Maple Sugaring: Myaamia Student Perspectives

Each year at Miami University, the Myaamia Center staff and Myaamia students take part in the process of Maple Sugaring.  Two years ago, we wrote about the process of maple sugaring if you want to learn more about how to collect sap and process it into syrup or sugar, but as we head into this year’s maple sugaring season, I want to focus on the Myaamia students’ involvement.  During the year that the Heritage Course is focused on Ecological Perspectives and History, maple sugaring is an official part of the course, and all of the students take part.  In other years, Myaamia students can choose how much they want to be involved in the process.  Last year, a group of students, including Joshua McCoy, Gretchen Spenn, and Abby Strack, chose to be very involved throughout the entire process.  Between these three students, they took part in every part of the process, from choosing which trees to tap, to collecting the sap, to processing it in their small apartment-style dorm room.

Two pots of maple sap being boiled down to syrup
Two pots of maple sap being boiled down to syrup
Photo courtesy of Joshua McCoy
Golden sap in a pot created during the maple sap boiling process
Darkening sap during boiling process
Photo by Joshua McCoy

Each of the students had a different reason for choosing to be so involved in the process, but for Gretchen, she mentioned that it helped her to connect to her Myaamia ancestors.  “Personally, I think being involved in maple sugaring is important to me because it is continuing a practice that my ancestors did. Going into the woods and taping trees helped me form a direct mental connection to my heritage and helped me better visualize what it was like to be a Myaamia person back in the day. On a separate note, growing up I would always hear about how my Grandpa, Godfrey (Cap) Strack would go out and tap maple trees and make syrup. So not only was being involved in maple sugaring a way for me to connect with my distant ancestors, it was a way for me to connect with my direct relatives.”

Gretchen Spenn (left) and Grace Cooper (right) set up a tap and bucket on Miami University's Oxford Campus
Gretchen Spenn (left) and Grace Cooper (right) set up a tap and bucket on Miami University’s Oxford Campus
Photo courtesy of Joshua McCoy

Being a part of this process has taught the students a lot, both technical knowledge about maple sugaring, but also wider lessons.  For Joshua, being part of an ongoing process allowed him to notice details and changes over time.  “I have learned a lot about the selection process and I think that has allowed me to be an even greater help in selecting trees to tap for the upcoming year.  Last year getting to see each tree daily really allowed us to learn about how each tree can be different in even the same location and how that changes the amount of sap we can collect daily.”  For Abby, the lesson can be applied more broadly “I’ve learned that it pays to be patient. I remember our first batch [of syrup] was like 2° off and it ended up runny. The next batch was the right temperature and it was perfect.”

Jars of maple syrup produced by Joshua McCoy, Gretchen Spenn, and Abby Strack
Photo by Abby Strack
Several mason jars filled with maple syrup
A closer view of the syrup processed by Joshua McCoy, Gretchen Spenn, and Abby Strack
Photo courtesy of Joshua McCoy

All three students mentioned that their favorite part of the process is the amount of time that they can spend together.  Maple sugaring does take time, whether it is out in the woods collecting the sap or waiting around while it boils down on the stove, and working on this together allowed the Myaamia students to spend time together outside of class.  Gretchen agreed that her favorite part was being together with other students. “It was fun spending time with my friends as we all worked on a project that we connected to.”

Gretchen Spenn and Joshua McCoy use maple syrup to create maple sugar
Gretchen Spenn and Joshua McCoy use maple syrup to create maple sugar
Photo by George Ironstrack

Having the opportunity to take part in cultural practices like maple sugaring is one unique aspect of the Myaamia Heritage Program at Miami University.  The students each shared what they took away from the process and what they would like other people to know about maple sugaring.  Joshua wants other people to get involved in maple sugaring.  “I think that this is a process that should be more heavily practiced in the Native community because I think it creates an amazing bonding experience for Native people while being also really relaxed!”  Gretchen wants to reassure people that they don’t need to worry about getting started.  “It is not as challenging of a process as it seems. Once you have the supplies needed, it is really just a matter of tapping, collecting, and boiling. Once you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty simple and fun!” Abby reminds us all to get involved, even if we aren’t sure at first.  “Don’t be afraid to try new things outside your comfort zone. I walked into the syrup making process blind and ended up learning a lot while having fun.”

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Updated: March 15, 2022

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