Minnesota history: Maple sugaring and the Ojibwe people

Sugar maple is best known for its bright fall foliage and for being the primary source of maple syrup. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org/Creative Commons.

Sugar maple is best known for its bright fall foliage and for being the primary source of maple syrup. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org/Creative Commons.

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.”

Redix, Erik, “Maple sugaring and the Ojibwe.” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society, www.mnopedia.org/ thing/maple-sugaring-andojibwe (accessed October 4, 2018).

TURNING POINT In the seventeenth century, cast iron kettles are introduced to the Ojibwe by French traders. The Ojibwe begin to use them to boil tree sap during their maple sugar harvests.

CHRONOLOGY 1600s French traders in North America introduce cast iron kettles to Ojibwe people.

1837 The Treaty of St. Peters recognizes the rights of the Ojibwe to gather maple syrup off-reservation in east-central Minnesota.

1842 A thousand Ojibwe people

living on the western shore of Lake Superior process batches of maple sugar collectively worth $30,000.

1854 The Treaty of La Pointe creates reservations at Fond du Lac and Grand Portage. Other treaties establishing Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota follow.

1863 The Pillager and Lake Winnibigoshish bands of Ojibwe process seventy-five tons of maple sugar.

1930s Ojibwe men and women begin working together (rather than in groups separated by gender) in sugar camps.

1999 The U.S. Supreme Court case Minnesota vs. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa affirms the right of Ojibwe people to make maple sugar (as well as hunt, fish, and gather wild rice) on Minnesota lands ceded in 1837.

2010s Indigenous harvesters at companies like Spirit Lake Native Products (on the Fond du Lac Reservation) and Native Harvest (part of the White Earth Land Recovery Project) begin to sell maple syrup and maple sugar to customers across Minnesota.

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