American Indian Maple Syrup Harvesting Tradition

2 Apr

Maple sugar is likely the oldest agricultural product in North America.  The Anishinabek have been gathering for many generations to make maple sugar during the time of the year when boon (winter) gives way to mnookimi (spring).

The warm days that follow the winter cold trigger the process when sugar maple trees produce sap.  The duration of the sugaring season and the amount of sap that the trees will produce depends on many factors. However, it seems that cold nights accompanied with warm days make the sap run well.

The Anishinabek moved from their winter lodges to make camp in the stand of maple trees called ziisibaakodokaaning (sugarbush) in early spring when the maple trees started to run with sap.

Boon (winter) was often a lean time for the Anishinabek, so sugar making was a time of celebration. Families reunited and welcomed the coming of warmer weather by gathering what they needed to survive throughout the year. Maple sugar was an important part of the Anishinabe diet. It provided a healthy source of energy and a delicious sweetener for foods. Many products made from maple sap were used to flavor a diet of wild rice, venison, bear, and moose meat. Maple syrup was also an important trade item.

Making sugar and syrup from the sap required hard work and skill. The Anishinabek tradition of harvesting maple syrup usually involved a large extended family. Hundreds of wiigwaas (birchbark) containers had to be constructed for sap collecting and maple sugar/syrup storage.  During sugar making, a fire would burn for many days, so a stockpile of wood had to be gathered for these fires.  Mitigonaagan (large trench-like bowls) had to be carved out of logs.  These bowls were used to work the syrup into granulated sugar. The sap was carefully boiled in these bowls on a huge piece of slate or flat rocks. 


The knowledge that was passed down through the generations was essential to producing good sugar and syrup.  It is not as simple as boiling the sap down. Sap had to be strained and initially warmed before being cycled through a series of boiling containers; eventually being transformed into syrup or sugar.  If the process was not done correctly, the whole batch could be ruined.

It was much like a holiday celebration that our ancestors looked forward to throughout the year, when the maple sugar was finished, and candies were shared.

Today, we still make syrup here on the Isabella Reservation in our sugarbush near the Tribal Campgrounds (on the hill). Our neighbors in Shepherd, also share in the maple syrup tradition every April and celebrate with the Annual Maple Syrup Festival.

  • Come visit the Ziibiwing Center Gift Shop to purchase traditional American Indian harvested maple syrup. Visit our official website (Linked on the side of this Blog) for the Ziibiwing Center’s address and operating hours.
  • Or visit our webstore, to purchase maple syrup and maple candies. (Linked on the side of this Blog)
  • Also, check out our previous blog titled, “Let’s Have Some Fun-How to Make Maple Syrup!” to learn how to prepare your own!

2 Responses to “American Indian Maple Syrup Harvesting Tradition”

  1. maplecream March 14, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    Great post, thank you for sharing maple syrup history.

  2. Beth April 9, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you need
    to write more about this issue, it might not be a taboo subject
    but generally people do not talk about such subjects.

    To the next! Cheers!!

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