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Maple sugaring’s roots with the Ojibwe people run deep

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Ojibwe women making maple sugar at Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Reservation of Ojibwe, ca. 1920.

Ojibwe people have made maple sugar, a traditional dietary staple, for centuries. It is easily accessible in the woodlands of Minnesota and can be stored for months without spoiling. While the technology used in the process has changed over the years, Ojibwe people continue to harvest maple sugar in the present day.

Native people have produced maple sugar since time immemorial throughout the Great Lakes and New England. It is produced by boiling the sap of the sugar maple tree (acer saccharum), which grows throughout Minnesota. While the sap of other tree species, such as birch and other maple varieties, can be harvested, sugar maple sap contains the highest concentration of sugar. It takes about thirty-five gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

In Minnesota, the harvest of maple sugar usually occurs between mid-March and mid-April, when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Sap is most plentiful at this time of year as it is the beginning of the trees’ annual growth cycle.

The harvesting process begins with the drilling of small holes of around one inch deep into maple trees. (Before the advent of drills, Ojibwe people would simply gash the trees with an axe.) Next, spigots are pounded into the trees to divert the flow of their sap. Taps made of sumac were common, as sumac branches of two to three inches in diameter can be easily hollowed out. Since the late 1700s, Ojibwe people have also used metal taps.

In the next step of the harvesting process, the dripping sap is collected in a container placed at each tree. Historically, Ojibwe people used birch bark containers for this, as they were easily stacked. Finally, the sap is collected from each tree and boiled in a larger kettle made of cast iron or stainless steel. The process of making maple sugar was greatly aided when Ojibwe people began acquiring cast iron kettles from French traders in the seventeenth century. Prior to this, Ojibwe people boiled thousands of gallons of maple sap in kettles made of birch bark or copper.

Once they had collected the sap in kettles, Ojibwe people boiled it down into granulated sugar, which was used as the primary seasoning in food. Writing in 1855, German ethnographer Johann Kohl noted: “They are fond of mixing their meat with sweets, and even sprinkle sugar or maple syrup over fish boiled in water.” If kept dry, granulated sugar will not spoil for months, providing Ojibwe people with a food source throughout the year.

Before the reservation era (ca. 1871–1928), the opening of sugar camps every spring played an important role in the social life of Ojibwe communities. During the winter, Ojibwe people scattered into family groups of around a dozen people. The opening of sugar camp in the early spring marked the beginning of Ojibwe communities coming back together into larger groups for food production, ceremonies, and social events.

Historically, women performed most of the labor associated with maple sugar production, with men working in supporting roles such as cutting firewood and supplying food by hunting and fishing. This began to change during the twentieth century as entire families worked in sugar camps. Mille Lacs elder Larry “Amik” Smallwood described his family’s sugar camp during his childhood in the 1950s: “Families would help each other and everybody would have a role. There was the wood cutters, the gatherers of water, the boilers, the food makers. It was really a lot of fun long ago.”

In the twenty-first century, Ojibwe people continue to harvest maple sugar, which remains an important traditional food source. Ojibwe families operate camps on reservations throughout Minnesota and may also gather maple sugar off-reservation on county, state, and federal lands in east-central Minnesota — a right derived from the 1837 Treaty of St. Peters and subsequent interpretations, including a 1999 Supreme Court case.

Maple sugar is a vital resource in preserving Ojibwe culture and sovereignty. Mille Lacs elder Larry “Amik” Smallwood noted: “We treat that maple syrup with respect. The same as we would wild rice. If you burn some, if you spill it, if you waste any unintentionally, you got to do a little tobacco ceremony for that because it’s a gift from the Creator.”

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/08/2018 - 11:49 pm.

    What a sweet story!

  2. Submitted by Brian Gandt on 10/10/2018 - 02:23 pm.

    I’d be interested in hearing how sap is boiled in a birch bark bucket. I’m thinking about possible non metallic coatings, but I am coming up short!

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