Fr. Ron MacDonell, S.F.M.

Scarboro Missions priest works to preserve Makushi myths

  • May 25, 2011

TORONTO - There are about 6,900 languages in the world. Anthropologists and linguists believe 90 per cent of them will be extinct by the end of this century. But Scarboro Mission priest Fr. Ron MacDonell is doing his best to save one of them.

MacDonell works with the Makushi people deep in the Amazon rainforest, near the border between Brazil and Guyana. Working with his parishioners, MacDonnell has produced a trilingual book of Makushi myths in Makushi, Portuguese and English.

The English title for the collection of 30 legends and folk tales is Jaguars, Tapirs and Foxes.

Years in the making, the book is only MacDonell’s latest effort to give momentum to Makushi language and culture. In 2008 he published a Makushi dictionary and since 2006 he has worked with native Makushi speakers to broadcast Makushi lessons on the Raraima diocese’s FM radio station.

Preserving languages is akin to caring for the environment, MacDonell, linguistic advisor to the missionary council in northern Brazil, told The Catholic Register on a recent visit to Toronto. Just as ecology becomes fragile and unsustainable if biodiversity is reduced, human cultural diversity sustains our global civilization, he said.

Translating the myths into English and Portuguese is aimed at making the myths available to Makushi who no longer speak their own language on both sides of the Brazil-Guyana border. There are about 15,000 Makushi speakers in Brazil and another 9,000 in Guyana.

MacDonell and his parish find themselves completing work begun by a missionary Benedictine monk between 1926 and 1948. Over 22 years Dom Alcuino Meyer collected and preserved 132 Makushi myths, as well as translating prayers into Makushi.

Meyer’s treasure trove of myths remained a lonely typescript in a Brazilian monastery until MacDonell visited with his computer and began transcribing them using the modern Makushi alphabet. He took these versions of the stories back home to Roraima in 2009 and read through them with three Makushi speakers who were able to make corrections.

Three young Makushi artists illustrated the stories in 2010 and the book was launched in April this year.

“Dom Alcuino never articulated the mission as such,” said MacDonell. “I do believe he greatly appreciated the myths as carrying cultural truths and values. I and others see our work as carrying on Dom Alcuino’s initial labours.”

MacDonell is also involved in efforts to encourage Wapichana, Kokama, Tukano, Apurina, Sateré-Mawé, Kambeba and Baré. Originally from Antigonish, N.S., MacDonell speaks Makushi and Wapichana in addition to Spanish, French and some of the Mayan-derived languages of Chiapas in the south of Mexico.

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