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The Importance Of Sugar Maple Trees For Indigenous Wisconsinites

Eric St-Onge
While authentic maple syrup can be difficult to make, the process is supposed to help teach lessons like patience.

Maple syrup season is over, but the lessons of the sugar maple tree continue to flow throughout the year. You might see the syrup from this year’s harvest on grocery store shelves, but it can be difficult to find the real stuff. In its place, you’ll find other pancake syrups — made up of cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Real maple syrup is an expensive delicacy. But it makes sense when you understand the work that goes into producing even a pint of syrup.

Many of us just buy syrup from the store, but you can process sap on your own and some people have been doing that since way before anyone called this land Wisconsin. The Anishinaabe people relied on the sugar maple as a source of nutrition throughout the year. For many Indigenous people throughout the Great Lakes region, the sugarbush holds deep significance.

“We have the syrup, we have the sugar, but we have the stories. What comes out of it is the being together as well, the sense that you’re connecting to traditions, that you’re keeping something going that is bigger than what humans created,” explains Margaret Noodin, Indigenous poet, director of the Electa Quinney Institute and professor at UW-Milwaukee.

Noodin says another importance lesson that comes from making syrup and sugar is patience. She says in an era of hoping from one Zoom call to the next, slowing down and focusing on a task like cooking syrup is important.

“We’ve had technological advances that allow us to get some place faster but we’ve forgotten that some of the hardest things we’ll ever do are the ones that take us considerable time,” she says.

Nathon Breu is studying how sugar maples are being harvested in urban environments like Milwaukee. He says urban or rural, Anishanaabe people have a deep relationship with the trees that they tap.

“In our culture, we believe that everything has a spirit, and everything is here for a purpose. So, when I say that they treat trees differently, they talk to them as if they’re a separate entity. They feed the trees, they put out tobacco before they tap, they put out a feast for those trees, they do stuff like that,” says Breu.

And the importance of that connect can be seen in Indigenous language, says Wendy Makoons Geniusz, Ph.D. in American Studies, who teaches Ojibwe language and culture at UW-Eau Claire.

“These trees are spoken about with animate verbs, so we speak about them and our interactions with them the same way that we speak about our interactions with other humans,” she says.

That can be a difficult concept for people who didn’t grow up speaking Ojibwe, says Makoons Geniusz, but makes it even more significant for elders who have spent their entire life around sugar maples. Big smiles creep across their faces when discussing the process of harvesting sap or cooking syrup, as they remember the fond memories of finishing the labor-intensive tasks, she says.

Makoons Geniusz explains that sugar maples are so important that the right to tap sugar maples was included in treaties made between Wisconsin tribes and the United States governments. “People think that treaty rights in Wisconsin is all about spearing fish, it’s also about sugaring, it’s about ricing too and if you don’t have access to those trees, you can’t sugar,” she says.

But Wisconsin’s sugar maples are now facing a new threat — climate change.

Michael Waasegiizhig Price is an Ojibwe language teacher with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. He says models show that climate change is threatening to change where sugar maples grow. In places like Minnesota, there may actually be more maple trees but further south in Wisconsin, populations are projected to decline.

“When you get into north central Wisconsin, things are different there. The models that were run on the maple trees in that region were predicted to decline over the next 50 years, and of course if that happens, you know that’s a part of our culture life ways that’s going to go with it,” says Waasegiizhig Price.

Ben Binversie was a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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