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When Everybody Called
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7Maple Sugar Time,
When we lived at Bena we'd go sugaring at our sugar bush on Ottertail Point in Leech Lake. My mother used to own that land. She owned an allotment of eighty acres up there. Besides Ottertail Point there was a lot of good hardwood country around Bena with a lot of good sugar maple trees. The Third River area at Winnibigosh was full of maple clean down to Cut Foot Sioux. There was a lot of maple there. It was full of maple on the north side of Winnibigosh. The maple was mixed with other trees, but boy there was good maple there.
Because it's by the lake.
There wasn't much to count on too far beyond Cut Foot Sioux, and anyhow, the maple was getting too old there. It has to be younger maple with shoots coming out to have good luck sugaring.
Sugar Lake had a big sugar bush too. Sugar Lake, that's
next to Third River, to the south. The whole lake was surrounded by maple. That lake
must have been a couple miles wide and maples were all around. Gee there
was maple! Indians paddled right in there for sugar bush, and they paddled
out when they moved. Later on, when the white people bought that land,
they started a maple plant, a sugar and syrup plant, and made good money
out of that.
There was another sugar bush at Six Mile Lake. That was a dandy one. And there was another west of Six Mile Lake. White Oak had a lot of maple too. White Oak Point had maple, and there were sugar camps here and there from the Point to Mud Lake. West of Mud Lake the timber is burnt and that is nothing but dry now. A forest fire burnt the sap trees down. Next to Mud Lake is Goose Lake, and many wanted to be by Goose Lake for sugaring.
Because Goose Lake was good for trapping and duck hunting. If they wanted ducks, they'd go get ducks. If they wanted to go trapping, there were mushrats(1) there.
Of course there were sugar camps on Sugar Point at Leech Lake -- that's how the point got its name. Sugar Point people always worked together, ya. There was no jealousy amongst their aquaintness of the tribe.(2) But if a stranger moved in there and got funny, boy they really move him out of there in a hurry. Sugar Point is right across the lake from our old sugar bush on Ottertail Point, East.
Most of our people would go to one of these four or five areas
to make sugar. Those were some pretty big areas too. They didn't use all
the maple timber at any of these places. The two or three families at
each place used only four or five hundred trees each. But heck, out of
a cluster of maple, that's a lot of sap running every day. In a good year
that many trees would run all the sap you could boil down into sugar.
I think there were always plenty sugar maple areas for all who wanted
to be together.
Usually two or three family groups would work together in a cluster of maple, but I've seen as many as eight family groups camping at some places. A big sugar bush had maybe four, five family camps to it. Anyway, each sugar bush had several family camps. Each family would have around five hundred sap-collecting baskets, maybe even a thousand if it was a big group. There were sap baskets hanging through the woods and down by the lakeshore. It was beautiful to see those thousands of baskets hanging at the sugar bush.
We called those small baskets put out to catch the sap from the maple trees atoobaan. We all needed both these baskets and little wooden plug-ins to collect the sap. The plug-ins -- the taps -- were all made from cedar. They were slant-blunted cedar chips.
Everything else besides these chips was made of birch bark. We'd first tap a tree -- a maple tree -- to get its sap. I've heard of Indians tapping birch trees too, but we didn't do that. Men drove the cedar taps into the trees with an axe. They first hit the tree with the axe, then drove in the chips. The small sap baskets sat underneath the tree taps and the sap ran out into them. If it rained, we'd generally keep the baskets turned over. We didn't want to get the rain mixed with the sap.(3) And if it would freeze, it might bust the baskets.
That's the way we collected all that sap. In my time the Indians had axes, some of them, or a saw which they bought. Axes and saws and other cutting tools -- like chisels -- came in with the lumberjacks, who taught the Indian how to use tools and resharpen them. My grandpa Fred Crow told me about that. He lived just like an Indian. Not only him, but others told me about that too. I heard from a lot of people that the lumberjacks started coming into our area about 1900.(4)
Anyway, the Indians already had axes by 1900, just like
my great grandpa Chief Buffalo predicted.
