Maple Sugar

One day, Wenebojo was standing under a maple tree.

Suddenly, it began to rain maple syrup, not sap, right on top of him. Wenebojo got a birchbark tray and held it out to catch the syrup. He said to himself, “This is too easy for the Indians to have the syrup just rain down like this.” So he threw the syrup away and decided that before they could have the syrup, the Indians would have to give a feast, offer tobacco, speak to the manido, and put out some birchbark trays.

The Menominee say that Nokomis, the grandmother of Manabush or Wenebojo, showed him how to insert a small piece of wood into each maple tree so the sap could run down into the placed below. When Manabush tested it, it was thick and sweet. He told his grandmother it would never do to give the Indians the syrup without making them work for it. He climbed to the top of one of the maples, scattered rain over all the trees, dissolving the sugar as it flowed into the birchbark vessels. Now the Indians have to cut wood, make vessels, collect the sap, and boil it for a long time. If they want the maple syrup, they have to work hard for it.

As winter drew to a close, Native people of the Great Lakes tribes prepared for the sugar season by assembling their birchbark buckets, sap spiles, and other equipment. As it grew warmer in March and the sap began to flow in the trees, several families would move together to a particular section of the maple forest. This was their “sugarbush,” an area of the maple stands where they maintained familial rights to harvest maple sap for sugaring. Here, they would erect a wigwam and set up camp. Sugaring was a time of hard work, but also one of pleasure. Special wigwams were retained from year to year: A small one for storing the birchbark equipment, and a larger one in which the sap was boiled and the sugar granulated. The tree was tapped by making a horizontal gash in the tree trunk three or four feet above the ground. A cedar spile was pounded in at an angle, allowing the sap to drip down into simple, quickly fashioned birchbark containers placed on the ground. The sap was then gathered in birchbark containers and cooked down by placing heated stones in the bark containers. This process, called stone boiling, heated the sap on the containers. As the rocks cooled, they were removed and replaced with hot rocks so the water could be kept boiling.

Containers were devised by first heating the bark over a fire or steaming it to make it pliable, then bending it into the desired shape and sewing it with basswood fiber or spruce roots. For cooking, it was necessary that the container be watertight, and this was accomplished by dampening it by putting liquid in it before placing the vessel over the fire. Bark buckets served to catch dripping maple sap, which was then poured into larger buckets and carried to the boiling site. There also were birchbark vessels called makuks, which would not hold water. These were shaped like truncated pyramids and were used for storing maple sugar and wild rice as well as for gathering wild fruits and berries. After contact with Whites, the birchbark containers used for processing sugar were replaced by metal kettles, but much of the other equipment and the entire process remained much the same.

When the boiled sap hung in thick strings from the stirring paddle, it was considered done. It was then strained through basswood-fiber matting or through cloth, and transferred to a wooden granulating trough. As it cooled, it was worked with a different kind of wooden paddle as well as with the hands to ensure even granulation. The granulated sugar that resulted was pulverized into finer granules. Sometimes, the sugar was packed tightly into molds, shells, bones, or carved wooden forms to make small cakes. The lighter-colored sugar was considered superior, and, at times, the white of an egg was added to achieve the desired color. Nothing was wasted, and if any syrup was left in the kettle, it was reboiled with a little fresh sap to make a second-grade sugar.

After all the sugar was prepared, the kettles were cleaned by thoroughly scrubbing them with wood ashes and a stone. The kettles and baskets were then stacked in the wigwam built for that purpose until the following year, and the family carried home their supply of sugar in birchbark storage containers, to be used when needed.

Maple sugar was used at feasts and ceremonies. Because the food at feasts and ceremonies had received a special blessing which was imparted to the participants as they ate, each person was expected to eat all that was set before him. Maple sugar was used on fruits, vegetables, cereals, and even fish. Before the coming of Whites, Native people had no salt, hence maple sugar was used as a major seasoning as well as a confection. Children were sometimes coaxed to take their medicine by putting a little maple sugar in it. The sugar was also mixed with water for a refreshing drink.