Scripture stories for Chukchi reindeer herders – Russian Federation

I’d like to introduce you to my friend Zhanna. Zhanna is a Chukchi woman from the village of Kolymskoye, located on the northern bank of the river Kolyma in north-east Siberia. For about two years she has been crafting Bible stories in her own language, assisted by my colleague Michal, and me. Now with 25 stories drafted it was time to get some feedback on them from the wider Chukchi community, so Zhanna and I prepared to travel north. It is the end of October, snow is already thick on the ground and the temperature is below minus 30.

I, Geneviève, am Canadian. Zhanna and I live in the city of Yakutsk in eastern Siberia. The journey to Zhanna’s village begins with a four-hour flight north-east to the town of Chersky, less than 100km from where the Kolyma river empties itself into the Arctic Ocean – when it is not frozen. From Chersky it is a 45-minute helicopter ride or six-hour snowmobile ride west to the village of Kolymskoye. Zhanna’s brother was planning to meet us with two snowmobiles (you don’t travel with just one, in case something happens) – but then there was a rumour that a helicopter was coming. A helicopter did come, but we missed it by 15 minutes. Zhanna arranged for a place for us to stay overnight. In the morning we received an unexpected phone call from the mayor of Chersky: he told us that there was another helicopter! Helicopters are normally once a month on average. Helicopters on two consecutive days never happen! God provides.

When the villagers saw our helicopter coming they thought there must be some Very Important People on board. Rumour had it that a group of Canadians were coming. In fact there were two Chukchi students, Zhanna and just one Canadian – me.

Zhanna (right), Geneviève (centre) and Aunt Katya look over Chukchi Bible stories together. 

The purpose of our trip was to try out these 25 Chukchi Bible stories with normal Chukchi villagers. I was the visitor to the Chukchi culture and to Zhanna’s village, and I resolved to let Zhanna decide our working pattern. So for the first three days we visited people, drank tea and talked with them, getting to know them, drinking more tea, catching up on village gossip, drinking more tea… On the fourth day we began work with two older Chukchi ladies. They were so interested in the Bible stories! They had heard about the Bible, but these stories in their very own language brought it all alive!

However, our work on the stories was repeatedly interrupted – but not by a knock on the door. Friends and neighbours don’t knock, they just walk in – especially if they know there’s a guest in the house. As the first Canadian – but not quite the first foreigner – to set foot in the village people wanted to meet me, get to know me, share a cup of tea with me. I say I ‘had to’ do all this socializing, but it was a pleasure as well. We stopped what we were doing, and just talked and sipped tea. Many, many times. We spoke Russian. They all speak Russian. Amongst themselves the older people speak a lot of Chukchi but they can switch to Russian just like that. But we also spoke Chukchi. They thought it would be fun to talk with me in Chukchi, to ask me questions and enjoy my mistakes. I enjoyed it too!

As day turned to night the stream of visitors ceased. Did Zhanna want to stop working? Did the two ladies want to stop working? Far from it! Now that we were on our own we could actually get down to work. The four of us worked until way past midnight for several days. One story the Chukchi ladies found particularly fascinating was the account of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his son Isaac. They found it baffling that a father would actually agree to do that.

In the process of crafting the stories from the biblical text, we made them more streamlined, made sentences shorter, anticipated questions that Chukchis would ask, made some adaptations to Chukchi culture… And so it was that biblical sheep became Chukchi reindeer. This made the ladies laugh. We wondered whether… But they said they liked it very much. It made the story real to them.

Kolymskoye map
As we worked through these 25 Bible stories with these two Chukchi ladies we made some changes to the text, particularly where our draft did not sound natural to them. Then we went off to the local school. We wanted someone whom we could record reading the stories, and the Chukchi language school teacher was the perfect person. Like the two ladies with whom we had been working, the school teacher was keen. She loved these Bible stories in her own Chukchi language, and recorded them in one four-hour sitting. Zhanna and I were following the script while she read the stories, recording them. We noted the places where she went away from the script. Was it because it subconsciously sounded better to her that way or because she was expecting the story to take a different turn?

Stage one of the storying process was when Zhanna made her initial draft, with assistance from Michal and me. Stage two was having the draft checked and improved by the two Chukchi ladies. Stage three was the recording. Now at stage four we put all our papers away, took the recordings and sat down with about eleven Chukchi villagers, some individually, others in small groups, and played them the recorded Bible stories. They commented on what they heard. We asked them questions: How did you understand this part? What do you think is going on here? Or, best of all, they simply gave their own thoughts.

Stages 2-4 were all squeezed into this two-week trip to Kolymskoye. Next, a consultant will look over the text. Her task is to ensure that the stories are still true to the Bible, even when retold in different words. Maybe there’ll then be another village trip. Eventually there will be the final, definitive recording which will be circulated around the Chukchi villages and reindeer camps.

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