Meaning of a Nakoda Stoney prayer and âba wathtech

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 30, 2008

Many of our coffee companions responded to last week’s tribute to the late Lazarus Wesley, respected elder of the Nakoda Stoney First Nation at Morley and acknowledged master of his dialect of Sioux spoken along the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.

Quite a few wanted to know the literal translation of the prayer I quoted at the end of the column.

As I mentioned, the Nakoda Stoney prayer is often used in Morley at the conclusion of meetings, both public and private. The words again are:

Owîchagiye ze, Tawawîchaye ze,
Jesus Christ wîchabârâsî ze,
Tachâga Wakâ, wahogû wîchakiye ze,
Warhî-îchine ze Nâri îgichiyabi chiyen,
Nâgahâ îs, nâgu echeyahneya echeyath.

These words are quite possibly the oldest oral-tradition example of Bible translation that is still in use throughout the Nakoda Stoney community. How far back it dates is not clear, but my guess is that it goes back to the earliest days of Christianity in the Bow Valley – 130 years or more.

The prayer may well have been translated by Nakoda Stoney elders in the late 1800s, during the days of Rev. John McDougall, a Methodist missionary around the time of the signing of Treaty 7. In those days, Stoney clan leaders would travel by foot or horse to McDougall’s church meetings, listen to his preaching in English or Cree, then take the messages back to their clan members in outlying areas and teach them in Stoney. They would conclude these home-based clan gatherings with this prayer.

(Readers at Morley, do any of you have a more precise idea of when and how the prayer first came about?)

The prayer itself is a fairly literal translation from the King James Version of St. Paul’s benediction at the close of his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.” To this is appended in Nakoda Stoney the expression, “today and forever more.”

Coffee companions might be interested in one word in the middle of the prayer, in particular, and familiar to many through place names and popular usage: Wakâ.

Wakâ is often translated as “God” or “Spirit/Power,” as in the phrase Wakâ Tâga (wah-KAHN TAHNG-gah, “Great Spirit”).

Travellers to Banff National Park know this word well. It’s part of the name of Lake Minnewanka, in Nakoda Stoney mînî wakâ (mee-NEE wah-KAH, “sacred water,” the circumflex over certain vowels indicating nasalization).

While we’re looking at the linguistic roots of “Minnewanka,” note also the word mînî, “water.” This shows up in place names across the Prairies and Great Plains wherever Sioux language influence is felt, for example: Minnesota (“smoky/sky-tinted water”) and Minneapolis (nicknamed “The City of Lakes,” an intriguing combination of the Sioux word for “water/lake” and the Greek word for “city”). What will be of special interest here for those curious about dialect differences is that the Dakota Sioux one-syllable word mnî “water/lake” spoken in North Dakota branches into two separate words in the Nakoda Stoney dialect at Morley:  mînî “water” and mne “lake.”

On another language-related topic, readers of the Cochrane Eagle often ask about the meaning of the phrase âba wathtech (AHM-bah wah-THTAYCH) on the front-page masthead. Good question.

Âba wathtech is the standard Nakoda Stoney greeting upon meeting someone you haven’t seen for a while: “Good day,” “hello” (literally, “day it’s-good”). Âba means “day”; wathte means “good”; and the ch at the end of the phrase makes it into a complete statement, functioning like a period at the end of a sentence in English.

In Nakoda Stoney, the main verb in every sentence usually has a gender-sensitive ending. In wathtech the ch is gender-neutral; that is, this greeting can be said by anyone to anyone, whether male or female. If this greeting is used specifically male-to-male, however, a different ending would more likely be used: -no, as in âba wathteno (AHM-bah wah-THTAYD-noh). The proper choice of which ending to use shows respect by a speaker for the person spoken to.

Which is exactly why the Cochrane Eagle prints this wonderful greeting at the top of page one. It is an attempt by the publisher to show respect for the newspaper’s many readers for whom Nakoda Stoney is their first language. It’s a bridge of good will.

Âba wathtech is, in fact, a wish for all the people of our wider community – whether from Morley or from Cochrane and surrounding areas – to indeed have a very good day.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page