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Spring Move to the Sugar Bush
My mother, my sister Mary and I left Bena toward the very end of winter to join my father's family for the spring move to the sugar bush, our maple sugarmaking site. In Indian my people call that sugar bush Is-kí-ga-nI-zi-gán, our "place of reducing maple sap to sugar by boiling."(1)
When spring came almost everyone moved to a sugar bush. Someone, maybe a scout,(2) knew where the sugar maples grew best, and most went sugaring in these places. Some wanted to go this way, and some that way, to certain parts of the sugar bush. So from their winter camps(3) the Indians split up like that. Then after sugar they moved again.(4)
Sugaring was my favorite time of the year. It was everybody's favorite time, and each year, towards the end of winter, we all waited for its signs.
The first signs of spring are the crows, the ahn-dayg-wag. When they come, the crows signal that warmer weather is coming. You hear a crow or see a crow, and you know that's the first sign that it's turning warmer. That's why they come back. The crows don't come back from Minneapolis or somewhere just for the heck of it. They used to go as far as Minneapolis, but now they go farther on account of the deep snow, I suppose. The crows come early because they want to know how far they can go. If it's mild, the summer birds come pretty fast too, with ducks coming in after the crows, maybe. When the river opens the ducks come in. See, there's something they know about the weather too. It's natural.
Anyway, the first sign of spring that we notice is the crow, and when we see a crow we think to ourselves, "Well, that's a sure sign. But don't feel that the winter is over, because there's a great cold weather that's going to try the crow out. A great cold is going to see how much he could stand." So it gets cold ten days afterwards, generally at ten days after. Then the crows go back, and you don't see them for a few days.
There are different parts of the weather. The Indians watch the animals and the weather, and they read the moon. And they can feel what the weather is going to be. The Indian can feel it, especially the summer-born. We believe in signs. I told you this before. And we believe in signs releasing us from the campground. So if we felt the great cold would come again in ten days we'd wait ten days before moving our winter camp. Then, ten days after, the weather'd begin to cut loose. You notice that yourself. If you wait for ten days you'll generally see a cold spell coming behind that first nice weather.
I've seen the crow up here in the north as early as the second of February, but that was a mild winter. The normal, the regular time for him to come, is about the twentieth of March. If we saw the crow on the twentieth of March, we would leave for the sugar camp about the last of March.
When they first saw the crow, the adults would start preparing for the spring. They'd prepare by talking about where they should move. Maybe they'd want to move back to their reservation, or maybe to their area where they usually lived in the spring season. If the group had original campers(5) going to the sugar bush with them, these original campers, the older class, wanted to go where they usually went, and the younger ones would go where they camped.
We saved our maple sugar equipment year after year. We put it in a certain place at our sugarbush, in a special bark warehouse used only for sap gathering and processing equipment, so it was always much easier to go back to the same place one sugar season after the next. We'd usually go to the old sugar bush where we were before so we didn't have to make all new sap-gathering baskets. Almost every year we'd go back to the same camp because our tools were there. We just covered up the tools in the warehouse wigwam and left them there. The adults would clean up the wigwam, clean up the tools, and clean up the birch bark baskets before they stored them, because some of them attract animals. Even then, sometimes a bear would get in there and crack the baskets, so the adults always prepared some new baskets and other necessities before we moved to the sugar bush.
During the winter, toward the early part of spring, they began making these new baskets. At this time, along towards March, we'd be anxious to go to our sugar bush. March is a month where you can walk anywhere on snowshoe without having any trouble. That's why we call March $o-náa-pán-nii-gii-zsIss, the "moon of walking on top of the snow because it freezes."
It's easy to get around then so most generally, toward the middle of March, some of the adults would haul many of our things to the sugar bush. If they had too much of a load to carry on a single trip to the spring camp they'd decide, "Well, this stuff that we've got for winter use should be hauled first." So they'd take the heaviest part of the load first, like the spare birch and ash bark roofing, kettles, baskets, and all of our sugar making necessities. They'd haul the new baskets and the other equipment to the sugar bush on simple toboggans, usually cutting across country.
We had toboggans made out of brush. These were made from brush tied together. When making the first trip to the sugar bush they put their stuff on the brush, and went without wasting the time to build a better toboggan. They did that because they were going to leave that toboggan anyhow when they'd get where they were going on the end of the journey. They probably put away the brush. They weren't going to save it because it was just brush tied together. But they'd keep the snowshoes and equipment of camping. I've seen them.(6)
They'd haul the heaviest load to the sugar bush while the ice was still frozen, but we waited for the river to open before we moved our camp. The river rips open fast in mild weather and good weather. Some of them stayed there at the sugar bush and got ready for sugar camp because we had to have everything ready by the end of March. The stayers would start cutting wood, piling the wood. They would prepare the necessities for making sugar and syrup. They would start to fix up the old birch bark baskets.
