This simple greeting in the Tolowa weeya language, translated as ‘Hello,’ is one that has the power to open doorways of communication.
But like many Indigenous languages, Tolowa weeya, spoken by the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, is having to fight to survive despite its close ties to the culture and heart of its people. While there are over 1,800 tribal citizens throughout the country, only a small percentage speak the Tolowa weeya language.
Forest James of Ashland, Oregon, grew up on the Tolowa Indian Reservation. His father’s family had lived on reservation lands along the Oregon-California border for many generations. He explained that at one point there were very few Tolowa weeya speakers.
In his late teens, James began to put more effort into learning his native language which opened his eyes to a side of his heritage he had never explored. “It wasn’t just the words,” he said. “It’s everything that came with it.” From the food and tribal humor to the songs and the square drums, learning phrases in Tolowa weeya helped James further understand his unique culture and history. This insight would later pave the way for him to assist Indigenous communities throughout North America.
Now at the age of 41, James has personally seen over the years how important language is in reaching the heart of Indigenous citizens across the country—especially when learning about the Creator. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he references jw.org which features articles in many Indigenous languages. “The wonderful thing about jw.org is it translates into many of these different languages,” he said.
The official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses includes content in more than 1,030 languages, including many Indigenous languages considered at risk of dying out. Among them are Central Alaskan Yupik, spoken by some 10,000 in Alaska, as well as for Blackfoot, Cherokee, Choctaw, Hopi and Navajo.
“Translating Indigenous languages is a labor of love for all those involved and for our organization,” said Robert Hendriks, the U.S. spokesman of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The work is challenging and time-consuming. But our goal isn’t to make a profit, it’s to provide the Bible’s comforting message clearly and accurately to as many people as possible.”
James has utilized the website for just that purpose. For more than 12 years he has been traveling throughout North America, working with Indigenous governments to help provide basic necessities to reservations. Seeing first-hand the challenges faced by the tribal citizens has moved him to share the Bible’s message with them. “JW.ORG has provided helpful and traditional tools to overcome the many traumas we all face,” he said.
James feels that the diversity of languages on jw.org is a reflection of how the Creator views people. “Our Creator sees how important each individual is,” he said. He hopes that one day Tolowa weeya will also be available on the website. James added, “Just even having a little bit of your language is a beautiful thing.”