How one man is planting seeds of Indigenous knowledge

On the outskirts of Cambridge, Andrew Judge and a group of volunteers have established a garden to produce food — and insights into Indigenous teachings
By Haley Lewis - Published on June 27, 2019
Andrew Judge, the coordinator of Indigenous studies at Kitchener’s Conestoga College, works with volunteers at Minjimendan, an Indigenous food and medicine garden on the outskirts of Cambridge. (Haley Lewis)

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CAMBRIDGE — Andrew Judge stands in the middle of the garden and points to a spot a few metres away. “They can be planted along the edge,” he says, guiding volunteers tasked with planting sweetgrass. “I would say pick a spot and just go for it, right in front of the stumps.”

On this morning in late May, Judge, the coordinator of Indigenous studies at Kitchener’s Conestoga College, and 15 volunteers are planting for the first time this season. They’re planting more than a dozen species native to North America, including wild plums, pawpaw, saskatoon berry, and hazelnuts, as well as sacred medicines such as sweetgrass, sage, and tobacco.

The garden, Minjimendan (Anishinaabemowin for “a state of remembering” ), opened last year and is hosted by the rare Charitable Research Reserve, a community-driven environmental institute on the outskirts of Cambridge. Judge’s aim is to restore the native plant habitat through traditional Indigenous knowledge. Along the way, he hopes it will provide visitors and volunteers with the opportunity to learn about Indigenous land-based practices such as habitat restoration.

This isn’t Judge’s first garden project. While pursuing a PhD in education at Western University, in London, he helped establish a smaller Indigenous food and medicine garden.  

In January, Judge received a $49,900 federal grant for a project called Recovering Earth Wisdom. Its mandate is to bring together Indigenous leaders, educators, students, and community organizations to develop educational programming. Judge hosts seminars and organizes community initiatives, such as Minjimendan. He’s currently working on expanding the garden: initially six metres wide, it’s now doubled in size.

“I’m so grateful to have that money to be able to do this work,” Judge says. He hopes to build out a garden that will require minimal maintenance; the produce will go to local food banks and Indigenous organizations.

The garden’s design is based on Anishinaabe teachings and teachings from various Indigenous elders across the globe. Minjimendan is made up of 16 plant beds arranged in a semicircle, at the centre of which sits a spiral made of stones. The beds are framed with logs collected from the area, and there are swales for irrigation.

Judge has been studying for six years under the guidance of an Indigenous elder in Guatemala, who taught him that a garden built outwards from a spiral encourages positive energy. “The spiral is the basis for all life on Earth, and it’s found in almost every natural growing thing on the planet,” says Judge. “What it comes down to is the spinning of the Earth around the sun, and the sun going around the galaxy.”

There are also two stones placed along the eastern edge of the spiral — the first where the sun rises on the summer solstice, and the second where it rises on the winter solstice. “That basically creates a doorway of the movement of the sun,” says Judge.

Although Judge oversees the project, Minjimendan is largely tended by volunteers: Indigenous students from surrounding schools, locals, and people from nearby Indigenous communities. Judge schedules events — such as workshops on food preparation or sustainable habitat design — throughout the year. He also has an email list if he needs immediate assistance. Usually, though, he says, people simply approach him looking to pitch in; a few days before the first planting, some teachers stopped by to weed.

Amina Lalor has been volunteering with Minjimendan for more than a year. For her, the experience is all about education. “I’ve been doing my master’s for the past few years on situating architecture and spatial design in settler colonial frameworks, but also looking at the Indigenous context that’s here,” she says. “I have Métis roots, and I’m trying to reconnect with that as well.”   

Madeleine van den Hurk-Paul has brought her seventh-grade daughter, Phoenix Paul, to the event. While she’s not Indigenous herself, her husband is from Adams Lake Indian Band, in British Columbia. She says that opportunities like this offer her kids a chance to connect with their culture. “Even though the people from here have different customs, it’s a similar type of knowledge,” she says. “It’s about relationships; it’s about respecting what you have. And that transcends.”

Judge is pleased with the turnout. “Look how many people came today, and on a rainy day: over 15 people. They worked hard the whole time, and nobody was slacking — well, except me.” he says with a laugh.

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