Making Maple Sugar and Sharing Cultural Traditions in Ponemah

May 2, 2018

"From my perspective there are no bad sugarbush seasons," says David Manuel. "We always get something...or I should say we are given the gift of the sap to make into sugar, candy and syrup. To talk a little bit more in relevant and contemporary terms, it wasn't the best year, but it wasn't the worst - at least for me."

David is Food Initiative Coordinator with the Red Lake Nation's 4 Directions Development Program. He began tapping maple trees on March 16th.  "I tap in what would be my ancestral sugarbush. My mother who was born in 1934 would always make it a point every time we visited relatives in Ponemah to show me where they went every spring for sugarbush, and that is located in a place we call Mah Quam Bay. It's just south of the town of Ponemah 4 or 5 miles and off into the woods just a short distance from the lake [Lower Red Lake]...The maples seem to go on endlessly. I've tried to walk through the entire maple grove and I've never succeeded in doing that. So there must be thousands of maples back there.

"On Monday the 19th of March the schools started to come out to visit...as the classes came out we tapped 20 more trees a day...What I'm trying to do is pass on this cultural tradition - something that is embedded in our cultural psyche. It's embedded in mine, it's been driven into me ever since I was a boy. As a young man I visited different sugarbushes. I want to mention my mentors, Walter Porky White from Sugar Point on the Leech Lake Reservation and the late Jim Northrup of Sawyer Minnesota. These two are the ones that showed me the ways of our people. Then when I moved back to Red Lake I began to do the sugarbush where my mother and her grandparents and the generations before her were doing the sugarbush."

On March 24th David and his friends Zach and Frannie Miller began the first boil. They made sugar and taffy. He explains: "When it gets to a certain stage you can pour it on the snow, and then it becomes a taffy. That's everyone's favorite. The key [to making maple sugar] is patience. You have to keep it on a low fire. The sugar has a propensity to scorch on a high heat. I take it out of the evaporator and put it into my kettle which is hung on a tripod over a low fire. It's all about a low fire and constant stirring. You don't want to just put it on a fire and walk away. You have to attend it; you have to be there; you have to work it. That's what I was taught and that's what I do. It's not for the impatient or the ones that are seeking instant gratification...it's not for you!

It is traditional in Anishinaabe culture to make maple sugar, not syrup. "Our ancestors didn't have the ability to can. We always made sugar. It was actually one of our number one commodity items that we'd trade and barter for...Before the slave trade and before they made slaves grow sugar cane, sugar was a very rare commodity. Through trade of our maple sugar, we indigenous people acquired our kettles and our hatchets and muskets and other trade items from the French and later the English."

David Manuel has made money selling maple products in the past, but the sugarbush means more than that for him and his family. David considers the sugarbush season to the the start of the new year. "The sugarbush is when - and this is one interpretation - the sugarbush is a time when the snow started to warm up. It got above freezing in the day and dropped below freezing at night, and new life started to return on their migration routes. We look at the new year as when new life returns."

David pulled the taps on April 24th. The run this year started well, stopped for 16 or 17 days on March 28th due to cold weather, and started again around April 12th. The second run was spottier than the first. David made 32 pounds of sugar from the first run and 9 1/2 gallons of syrup in the final third of the season.

David Manuel will be making candy at the old Red Lake College (Adawewigamig) in Red Lake at 5 p.m. on Thursday May 3rd. "I'm just a little candy-making machine," he jokes. "It's a lot of fun. It's a labor of love. Everyone is welcome. Everyone!"

For more information about the candy-making demonstration visit the Gitigaanike Facebook page.

The full interview with David Manuel, Katie Carter and Maggie Montgomery is below: