Maple sugaring among the Ojibwe Indians

Maple sugaring among the Ojibwe Indians in the Great Lakes region

Ojibwe women making birch bark containers
CREDIT: Science Museum of Minnesota

From February to April, as with warm, thawing days alternated with frosty nights, sap usually began to run freely in the sugar maple trees. Before the trees were tapped, birchbark was gathered for baskets. The baskets ranged from one quart to two gallons in size.

Traditionally, women assumed the principal role in sugar-making. Most of the maple-sugar groves were owned matrilineally – in the name of a woman.

The sap gathered in the early part of the flow was considered the best. Two to ten tappings could be made in one tree, depending on its size. It could take two to three days to complete the driving of the spiles.

Every day, sap was gathered and carried to a lodge for processing. These special wigwams were maintained from year to year – a small one for storing the equipment, and a larger one where the sap was processed.

The finished product took one of three forms: syrup, sugar, or cake. Sap intended for syrup boiled for a short time over lower flame. Cooks added water to the sap and stirred it frequently. To make sugar, they slowly boiled the sap to a thick syrup and poured it into another trough, where it was “worked” with a paddle and with the hands until it crystallized into grains. And to make cakes, or “hard sugar,” they poured the thick syrup into makuks (birch bark containers) or other containers and let it cool.

After cooking the first sugar of the year, the people always offered a small amount to the Great Spirit, or Manidoo. This ceremony, the Offering of the First Fruits or Game, accompanied the first preparation of each seasonal food. The Manidoog were asked to insure good health, long life and the safety of everyone at the feast.

Sap collecting today

processing sap using metal containers
CREDIT: Photo National Park Service

Today, on Minnesota Ojibwe tribal land, anyone who has lived on the reservation for a while may tap trees. Trees do not belong to particular families; anybody can use them. People select the trees they wish to use and then camp out to “keep an eye on” those trees.

Modern materials have changed the way sap is collected and processed. Metal spiles are easier to drive into the trees. Plastic tubes and bags collect the sap with no leakage. Sap is placed in metal kettles and heated directly over a fire. Some harvesters use portable propane cookers right at the tree, eliminating the need to carry the watery sap to a cooking site.

Mrs. Mink syruping
Mrs. Mink (Ojibwe) demonstrates tapping a maple tree with a wooden spile, and collects the sap in a birch bark bucket.

Maple syrup and sugar production is big business. Sometimes families produce more than enough syrup, sugar and maple candy for their own needs, and sell the extra to stores and tourists. Most people take the sap to the syrup stage. Only a little is further processed into sugar, which is stored in glass jars or tins. If kept in air-tight containers, maple sugar cakes can be preserved almost indefinitely.