From sap to syrup, Ojibwe sugar bush tradition connects generations

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The running of maple sap in the northern forests of Minnesota are a welcome sign of spring for Ojibwe families who treasure these moments together. 

They are carrying on a tradition that began with their ancestors, who gathered the sap and boiled it down over open fires to produce a rich maple syrup that added sweetness to an ancient and unrelenting diet of meat, fish and grain.

At the Blake Family Sugar Bush Camp, maples provide more memories than work.

“That’s one memory I’ll always have is running around out here and playing out here as a little kid,” said Max Blake. 

“Yes, you kids used to take naps out here, drink that sap tea,” said Papa Blake, Max’s dad.

“Oh, ya drink that sap fresh out of the tree,” said Max Blake.

Fond memories for Max are reassurance for older generations of Ojibwe, that the sugar bush tradition for indigenous people lives on, much like the trees that provide the sap.

A maple stand on the shores of Lake Mille Lacs has stood as a sugar bush camp for Ojibwe families for more than a century. The remnants still remain, things like a tin can once used to collect sap from these maple trees. Those tools are now replaced by more modern methods used by the children, the grandchildren, the great grandchildren and the great-great grandchildren of those that came before them.

The hope with the Tribal DNR Sugar Bush Camp is to open up a world of traditional wonder for Ojibwe children, who can gather knowledge as they gather the sweet water that drips from the trees.

“This is maple sap and we are pouring it in,” said one fifth grader, demonstrating the process. “You have to be careful when pouring it in. You have to hold this or it will splash everywhere.” 

Sandy Blake, an Ojibwe elder, is comforted by the sights and sounds of the Anishinaabe children in the woods, especially seeing her grandson Maurice guided by her own son, Max. 

“It’s really a good feeling to see the kids out and learning,” said Blake. “That’s how they learn, just by being around - how I remember learning, dumping buckets and watching what’s going on.”

With the children gone for the day, older tribal members spend hours boiling gallons of sap down to pure maple syrup.

“We’ll most likely get about two gallons of maple syrup after it’s strained and canned,” said Max Blake. “It’s a very careful delicate job that we gotta do when we do this.”

For the Blakes and other Ojibwe, there is a much bigger picture than just a jar of maple syrup. In a part of our state so large, tradition can get lost. Some have, but through the centuries sugar bush has endured and remains a cultural centerpiece of the Mille Lacs landscape.

“It’s something that’s in the heart I guess,” said Sandy Blake. “You know it’s our culture. It’s what we do.”