In earlier times Indians would go around and collect the sap from those little baskets and dump it into an asigitoobaan -- a larger main basket. They tied burlap or put clean boughs over the main basket before they dumped all of the sap from the little baskets into it. That's the way they strained the sap to get it pure.
Later on in years they had equipments of metal. Through exchange and purchase they got the metal equipment. All family groups had kettles in my times. The lumberjacks brought in pans, pots, and kettles for washing clothes and cooking and everything. They also got some of their supplies in big tall cans. When the lumberjacks moved they often left their iron kettles and tall cans. They didn't want to haul them around. If the Indian families didn't have kettles and cans, some of the Indians would run as high as ten miles to go to another sugar bush where another Indian party had more kettles and cans than they could use to supply themselves. They would go trade something with them for kettles. One group would always try to help the other if one didn't have enough. They traded for all that equipment; they worked together.
Sometimes they bought kettles, iron kettles, cast iron kettles. Years ago there was a lot of copper too. They used copper, and that made good kettles for cooking the sap. We had to use something to boil that sap, and the metal kettles they were using in my time made boiling sap much easier.
We also sometimes had big wooden barrels in our days, big barrels. The whites used to use pork barrels and some of the Indians could get pork barrels when they'd go to make salt. If we could get pork barrels we would use them to hold the sap from the main baskets while waiting to boil it down. We'd first fill the little baskets, then pour the sap in pails, then bring those pails in by the campfire. By the campfire were the great big iron kettles and the big tall cans. We'd fill those big cans up with sap and use them for the first sap warming. We'd then fill the barrels, the big wooden barrels. We'd fill them up too, and then refill those cans from the barrels after we moved the warmed sap to the boiling kettles. All day the adults would be collecting sap, filling up the barrel, filling up the cast iron boilers.
We built fires and put the iron kettles and big tin cans on the fires. We made a big campfire outside, oh, I'd say about twelve feet long, and we'd throw pole-length wood in there. We called that wood "the whole pole." We would put pole after pole into the fire. Instead of cutting the wood we just kept shoving it in the fire as it burned down, one pole after another. The best wood was maple wood. The men dragged in and lined up the pole-lengths, and the women piled the bundles of sticks that they packed in with head-straps. When the women packed in wood they tied it together with strips of the inner bark of basswood. We tied everything with wiigob -- with basswood strips.
It took quite a while to make sugar. It took all day, sometimes, to boil that sap down, and make it good. From the time we put the raw sap in the first warming can until we got the sugar out, it took four to eight hours of boiling. The time it takes depends on the heat of the fire. You need not too hot a fire, and not too low. Using coals is the best because there's no flames with coals. The workers would keep the boiling fire going all day, then they'd lower the fire to keep the kettles warm at night. They didn't do any sugar finishing at night; they just kept the kettles warm. All they had to do is poke the fire in the morning and the sap started boiling again. That took a lot of wood. Men seemed to be getting pole-length wood all the time. They couldn't always get maple, but they always found something to use, for I remember we always had a big pile of wood.
The first kettle or tall can was filled with strained sap. That sap was really strained -- through cloth or whatever we had. They cleaned it to get the twigs and sticks and old leaves out. They strained that, like you would with a screen. They ran it through a strainer, like clean boughs or burlap, to get the pure sap. First they put the fresh sap in a can or big kettle. They put it all in the first container for a starter. And after this started to heat up they put it into three or four more kettles. Sometimes they kept these first cans and kettles on a low fire overnight to warm the sap. They were careful not to put the fresh sap right off of the trees into the hot kettle. If you put cold water or cold sap on a cast iron boiler, "koowik," it'll crack. When they boiled the sap, they always first put it in a big iron kettle. That heated it up. When we had four iron kettles the first big kettle was used only for heating, not boiling. The next kettle was then the one used for boiling.
