Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 22, 2000 - Issue 08

Spring Time is 'Iskigamiziigewin'

Harvesting sap and making maple syrup is an Anishinaabeg tradition
by Dorreen Yellow Bird Herald Staff Writer

"Maple Sugar Time" by Patrick DesJarlait

RED LAKE, Minn. -- Harvesting maple sugar is an ancient process that the Red Lake people have done for as long as they can remember.

In early spring when the snow has melted, sap surges into the trees to nourish them like breast milk from the mother that feeds a baby to give it strength and life.

The CRAFT (creating restitution and following traditions) program of the tribal court has developed a "sugar bush camp" for troubled young people. Even though the camp is specifically for these young people, Red Lake youth and community members are also encouraged to attend.

The grove of maple trees that are harvested are in the Neiiahshing forest just a mile or so off the highway.

The grove of maple trees that are harvested are in the Neiiahshing forest just a mile or so off the highway.

This is the third year the camp has harvested maple sugar. This year, however, the camp did not include a teepee. According to Earline May, a project director for the CRAFT program, a bear decided to make a new door in the teepee, which will have to be sewn before it can be used again. "Why didn't he just use the door?" she wondered.

From sap to syrup This year has not been a good one for maple sugar, said Floyd "Buck" Jourdian, one of the directors. A lack of snow and moisture this spring limited the harvest. At first they talked about not having a sugar bush camp. But the elders, who are their advisors and teachers, said there is always sugaring time, Jourdian said.

For the Red Lake Band of Chippewa the forest, swamp and plants have provided well for them. "Sugaring" or "Iskigamiziigewin," as the Anishinaabeg say, is the process of making syrup from the sap of the maple tree and is just one of the traditional activities that their people do each year, said Collins Oakgrove, tribal elder and teacher for the camp.

Maple syrup is used not only for syrup and candy but also in most of their foods, Oakgrove said. They season wild rice and breads with maple syrup and the meats are delicious with maple syrup flavoring. They use it just like salt in almost everything, he said.

Before the start of the sugaring process they make an offering of tobacco and food then smoke the Sacred Pipe, Oakgrove said.

The campsite

The camp includes an area where they cook. Near the campfire, where "swamp tea" brews and meals for the workers are made, is another fire. This fire is for boiling or steaming away the water from the sap. The skeleton of this facility is made like the traditional wigwams used by their ancestors, but rather than birch bark, it is covered with a blue plastic tarp. The sap is stored there in large plastic garbage containers. It is there that sap goes from sweet water to delicious burnt amber-colored syrup.

From the camp you can see silver gallon pails with wire handles hanging from the maple trees. The pails are hung on two-to three-inch wooden spigots that were carved from sumac trees. Sumac is soft in the middle, May said. That middle is carved out so that the sap can run from the tree into the pail. When the sap is running fast and just after the pails are emptied, the forest is alive with the ping, ping of the sap as it begins to fill the pails, May said.

The maple syrup is stored for a fall feast. It is a feast for the elders and the community. Venison, elk, prairie chicken, wild rice and other foods will be served. But sitting in a place of honor is the maple syrup that the young people have harvested.

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