed, a Mashpee linguist named Jessie Littledoe Baird (read this article about how she came to the project) co-founded the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project, beginning the daunting project of reviving the language. The John Eliot Bible is playing a major role in this project as one of the primary texts that has preserved Algonquin grammar and vocabulary.
I read once that every 2 weeks one of the world's 7,000 languages vanishes. Most of these dying languages belong to indigenous communities that have been stamped out or homogenized by the forces of colonialism and globalization. Languages are repositories of thousands of years of a people’s science and art, observations and understandings, and each disappearance is a loss not only for the community of speakers, but also for our common knowledge. The irony, or maybe one could even say the grace, of John Eliot's Bible is that it was a powerful force of colonization, yet it is now being used as a powerful means of decolonization and reclamation. This is a truly American story.