Reflections from the Ah­nish­i­nah­bæójib­way (We, the People)

Harmony Co-op

[published in the March/April 1996 Harmony Natural Foods Cooperative  newsletter]

By the time you read this, we will be in our sugarbush: cutting firewood, washing kettles and pails, experimenting with what we hope will be a more efficient sap evaporator, and checking our first tap to see if the sap is running yet.

As the cycle of the seasons moves toward Spring, the days get longer and the sunlight soaks the land with welcome warmth.  Every being who has rested through the cold of Winter begins to awaken.  The birds are beginning to return, the bear cubs making their first explorations beyond the den where they were born in mid-Winter, and the sap is beginning to rise in the trees.  As the sugar-beet farmers in the Red River Valley stare across acres of mud and wait for their fields to dry enough to start planting again, here it’s maple sugar-making time.

Sugar maples were one of the foundations of Ah­nish­i­nah­bæót­jib­way permaculture, of the Aboriginal Indigenous peoples’ harmonious and respectful inter-relationship with the natural cycles of Grandmother Earth.  A sugarbush is part of a complex, integrated ecosystem where several species of maple, basswood, birch, ash and other trees—along with hundreds of species of shrubs, grasses, ferns and herbs, birds and insects, and animals all live in symbiotic and mutually-supportive harmony.  Ah­nish­i­nah­bæót­jib­way permaculture was an economy of abundance, egalitarian and inter-connected, and not susceptible to centralized control.  The Dodems (extended families) would gather at the family sugarbushes to make sugar together in the Spring.  Everybody from babies to centenarians worked together in the sugarbush and enjoyed the companionship of the extended family.  The heat from sap-boiling fires felt just right in the gathering warmth of springtime sunshine, and it was a beautiful time of year.

Although the methods used to make maple syrup and maple sugar have changed on the surface—steel drills instead of axes to tap the trees, tin cans and plastic pails instead of birchbark containers, metal or plastic “taps” instead of wooden ones—the basic process is still the same.  The trees are tapped by cutting or drilling through the bark into the sap-wood and the sap is collected, drop by drop, in pails or cans.  The maple sap, which runs sweet enough to make maple sugar only in the northeast part of this continent, is gathered and boiled for several hours to evaporate the water.  When it first starts to boil, the hot sap begins to froth.  We always use deer tallow or pork fat, dipped into the boiling sap to stop the foaming and boiling over.  Presently, some people think that using a spruce bough is the way the Aboriginal Indigenous people used to stop the foaming.  Not true.  Using a spruce bough actually makes the syrup taste lousy, almost like turpentine, thus enhancing the market for commercial white sugar, and justifying cutting down the maple trees for furniture.  It also discredits the Aboriginal Indigenous culture.

Ultimately, thirty or forty gallons of sap boiled down, are concentrated to make about a gallon of pure maple syrup, or a few pounds of maple sugar.

People have asked, “Isn’t it a lot of work to make maple syrup?”  It is, but in the old way it was done together as a Dodem, for the family, and sure, it was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun, too.  The Dodem did all of their food-gathering and food-harvesting together: gardening, maple sugaring and gathering mahnomen (which is sometimes erroneously called “wild rice”).  In reality, making maple sugar is a lot less work than clearing a sugar-cane field, planting the cane, weeding the fields for over a year while the sugar-cane matures, burning the fields, cutting the cane in tropical heat, grinding the sugar-canes to extract the juice—and then finally beginning the boiling-down process that the Ah­nish­i­nah­bæót­jib­way began with.  Many people don’t realize that market-scale production of sugar-cane began with slave labor, is now economically feasible only with cheap third-world labor and fossil-fueled machines, and is ecologically destructive.

Maple sugar is a living food, and each day’s sap run is different: syrup will be a slightly different color, and sugar will have a different texture.  Unlike white sugar, which is chemically refined and potentially addictive, maple sugar is an organic complex filled with minerals; a food which is good for you, part of a healthy natural diet.  And maple sugar will not unbalance the blood glucose of diet-controlled diabetics.

The sugarbush is a time of re-awakening and it was a time of celebration of family and Spring.  But, most of all, the sugarbush is a time of renewal, companionable working-together of family and friends, of giving thanks for the wonderful food given to us by Grandmother Earth.  Sugar-making, and the stewardship of Grandmother Earth which is inherent in it, is something which is naturally a part of all of us human beings who live here now—but we all have to learn to fine-tune ourselves as earth-beings into our natural cycles of life, and live in balance and harmony.  This we must do, in order to survive.

[This newsletter article was the collaborative work of Wub-e-ke-niew,
                                                                                       Clara NiiSka
                                                                                       and Mary Harding]

Wub-e-ke-niew of the Bear Dodem, a Co-op member, is author of We Have the Right to Exist, A Translation of Aboriginal Indigenous Thought.

Wub-e-ke-niew, drilling into the trees

The tap is inserted into the drilled hole.

Mary Harding tending the fires and checking the boiling sap.

Meanwhile, the trees do their part.

Clara watching the fire.

Melvin Jones taste-tests the syrup.

“Boiling up” at night in Wub-e-ke-niew and Clara’s sugarbush, 1995.

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