People & Culture

Languages of the land: Odeshkun Thusky on zaagi’idiwin, love

In the sixth part of the “Languages of the Land” digital series, the Anishinabeg dancer and drummer speaks to Canadian Geographic on love, hope and the importance of preserving language

A boy dressed in black wearing a beaded medallion half smiles toward the camera. In the background there are bookshelves bathed in a blueish light.
Odeshkun Thusky 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 Odeshkun. I am from Kitigan Zibi and Barriere Lake.

On an important word in Omàmìwininìmowin (Algonquin)

Zaagi’idiwin, that’s the word of love. It has a lot of meanings, personally, because it’s part of our seven grandfather teachings. We have teachings in our culture and each one represents a … I don’t want to say “stage,” but your personality should have these in it. There’s seven of them. There’s truth, there’s wisdom, there’s humility, there’s honesty and there’s love. So you have to have all six to be able to love; you have to have all of the other six to be able to have zaagi’idiwin. You’ve got to have wisdom to love, you’ve got to have truth to love… honesty. Even for me, love — personally — it’s a big thing for me, too. It’s a big part of everybody’s life. So that’s what zaagi’idiwin is: it’s a big, big part of my life.

On what the International Decade of Indigenous Languages means

It means a lot to me. A long time ago, our language was forced out of us not to ever speak it again. So now I’m very grateful that people are starting to understand what we went through and trying to help us get our language back again by doing the International Decade. I think, before, it was the International Year of Languages and, worldwide; it’s not just native and Indigenous.

“So much change can happen in ten years — you could learn ten languages fluently!”

It’s a really big thing for many Algonquin people, many native Aboriginal people, because we lost a language. You can lose a language so quickly, you know? I didn’t necessarily grow up with language on me, because my grandparents went to residential school and were scared to teach me Algonquin, but I regained it because they knew that it was going to be okay to teach me. My dad speaks fluent Algonquin and my mom speaks some Algonquin but not fluently. That’s the reason why my grandmother was scared to teach: because of what happened to her. So, it’s a really meaningful part of me.

On your hopes for the future of the Algonquin language

I hope in 10 years at least one hundred kids could speak fluently. That’s my wish for the next ten years. You know, ten years is a long time. So much change can happen in ten years — you could learn ten languages fluently! It’s a work in progress, of course. I think it’s really good that they changed it to the International Decade, and it’s a big hope for me.

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