People & Culture

 Languages of the land: Kyla Judge on oshkinigig, canoes, language and land

In the seventh part of the “Languages of the Land” digital series, the Anishinaabekwe cultural programs manager of the Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere sits down with Canadian Geographic to talk about practicing language and thinking in Anishinaabemowin

A smiling girl with dark hair gestures as she speaks. She is wearing beaded earrings and a black high-necked top.
Kyla Judge speaks with CanGeo associate editor Abi Hayward at the Canadian launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. (Photo: still from video by Daniel Arian/Canadian Geographic)
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My name is Kyla Judge. I’m from Shawanaga First Nation.

On a word in Anishinaabemowin that is meaningful

A word from Anishinaabemowin that I really think of a lot and that resonates with me is the word oshkinigig. Oshkinigig is the name of our wiigwaas jiimaan, our birchbark canoe. Oshkinigig, if you pull it apart, oshki means to be something new, something shiny. Nigig refers to typically like an otter, but in Anishinaabek stories we think of the otter as young and youthful and playful and energetic. So the name oshkinigig carries a long story about the history of the wiigwaas jiimaan, but also, with regards to the nature of how intricately connected language is to the land, to culture and to us as Anishinaabe.

As part of my role, the work that I do with the Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere and the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek youth, we built a birchbark canoe in 2019. The name oshkinigig brings back so many stories — so many good stories — and so many good memories of the learning experience of building a wiigwaas jiimaan in our territory, a practice that has been very much impacted by the legacy of residential schools and the the continuing impacts of colonization.  

On the hope for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 

The International Decade of Indigenous Languages brings a lot of hope for me. I think a lot about the work that I do within the Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere and my role with the Indigenous youth group that I run. But I really think about how this is a challenge, and I think about it personally: how can I really bring home and practice my language throughout this decade? 

I think about my hopes and goals and dreams for my life, and that I want to be able to think in Anishinaabemowin. I want to be able to think in my language. When we talk about Anishinaabemowin, our language is intricately interconnected into the places we come from. Anishinaabemowin cannot be replicated or duplicated anywhere else in the world because it’s so intricately connected to the geography of the land that we come from. And so for me, Anishinaabemowin comes from the Great Lakes — it comes from that woodland region — and so when I think about how important it is for me to be able to think in Anishinaabemowin, it also reinforces the notion that I need to become fluent. It reinforces the importance of having that language as the foundation of my knowledge base, because without language, we don’t have culture and vice versa. 

“Anishinaabemowin cannot be replicated or duplicated anywhere else in the world because it’s so intricately connected to the geography of the land that we come from.”

On looking forwards, to the end of the decade

I think in ten years I would really love to be able to celebrate how much language is being learned, how much people are investing and learning the language, and practicing speaking the language and preserving the language. There are so many unique opportunities that are going to come about because of this decade. I hope that we are really focusing on prioritizing folks, young folks, older folks, on learning their languages and that we are celebrating and creating spaces where they’re not only simply learners of the language (which in itself is really complicated), but supporting the language learning journey. And that there are socio-economic opportunities that become available, supporting folks to become full time language learners, to provide jobs, to provide other capacity building opportunities as well. Our languages are so intricately connected to our identities as Indigenous people. It’s also something that really has to be prioritized as a target, as a goal for greater Canadian society.

On the relationship between language and culture

One of my friends had said that the ultimate goal for him was to figure out their place in space with regards to language revitalization. That really resonated with me in thinking about how much I know in terms of the language, how much I know in terms of Anishinaabemowin, and how it’s impacted the way that I think. How it’s deeply, deeply impacted my relationships that I have with my friends, with my family, and even amongst creation.

When I was talking about oshkinigig in a name, being able to think in Anishinaabemowin is thinking about the future. It’s thinking about how things are related, because Anishinaabemowin is verb based, it’s action based. Something as simple as a jiimaan, which is the name for canoe: the word jiimaan only becomes true when the canoe is actually being paddled, otherwise, it’s not truly living to its fullest potential of the word jiimaan. Our words talk about how things continue to move throughout life, throughout creation.

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