We collected maple sap in baskets, birch bark baskets. They don't leak. If they did leak, we'd patch them up with pitch. The stayers at the sugar bush would patch up the old baskets. Sometimes when we were making, or transporting or storing the baskets they would crack. The baskets generally became cracked a little bit so they graded them to see which would hold water, hold sap. They'd take the damaged ones and put them aside to work on while waiting for the others to move the winter camp.
They had pitch to fix them. In the spring they'd melt pitch and patch the birch baskets up. They'd get a balsam, but I think spruce is the best, and take some pitch. They always had timber, lots of great spruce, blue spruce. They used bii-gii-o, those big wads of gum that are on the outside of the trees. And if the trees didn't have those wads they'd boil the pitch out. A big wad of pitch, or a little boiling, will make a lot of it. That warm pitch is soft, and when it becomes dry it hardens. That's what they used to patch the birch bark baskets. Sometimes, if the cracks were too bad, they'd put another piece of bark on top of the old and patch them up so they were just as good as new. There was no taste in the pitch. When it dried its surface was just as good as the bark. It held firm together. They used that pitch to patch all of their bark things. They'd melt that and smear it on and leave it cool off. They crystalized it. That pitch crystalizes after it cools off. With that pitch on, there was a good basket for sap.
They had hundreds of baskets, as high as five hundred to a thousand baskets. Some of them patched up five hundred baskets. That was just enough so they could handle it, and by the time the others of their group got to the sugar bush everything was already made. They were planned ahead.
While some were at sugar bush preparing and repairing equipment we would keep the wigwam at the winter camp. We still kept the winter wigwam for a week or ten days after the crows first came. Then, after the cold would break loose again, and when the warm weather came the second time, we'd move everything to the spring camp.
We didn't take long to get our camping outfit ready to go to spring camp because we had to be there when the sap started running. If you're there a little bit late, you may be a little too late. Sometimes there's a short season for the sugar, and sometimes there's a long season. It all depends on the cold nights and the amount of moisture in the ground. So when we started moving, we quickly moved our material out to the sugar bush. When it became spring, all of those that wanted to go to the sugar bush move their camps to the hardwood maple country.
On our wigwams and tipis in those days we used bark sheets, which made a good solid covering.(7) These barks were made from birch, cedar and ash. There was plenty of timber along the river, especially ash. Ash made a good shelter. Ash made a good roofing; it's sturdy. Ash made good mats. Ash made good poles. The poles of a wigwam were ash, and we used the bark over those ash poles. The older class prepared this bark while the timber was in sap. When it was in sap they cut the top and the bottom of a bark tree to get bark sheets about six feet in lengths. Some of them cut the bark in four-foot lengths -- it all depended on what they wanted. Four-foot lengths were better to handle. It was much easier to handle in four-foot lengths. The bark was more flexible in shorter lengths, and fit where it belonged.
They cut the bark trees around at the top and at the bottom of the sheet they wanted. Then they split that bark between where it was carved, and it wasn't long before they shoved a blade in there to peel that bark off. The bark came off very easy with the sap running. Oh, I say that the tree might be eighteen inches across. The timber was big them days.
When we moved to our seasonal camps we rolled up those barks sheets and took them with us. We had enough sheets for all of our shelters, and some extras in storage.
When it was time to move, all we had to do was carry those bark rolls to the new campsite. Each and every one grabbed a roll, some of them grabbed two, three, rolls or whatever they could carry, and they'd carry them on their backs to the campsight where they wanted to camp. The siding and the roofing wasn't very heavy, but it was awkward. Some of the sheets being about six feet long, it was rather awkward to carry them in the brush.
I used to hear the adults going through the brush with those rolls getting to the campsight. You'd often see three or four of them packing that. I've seen them when they pack that roofing. Sometimes groups moved seven or eight miles cross-country. They crossed the country to the sugar bush where they had their camps built up prepared for camping. Some of them travelled by canoes.
One boat of a family group(8) was a big canoe. We called that chi-wIg-wáa-su-gii-máhn. It was bigger than a passenger canoe, wIg-wáa-su-gii-mahn. That chi- on there makes it big. We had big canoes. You know what that big canoe was for? To move the camping outfit, to move the necessary equipment for camping. Men paddled that big canoe. The passenger canoes, the family canoes, were a different size again. They were small. There were all kinds and sizes of canoe. That's no idea, I've seen that.
However they travelled to the sugar bush, when they got the big bark sheets there they would unroll them and put them on the ash wigwam framework, which was left there from season to season, and which, by then, had been readied by the parties who had gone on ahead.
5. Elderly people who always lived by camping and moving seasonally.
6. It's quite frequent to indicate whether you've actually seen something, or whether you just heard about it, or whether it is part of the law of nature.
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