When you'd boil that sap down, everything impure would settle on the bottom. And when it was settled in the first boiling kettle you'd pour that purified sap to the next kettle. That'll then boil down and settle in that next kettle, and then be poured into the real sugar kettle, the final kettle. That's the way they boiled it down from one kettle to the second, third, fourth. The final stage is the two last kettles. When it came to final stage they made it go faster because the sap was already heated by the first kettles. That's the way they built the fires and arranged the kettles. But if the sap got to rushing(5) -- and sometimes it would get rushing pretty good -- then they'd open up the fire on the first big kettle too, and use it for boiling rather than warming.
When they opened up the fires they sometimes used to boil that sap too fast, and sometimes it would boil over -- because there were no covers on the kettles. You see, the sap will boil over if it's boiled too fast. Syrup will boil over by heat too. When sap becomes sugar or syrup, it will start boiling over more easily on the heat.
How did they stop that?
You know what they'd do then?
They just put a stick across the top. When you're out camping, -- scouting -- and when you're boiling tea, and if it boils too fast, you just take a green stick, peel it, and lay it right across the top of the kettle. When the tea hits that stick, it won't boil over. You can also take a balsam bough, and when your tea comes to a boil, hit that and it'll drop right now. Just give it one hit and it drops. Yeah, if you put a stick over the top of the kettle, when it boils up and hits that stick it won't boil over. I guess it's the moisture and the different temperatures that are there when it hits that stick that keeps it from boiling over.
We used balsam boughs with sugar sap boiling too. When
the sap became too hot -- when it boiled too fast and started boiling over --
we just gave it a hit with the balsam bough and that foam went right down.
I used to sit there and help them tap that boiling sap. I just tapped
it a little bit with a balsam bough and that foam went right down. That's
a funny thing, hey? That gave us a chance to cool it off, to put a little
more new sap in the kettle.
Another method we'd use to keep the kettles from boiling over, especially the two final stage kettles, was to grease those lips of the iron kettles with tallow. We had chunks of tallow: deer, moose tallow -- big thick chunks. We just made one swipe with tallow around the edge of the lips of the kettles, about two inches down from the top, and that's all the further that foam would come. The foam would come up to that tallow and that's all. Then it would go down. Your sap won't boil over if you use that tallow. We were prepared for this; we figured ahead.
When the sap boiled down to a sweetness, we had maple syrup. Oh boy! I've seen the syrup come out of our area, but we didn't make all sap into syrup. We had twenty gallon kegs, wooden kegs, and would fill two of them up with syrup. The rest of the syrup was put into the last kettle, the main kettle. We called that the skwegamizigan; that just means the last kettle. Everything was strained again. Everything was screened and strained before being poured in the main kettle. That's the sugar kettle.
The final kettle was awful. It was kept boiling all
the time. When the sap got to the final kettle we very carefully watched
that clear. It becomes even more syrupy. It becomes bubbly. We watched
it bubble up, so as not to burn it. See, it'll catch a-fire and burn if
you're not most careful. When it is getting late in the boiling process,
the sap will be ready to come into sugar. It's ready for sugar when it
boils slow bubbles. They knew she's done when it pops here and there.
It's ready for sugar when it bubbles like that. We had a little paddle
called an abwiins for testing how heavy or thick the syrup
was -- to see whether it was ready for sugaring or not. When it boiled and
popped slowly, and was about as syrupy as it could get, it was ready to
be poured out into a wooden log-bowl and sugared. By this time it was
like pitch so we naturally called this "maple sugar resembling pitch," bigiwizigan.
We'd save some of that taffy and sugar cakes for the other seasons. Later on in the year, when the kids wanted candy, the folks would get them that basket full of sugar cakes and taffy. How they'd fight over that! Gee, boy, how we'd go for that taffy and syrup and sugarcakes. Oh, I ate a lot of that. I used a lot of that. It's fun to make sugar -- maple sugar.
