eehsenaamišipoohkiiyankwi (meeloohkamiki 2022) ‘Maple Sugaring (Spring 2022)’

Painting of a sugar camp village by Set Eastman
“Indian Sugar Camp” painted by Seth Eastman in 1850. This is likely an Ojibwe village, but Myaamia sugar camps of the 1800s would have looked quite similar.

“The women bring sugar, which is generally neatly packed in a square box made of bark, containing about fifty pounds.  It is made from the sugar tree.  This art has long been known to the Indians.  They make and use large quantities of sugar.  We have seen very white and clear looking sugar of their manufacture.”

Gerard Hopkins, 1804

In the spring of 1804, a group from the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends visited Myaamia and Potawatomi lands in the area around Kiihkayonki ‘Fort Wayne.’ They made the journey from Maryland to assess circumstances on the ground before launching a training program in American-style agriculture. While touring the Kiihkayonki area, Hopkins and his associates observed “several sugar camps” where mostly women and children were observed collecting ahsenaamišipowi ‘maple sap,’ cooking it down into siihsipaahkwi ‘maple sugar,’ and packing the sugar into wiihpišinaakani ‘bark baskets’ (like the basket pictured below).

An elm bark basket used for maple sugar
wiihpišinaakani ‘sugar basket’ made of elm bark by Kiilhsoohkwa. Currently cared for by the National Museum of the American Indian

This spring as we closed out our maple sugaring season I thought about the contrast between the great quantities of sugar that Hopkins observed in 1804 and the short and not-so-successful sugaring season that we had this year at Miami University.  As is typical, the ending of this year’s maple sugaring season coincided with the rising chorus of the spring frogs and the arrival of the first thunderstorm of the year. Unfortunately, the weather during this year’s season was not conducive to producing a good quantity of sap. In the first week of collecting sap it stayed below freezing all day long, which prevented the sap from running at all. The weeks that followed were too warm. We simply did not have enough days where the temperatures were in the upper 40s during the daytime and below freezing overnight. By early March, the sap had “soured” with increasing levels of hormones, amino acids, and other compounds causing the sap to develop a bitter taste that makes further syrup or sugar inedible.

Myaamia students and staff in the sugar maple grove on Miami University's Oxford campus.
Myaamia students and staff learning about maple sugaring on Miami University’s Oxford, OH campus.
Photo by Jonathan M. Fox

This year we harvested just under 150 gallons of sap producing around three gallons of syrup, which we look forward to sharing with our Myaamia community at the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma’s Annual Meeting this summer.

Hopefully, next year we’ll have better weather during the sugaring season and be able to spend more time ahsenaamišahkinki ‘in the sugar bush’ and around the fire producing iihkisaminki ‘maple syrup’ and siihsipaahkwi ‘maple sugar.’

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