Maple Sugaring Among the Ojibwa

Maple sugar was (and still is) an important food and seasoning among many Northeastern Native Peoples. Probably no tribe is more well known for their sugar production than the Ojibwa (Chippewa). According to Frances Densmore, a woman who recorded Ojibwa culture and history from her Ojibwa informants in the first quarter of the 20th century, sugaring was big business (currently and historically) and a woman head of her family strived to keep ample supply for family use, for gifting, and for trade. Such sugaring was done in family-owned sugarbushes (passed down from mother to daughter), usually located at a distance from the home. So begins the sugar-making season with the journey to the sugar camp:

The family in full traveled to their camp only after most repairs to the lodges and camp structures were done. If heavy bark sheets needed to be repaired or rearranged, it was customary the place of men to go early to the family camp and make such repairs. If such a lodge used only birch bark (and presumably reed mats), then the women would take charge of the lodge’s repairs. Both men and women made their trip utilizing snowshoes in deep snow travel.

Once they arrived in camp, the snow was shoveled away, and the ladder(s) were brought out (ladders being stored in the sugar camp) and put against the lodge so bark could be repaired or new roles could be added to the home. Cedar boughs were arranged on the sleeping platforms inside (if available) to make the soft mattress onto which reed mats were placed. The bed was finished with blankets and furs.

Many Ojibwa sugar camps had storehouses – places separate of the lodges used to store sugaring implements. Inside hundreds of bark containers: dishes, makuks, and buckets, as well as new birch bark for making new containers were stored. Presumably in pre-contact times, earthenware pots made exclusively for maple sugaring were probably stored in the same structure, however it is noted during the historic period that large brass kettles used for sugaring were not stored in the camp but taken to camp every year; the difference is that brass and copper kettles were lighter and weren’t as delicate as earthenware pots making them travel easier (not to mention too expensive to possibly keep enough to store in camp and have all year at home). Large iron kettles, which have been cited to be used in sugaring among some Native communities and presumably by some Ojibwa as well, could have either been left behind in the store houses because of their weight, or taken back home after the sugar season because of their year-round use.

Once all the comforts of camp were tended to, the whole family then came to camp. Toboggans (narrow sleds) were loaded with supplies, and sometimes small children or older adults unable to make the whole trip on foot also took a seat on the sled (infants were usually carried by women, and there is evidence that men carried older, small children unable to walk long distances if toboggan space was unavailable). Such toboggans could be drawn by people, but the Ojibwa cite their use of dogs for pulling some sleds as well.

Upon arriving with the whole family, men hurried to repair or erect the trammel system that suspended the kettles over the fire. Such structures were made of thick, strong poles. The men took care in the construction of this “trammel structure” as if it failed, not only would much sugar be wasted, but family members could also be severely burned. Many of these “trammel structures” were outdoors, however, some also were erected within a larger lodge structure that could be partly covered for the comfort of the sugar makers.

Tapping trees was done by those expert in such an activity, by both men and women. Sugar Maples, also known as Hard or Rock Maple, were the desired trees to tap, although a few who didn’t have such a sugarbush of Maples were also known to tap Birch too (the Sugar Maple has the highest ratio of sugar in the sap, and most agree it is the most pleasant tasting of tree sugars). To tap, trees were slashed diagonally with axes, and spiles made of flat or curved wood or bark (about 2 inches wide) were stuck into the bottom of the gash (stuck into the wood by first making a small cut with the end of the axe or a chisel tool). Such a spile would guide much (but not all) the leaking sap away from the tree to the bark catching pail below. A talented worker could make 300 or so taps a day. Densmore recorded 900 taps for a family sugarbush to be usual, but noted larger camps could have between 1,200 and 2,000 taps (keep in mind that is not the number of trees tapped, as some large trees could have 2 or 3 taps each).

With cold, freezing temperatures at night, and thawing weather during the days, the sap would flow during the daytime hours. Both men and women collected the sap, the women with smaller pails and men with larger buckets (presumably children had a big role in collection as well). The use of yokes made it so a man could carry two large buckets on his shoulders, however, the Ojibwa said such a implement was an introduction to their culture early on from the French. If a tap averaged 1 gallon of sap on a fair day, then as much as 2,000 gallons of sap may be collected in a day in larger Ojibwa sugarbushes.

Although the collected sap could be poured directly into the kettles suspended over the fire, usually such space was limited with hundreds of gallons of sap being collected each day, so much of the sap was poured into holding basins made of large logs with burned out cavities. Many such basins were put near the hearth area or at the doorways of the sugaring lodge (if the hearth was located inside the sugaring structure).

It should be noted that since the 18th century, Native sugar making was predominantly done by trade metal kettles. Before this time, it is assumed that earthenware kettles were employed by those who did make sugar before European contact (such clay pots have been recently proven to successfully make dry maple sugar). Other methods used in conjunction with over-the-fire evaporation (both pre-contact and post-historic) include freezing the water from the sap and discarding, and hot stone boiling sap.

Women dominated the evaporation process, although men assisted when needed. Large and small kettles were utilized in the evaporation process, usually transferring lighter sap as it thickened to kettles earmarked for syrup. Understandably, there was a demand for large amounts of firewood to keep the evaporation fires running night and day. Women generally collected fair size deadfall wood, but men dragged home and processed larger limbs. Children presumably had a big role in the collection of firewood as well.

Densmore recorded very specific timing concerning sugaring off, however, it should be stated here that this was likely unique to time and place, and that such timing and method can vary both historically and among different communities. For the Ojibwa Densmore observed, the sugaring off process was usually put off until a rainy day (which makes sense when the hearth is under cover), or was saved for a poor sap producing day. Till then, the evaporation process was only brought to the syrup stage. When the time came for sugaring, the kettles were scrubbed clean and the syrup was heated over the fire. As the syrup heated over the boiling point (of plain water), it expanded into a foam texture. Boiling over was of great concern, and so many had tricks that varied from greasing the rim to dipping wooden ladles into the hot sugar to reduce the foam. Densmore observed the Ojibwa dip spruce needles into it, which calmed the bubbles. Another unique practice she observed was the Ojibwa sugar makers dropping small pieces of tallow in the hot sugar; this was said to soften the sugar so it wasn’t so brittle (I myself can attest to such a texture change as we have sugared in greased iron kettles that seem to make the sugar “softer”). When the time was right, it was poured hot into a wooden trough were it was worked with the back of a ladle. Many times men assisted with such a task as it could quickly tire the arm muscles (which means that probably different people assisted in the task with large quantities of sugar being produced). By doing this, the hot sugar separated as it cooled, creating granulated sugar.

Another form of sugar was produced as well: candied or hard maple sugar. To accomplish this, the hot sugar was poured into greased wooden or birch bark molds. Such candies were then popped out. Other molds were used and meant to hold the sugar candy until consumed, such as birch bark cones and duck bills (other tribes have been noted to use freshwater/ocean shells and eggshells). Another form of the maple sugar known as gum sugar, a soft candy, was also very desired. This was created by pouring hot sugar onto snow, and the gum it created could be consumed on the spot or saved for later use in birch bark “envelopes.”

The Ojibwa enjoyed maple sugar in flavoring their wild rice, roots and vegetables, berries and other fruit dishes, even meats and fish. It was also dissolved in water to make refreshing drinks. Women, who generally owned the maple sugar, were said to trade quantities away for goods and gift much sugar to friends and visitors.

Further Reading:

“Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians” by Frances Densmore in the Forty-Forth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1926-1927.

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