It was most generally the women who were collecting and boiling the sap, and packing and piling the smaller wood. The women would generally be doing most of the maple sugar making, but they'd sometimes get together with the men to work, particularly if they thought it was going to be a short season. A short season happens when the warm weather comes too fast. Warm weather dries up the bark, particularly when it's warm at night. When the whole family worked during a short season the men had to help the women with all the jobs of sugarmaking. In a normal year the men would do only the hardest parts.
But the womenfolks would rather work alone. They would rather work without the men around because the men were too bossy, maybe. Women like to work with their other women. When they're working together they can laugh and enjoy their work. Their muscles relax and their hearts open up; that's why they feel better when they're working together. They elect two or three of them out of the crew to do the cooking, and they cook as a group. They bring their dishes together and cook what they want to eat. And by cooperating like that the womenfolks make a good neighbor policy amongst themselves. The women like friendship and the good neighbor policy the best. They cooperate with one another on account of children. When they're working together like that, they won't talk about their kids or any children.
This is the way it is. I've seen that.
"What did they use for pans?" people often asked me.
During the meantime the menfolks were always busy. They
had cut a tree, a timber, which I'd say was eighteen inches -- a foot-and-a-half --
through, to make a wooden log-bowl used to finish the sugar. We called
that mitigonaagan -- a wooden dish. Most
of the logs, and finished dishes, were a foot and a half wide, but some
of them went up to two feet or more. The men would first carve a hole in that
log, then they'd flatten it a little bit on the side by taking one edge
off. They'd then take a slide -- a big chisel -- and slab off the flattened
side. That piece of wood then laid solid and the men carved a bowl-shape
into it with a chisel. That big tree was carved out to look like a wooden
box -- a wooden basket. They were all working together on it. It took time,
but there was no hurry. Everything was well made. One time I saw
them take a stone to sandpaper that bowl-shaped log. They used a certain
kind of stone and they sandpapered with it. Then they washed that clean,
good. That log made a pretty good bowl, but it was a lot of work making
it. I wish I could show you one of them.
When they finished the wooden log-bowl they went out and looked for a root of a tree and made a big half-moon shaped spoon -- mitigwemikwaan -- a wooden dipper we called it. In addition to that big wooden spoon they made a little paddle -- abwiins -- to use while they were pouring that pitch-thick syrup from the finishing kettle to the big wooden log-dish. By the time they finished making everything needed for sugaring they had an outfit.
The women would begin stirring the thick syrup in the finishing kettle with that big wooden spoon. They'd take that spoon, that round half-moon shape spoon, and then they pressed that back and forth, back and forth, until that thick syrup turned into taffy. At that point in the process they made sugar cakes. Before the thick syrup -- or more of a taffy -- went to the finisher, the second-to-the-finisher said, "Well, I want to make sugar cakes." They put patterns -- the molds -- out and took a spoon and filled those patterns up. They'd leave the poured cakes cool off, then dump them out, and there were your sugar cakes. After they cooled off we had sugar cakes. The early sugar cakes had designs and everything. The adults carved sugar cake design-patterns out of wood. At first they carved them out, but finally got the metal -- tin -- cooking things, including different design-patterns for sugar cakes. That was better yet. We put a little oil, a little tallow, in the bottom of the tin design-patterns to keep the sugar cakes from sticking.
The final kettle meanwhile continued to boil on. The finishers knew just when to pour it into the long log-bowl. When it popped slowly it was ready. The finishers strained it good, as best they could, one more time, then out came the big kettle off the fire.
Slowly they poured that thick heavy maple-sugar-pitch into a wooden trough, a wooden log-bowl. I'd say these were about three-and-a-half or four feet long, but some of them were five and six feet long. By that time this wooden bowl was already cleaned. It was nice and clean because they had just shined it up with stones. They sanded it down with stones, and it looked just like they used sandpaper. Gee they would polish that!
