Sugarbush — The Sweetest Tradition


By Li BoydMille Lacs Band Member 

April is called Iskigamizige-Giizis in Anishinaabemowin — the maple sugar moon. It is the only time of year when the sap of sugar maple trees will run. Depending on the weather, the sap can start to flow in Onaabani-Giizis, Hard Crust on the Snow Moon, or March. 

Maple sap has been a traditional food source for the Anishinaabe for generations — since before colonists arrived with iron kettles to help with the boiling process. While the ziinzibaakwadwaaboo, sugar water, that comes from the tree is sweet as soon as it comes out and tempting to drink on the spot, Anishinaabe ancestors knew that the sweetness would be better preserved and stored for use later during the year. They taught themselves to boil ziinzibaakwadwaaboo until it became thick, and then thicker still. Once thick enough, the nearly solid sugar would be poured into a wooden trough carved from the trunk of a tree and ground by hand into granules. The resulting sugar would be packed into cakes or cones, used as food seasoning, or even added to water for sweet tea. 

While some of the tools have changed, Anishinaabe methods for collecting sap in a good way are largely the same as they always have been. Cultural teachers at Nay Ah Shing Schools pass this knowledge along to the students each year. This year, Nay Ah Shing School senior boys Brandon Kegg, Tyler Nayquonabe, Dylan Oswaldson, and Thomas White took leading roles in operating the Iskigamizigan, sugarbush, for the schools. With assistance from the Department of Labor in constructing the frame for the kettle and wood donations from the Department of Natural Resources, the boys boiled ziinzibaakwadwaaboo into syrup, sugar, and taffy.

This harvest, along with birchbark, manoomin, and other materials, is an important cultural element included in Nay Ah Shing’s curriculum. It also presents an opportunity to explore science in the field. The schools always explore ways to integrate culture into the standard curriculum, and so they did with Iskigamizigan this year. Students completed projects focused on the sugarbush.

The students tracked the process from start to finish. They started by hand-carving their own taps from sumac and using a hand drill to tap the trees. They helped construct their Iskigamizigan, split their wood, and hauled their sap as the buckets filled. Since the stand of maples was around the corner from Iskigamizigan Powwow Grounds, the sap was transported to the Nay Ah Shing Iskigamizigan by a truck. There students filtered the sap, tended the fire, and boiled the sap for several days. As boiling sap requires constant attention, the senior boys spent a lot of time at their Iskigamizigan. 

Dylan Oswaldson has been sugaring for most of his life. He said the most important thing about it to him is to carry on the tradition and pass it along to the younger kids. Brandon Kegg and Thomas White agreed that the cultural aspects of sugarbush are the most important thing to them. Each of them has attended Nay Ah Shing for most of their education, and they highly value the cultural knowledge they have acquired. They have been doing this long enough to see the process change through the years. Dylan admitted that Nay Ah Shing began tapping trees with metal taps when it first started to run its own Iskigamizigan. As the metal taps gradually got lost, they simply began carving their own to replace them until now the majority of their taps are handmade by the students. 

The Department of Natural Resources also collects near Iskigamizigan Powwow Grounds and operates its own Iskigamizigan right there among the trees. This year, through coordination by Todd Moilanen and Jake Horbacz, DNR staff were pleased to host visiting students from multiple area schools, including Isle, Onamia, and Nay Ah Shing Abinoojiiyag. The students were invited to help collect ziinzibaakwadwaaboo and learn about the process. 

Hands-on experience like this can't be found at most schools. While expansion of cultural programs at every school is important, sharing community activities across school districts, as was done in this case, can also be beneficial.

Learning from cultural experts and practitioners provides invaluable information that might otherwise go unlearned. A novice could do the tapping process correctly but still fail to collect very much sap because they haven't thought to clear ice from the tap with a maple twig. Sometimes very simple tips and tricks are the most valuable things an expert can provide. 

The final elements in the sugarbush process are to socialize after the long, dim winter, have fun with one another, and celebrate the gifts nature has given. The schools did this with a pancake social. The pancakes were served with the syrup that came from the hard work of the students as well as the teachers who assisted. The process might seem lengthy and labor-intensive, but the final product will remind a person of why the Anishinaabe have practiced harvest this way for so long and why they continue to pass down this knowledge to the coming generations. 

The future appears to be well in hand. Thomas isn't 100 percent sure he still has some taffy in his freezer – but not to worry. Brandon, Dylan, and Thomas all say they will continue to sugarbush in the years to come. And Dylan has a reminder: "Always remember to put out your asemaa, tobacco, and be thankful for what nature and the land give to us."

Top photo by Li Boyd: Nay Ah Shing seniors Brandon Kegg, Dylan Oswaldson, and Thomas White have been helping the younger students learn the sugarbush tradition.

Photo above by Jake Horbacz: Students from Isle schools also participated in sugarbush activities this year, with help from Jake Horbacz and other DNR employees.

Photos below submitted by Nay Ah Shing Schools: Students learned about all the steps in the sugaring process: setting up, making taps, tapping trees, hauling sap, gathering wood, boiling sap, and finishing off syrup and sugar cakes.