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Chris Aadland
Underscore.news and Indian Country Today

Organizers of an Indigenous sugarbush ceremony broken up by Detroit police last week say their apology for the incident didn’t go far enough and are pushing for bigger changes.

On Friday, Feb. 18, more than a dozen police officers broke up an Indigenous sugarbush ceremony led by the Detroit Sugarbush Project at the city’s nearly 1,200-acre River Rouge Park because, police said, the group didn’t have the proper permits.

Organizers of the project – a partnership of several different area groups, the city and Indigenous leaders to educate youth and the community about the traditional Indigenous practice of tapping sugar maple trees for its sap to make sugar or syrup – had gathered Friday night with community members, including children and elders, to celebrate the beginning of the sugarbush season.

“That’s great that they put that apology out, but we want more,” said Rosebud Bear-Schneider, citizen of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin and project leader. “There’s a bigger issue happening.”

In a Monday statement apologizing for “the interruption of a sacred ceremony,” Detroit Police Department Chief James White said police were responding to a report of a fire in the park from a Michigan State Police helicopter at about 8 p.m. on Friday. When police arrived at the park, White said officers found that a memorandum of understanding between the city and the group had expired and that the group also didn’t have a permit for their bonfire or insurance.

The department would “identify opportunities for our officers to work with the organizers” and would meet with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, elected officials and the Native American community “to learn and grow from this situation.”

Police said they didn’t arrest or detain anyone during the incident. The department has also said it’s been in contact with those leading the project.

“I am very proud of the Detroit Police Department for having an incredibly diverse workforce, however, we can always do better to address these types of incidents,” he said in the statement.

Rosebud Bear-Schneider works on gathering sap from sugar maple trees in Detroit as part of the Detroit Sugarbush Project. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Cosme)

The department’s response to the ceremony also raised concern from some that it had violated treaty rights from several treaties signed in Detroit by several tribal nations in the 1800s and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, said Jefferson Ballew, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, at a Thursday meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners. Those, he said, supersede any violations of city laws that may have occurred.

“We were there as a peaceful people,” Ballew, one of the project’s spiritual leaders and sugar making experts who was at the ceremony.

The department defended the actions of its officers during Thursday’s meeting, saying they acted appropriately and professionally, amid questions about the incident and concern from some board members about why the department interrupted the event. A police official told the board that the event they broke up didn’t appear to be religious or ceremonial partly because nobody was dressed in traditional or religious clothing and it didn’t appear to be a spiritual or religious event.

While the department’s Monday apology was welcome, Bear-Schneider who is also a farmer and food sovereignty advocate, said the department needs to do more, like institute Indigenous cultural competency training, and provide an explanation of why so many officers responded to what was a peaceful event that the city knew about and has supported.

“We were definitely not expecting any of this to happen,” she said. “We were within our rights and we were doing everything we were supposed to be doing, A lot of us are traumatized.”

Antonio Cosme, an education coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, said the project has been gathering in the park to tap trees and boil the sap into sugar and syrup and educate the public about the cultural importance of the practice to the region’s Indigeous people for three years. The group previously had to deal with police who interrupted them during their first year of the project, with their guns drawn, Cosme said Thursday. The National Wildlife Federation is one of the partner groups helping lead the project.

Cosme said the police presence was unnecessary because although the MOU had recently expired, he was working with the city to renew it before police broke up Friday’s ceremony, and criticized the police department for poor communication with the city, as well as for threatening to arrest those gathered and for disrespectful language he alleged several of the officers directed at the group. Cosme added that he had been in communication with the local fire department about the group’s plan for a fire, which is why it also didn’t respond to the incident.

He also called the department’s apology misleading and inadequate, especially because he met officers before they entered the woods and told them they would be disrupting an Indigenous ceremonial event and that officers had originally agreed that the group’s MOU was valid.

While an updated MOU should be approved sometime next week, he said that the group decided to hold the ceremony Friday because the sap had started to run, which they have no control over.

“The maple syrup doesn’t run on our time and our clocks and our schedules; it comes when it comes,” Cosme said. “The police should expect us there [in] February and March of every year.”

The group, Bear-Schneider said, went back to the park the next morning to properly finish the ceremony and on Sunday to tap the trees to begin the process of collecting the sap. Once she and other leaders of the project have recovered from the incident, they’ll decide what other actions or changes they want to push for. So far, at least, she said the incident has raised awareness about the project and has led to a lot of groups and individuals reaching out in support.

But for sure, she said, the project will move forward with collecting the maple trees’ sap and boiling it down to maple sugar or syrup, just as the Anishinaabe and Algonquin people have done in the area for thousands of years.

“We're gonna move forward,” Bear-Schneider said. “We're not trying to cause trouble or make things worse for us. We just want to practice our ways and be protected.”

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This story is co-published by Underscore.news and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.