Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
ODANAH, Wisconsin — Sugarbush time begins in the fleeting moments when winter first signals its departure, making way for spring. When the daytime temperatures rise above 40 degrees, usually about mid-March, the maple sap begins to flow.
Although one can continue to gather sap after trees begin to bud, the syrup is bitter. Sugarbush is a short, delicious season of intense work signaling that the first fruits of the earth are emerging. Fresh maple sap is highly perishable and must be cooked into syrup or sugar soon after gathering. Sugarbush time usually lasts about 3 weeks.
Long ago, the sap was cooked down into sugar, easier to store and lighter than syrup.
But the sugarbush is about far more than maple syrup on pancakes. As with most Ojibwe traditional ways, tapping trees in the early spring and gathering sap for syrup and sugar cakes not only provides tasty food but offers lessons for life.
Today, the business of the sugarbush, or iskigamizigan in the Ojibwe language, also has an element of Indigenous activism. Ojibwe bands in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota have rights to hunt and gather on ceded lands affirmed by the Treaties of 1836, 1837 and 1842. Until the 1980s, however, after tribes sued for those rights in federal courts, both states prevented Ojibwe citizens from hunting, gathering or fishing off reservation lands. Iskigamizigan is an affirmation of treaty rights, emphasizing Ojibwe’s inherent rights to healthy sustainable subsistence foodstuffs.
Ojibwe have long relied on the maple tree - known as ininaatiq or man tree - for food and a product with which to barter or sell. Unlike white sugar, maple syrup and maple sugar contain riboflavin, thiamine, manganese, zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron, selenium and potassium. According to research funded by the Federation of Quebec Maple Producers, maple syrup also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well as polyphenols, which inhibit the enzymes responsible for converting carbohydrates to sugars, offering a possible method for managing Type 2 diabetes.
According to historical data collected by Paul DeMain of the Oneida and Ojibwe tribes, a typical Ojibwe family during the late 19th century produced around 1,000 pounds of maple sugar. Since about 40 gallons of sap are required to make one gallon of syrup or eight pounds of sugar, the family would have tapped about 900 trees. DeMain is an avid proponent of food sovereignty in which Native peoples use local resources to feed themselves.
But as settlers began to cut the forests for timber and states grew more restrictive toward tribal hunting, fishing and gathering rights, Ojibwe began to move away from the sugarbush, relying instead on store-bought sugar.
DeMain shared some of the traditional teachings about iskigamizigan.
“Originally it was said that a maple tree arrived and it dripped syrup rather than sap. The Anishinaabe or Ojibwe ended up lying under the tree and letting the syrup drip directly into their mouths. Soon they gained weight and became sick; they grew under the influence of the Windigoo, an out-of-balance spirit who feeds on greed,” he said.
“Seeing this, the Creator and other spirits took action. They thinned out the sap so that Anishinaabe would have to work hard in order to get at that delicious ingredient.”
Bringing families together
Although sugarbush demands a lot of hard work, Ojibwe are rewarded with the healing fellowship of time spent with friends and family as well as healthy food.
In recent years, more Ojibwe are returning to the wisdom of subsistence living in search of culture, health and community. One of the greatest benefits of activities such as sugarbush is mental health.
It was the iskigamizigan that helped the Maday family on the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation in Wisconsin grieve the loss of their grandparents.
“After my grandparents died, my son Pierce wanted to find a way to bring our family back together again,” said Lynn Maday Bigboy, director of Maskiiziibii or Medicine River Youth Services in Bad River. Bigboy is a citizen of the Bad River Band.
After learning about the sugarbush from other tribal citizens, then-13-year-old Pierce convinced his large, extended family to begin making syrup in 2012.
“It’s helped bring our family together; it gives us time to reconnect to each other and the land,” she said.
“We’ve been doing it every year since then.”
After the long winter
Bigboy soon realized that sugarbush could offer the same healing and reconnection to others. With the support of the tribe, she and the youth services staff organize a community sugarbush.
“We all have that thread that pulls us to the Earth and the community. It’s healthy and healing to honor that connection.”
Traditionally, families would camp out in the forest collecting sap and boiling it into sugar until the harvest was finished.
Although few people today camp out for the duration of sugarbush, many enjoy the opportunity to spend time with relatives and members of the community, sharing culture and enjoying the sweet taste of maple syrup.
“The name of our community was originally Maskiiziibii or Medicine River. Our elders said that everything Ojibwe need for a healthy life is available here in Maskiiziibii and I really believe that,” Maday said.
Smoke from homemade cooking stoves billow into the night on Maskiiziibii as people cook their sap down into syrup and sometimes maple sugar cakes.
“Everyone is welcome at the community sugarbush,” she said.
“We love it when people come and tell stories. That’s what sugarbush is about after the long winter, especially during the isolation of COVID. It’s a time to see each other and share those good, deep-belly laughs.”
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