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Grand Traverse tribe amps up community sugarbush


Maple sugaring season is just wrapping up in northern Michigan. This delicious tradition of boiling maple sap to make syrup is practiced in the state on many scales.

But indigenous communities in the area were tapping trees long before settlers arrived.

This year, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians is reviving the tradition, and teaching its citizens about the rich history of sugaring in Anishinaabe culture.

Sugarbushing Moon

For the Anishinaabe, a group of indigenous peoples that includes the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, early spring is sap-boiling season.

In some Ojibwe dialects, the name for early spring, ‘iskigamizige-giizis’, literally translates to "sugarbushing moon."

As with other parts of their culture, colonization and forced assimilation has meant many Anishinaabe kids grew up not knowing about maple sugaring.

Desmond Berry, the natural resources director for the Grand Traverse Band, wants to change that. 

So on a day in early March, he is overseeing a steam-filled sugar shack in Peshawbestown.

“We want to bring the community here and teach them how to do this,” he says.

According to Berry, sugaring has always been a group effort.

“What would happen in the springtime is the community would come together and head out to the sugarbush, which is just a term for a grove of maples that you're going to tap,” he explains. “They'd set up wigwams.”

Taps were carved of wood, and sap was collected in watertight birchbark containers. It was boiled in hollowed-out logs, using stones heated on a fire. Berry describes the traditional boiling process as a “production.”

“You've got somebody fishing out cold stones out of the sap and putting them back into the fire to reheat them,” he says. “Then on the other side of the fire, somebody's fishing out hot ones and putting them into the other end of the log.”

Too precious to sell

This year, Berry's tribe bought brand-new sugaring equipment, including a massive wood-fired evaporator. They invited all of their citizens to come participate.

a bag collecting
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The sap flows from a metal tap into plastic bags before being collected and boiled down into syrup.

  They’ve got some trees outfitted with simple metal taps and sap bags. But they also have a more contemporary setup.

A web of tubing connects hundreds of trees to a main line which sends sap downhill to a collection tank. Berry says that the other day, they were collecting 25 gallons of sap an hour.

Today, they’ve got 500 gallons to boil. The evaporator bubbles, sending sap from compartment to compartment as it gets closer to syrup.

Some finished syrup is sitting in a warmer. Somebody flips pancakes on an electric griddle. People laugh, drink coffee, and tell stories. One toddler’s face is looking rather sticky.

Melissa Petoskey is a tribal citizen who came to see the boil. She tells an Anishinaabe maple sap origin story.

The story says that concentrated maple syrup used to flow directly from the trees. But then, a spirit thought people were getting lazy, and turned the syrup into sap.

Many versions of the story say it was Nanaboozhoo, the Trickster Spirit. In Petoskey’s version, it’s Gichi-manidoo, the Great Spirit.

“Gichi-manidoo saw all the natives with their mouths open underneath the trees,” she says. “He said, ‘OK, well I'm going to put water in to the trees, and now it's going to take the 40 gallons to make one gallon of maple syrup, and so now you have to work for it, and we give you purpose in working for it.’”

Desmond Berry says the syrup is too precious to be sold. It will likely be served at community gatherings, used to feed elders, or given as gifts to important visitors.

This story was featured on Interlochen Public Radio's new show, Points North. Listen to the full episode here.

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
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