Later on in years we'd get a wooden barrel and substitute a half-a-barrel for these chiseled-out wooden log-bowls. Making barrel bowls was much less work, but we kept the barrels clean just the same.
As they poured that final slow-boiling pitch-thick sap
into the log-bowl, or half-barrel, they took that little paddle and stirred
that sugar-pitch as it turned into sugar. When it's at the end of the boiling, the sugar-pitch
pours out thick, and as fast as they stir that up, it'll start breaking
into sugar. The maple-sugar-pitch turns to sugar very quickly and easily
because it brittleizes. All you do is work that brittleized sugar-pitch,
stirring it with the round -- kinda round -- paddle, and as fast as the
cold air hits that thick syrup it turns into a brown sugar. Right now
it turns! It's brittle; it falls to pieces; it breaks up and forms sugar.
When you work sugar-pitch like that, it comes to sugar. Working it with
a paddle evaporates the moisture and it falls into brown sugar. You just
work it back and forth, and ho! . . . , there's your sugar! There's your ziinzibaakwad!!
Some of the sugar's light brown; some of it's dark. I've seen lot of that. Some of that early sugar is light brown, and the late sugar's dark brown. It all depends on how much you cook it, or how long you cook it. The older it gets and the longer you cook it, the darker it gets. Boy!, the pretty sugar they put out.
When the sugar in the wooden log-bowl cooled off the adults would scoop that sugar out and put it in a basket, a birch bark container. That was a special Indian birch-basswood sugar basket we call a makak. Several of these sugar baskets are called makakoon. These baskets were made in all sizes. They held fifty, forty, and thirty pounds of sugar. We usually had sugar boxes that contained about fifty pounds. Some of them were even bigger than fifty pounds, but we didn't want them a hundred pounds. That's too heavy. Some groups had baskets which held as high as sixty pounds. I've seen some well-packed, well-made cases. These cases of sugar, the sugar cakes, and all of the things that they made are something to see. I've seen them yet today.
By the time the sugar was done we were already prepared with those birch bark sugar-storing baskets. The adults already made or repaired the makakoon by the time we came to the sugar bush. They'd pack about fifty pounds of sugar in each basket, depending on its size, then seal them up. When they sealed them, they'd put a cap on that basket. And they were just formed nice. Then they'd take basswood strips and sew it tight, and that sealed it. The old ladies would come along with basswood strips, that wiigob, and sew them up. They made nice baskets. They were solid cases! You could drop them and they would still be solid. There wasn't a bit of sugar lost either. You couldn't get moisture or anything in there. They were sealed so that nothing could get in there and nothing would spill out.
We would prepare the cake sugar for storage the same way. We'd just put the cake sugar in a makak and sew it up. I've seen the days where those baskets were made and full of sugar. God!, how they made those baskets! They were really cases! You'd open them, one of them boxes, and oh gee, it was wonderful sugar. Wa!! That was good sugar! That was real sugar! That was good sugar, pure, with nothing but pure ingredients in it. That was our sugar. We put the syrup in containers, usually in those twenty gallon wooden kegs. That was our maply syrup, enough to last up until the next maple sugar time.
When I was a boy I would think a lot about maple sugar time. It just reminded me of ants sometime, you know, how they worked in the sugar bush. I'd sit there and look at ants; how busy they are. That's how busy the Indians were in the sugar bush. Everyone was busy. This is spring I'm talking about. They prepared sugar and cakes. They'd all get in and haul sap baskets or whatever container they had. They'd fill up the big cans and kettles from the big baskets or barrels. They kept a-working all day long. They did a lot of work, but they knew what to do. They were good at it. I often wondered today: "There sure was a lot of thinking for them to figure out how to prepare that maple sugar and cakes." They were always occupied, and they made lots of sugar.
They made a lot of cases of sugar. Some families put up about four or five or six fifty-pound cases, if they had any luck with the weather. If the weather's good and the sap runs, they'll make that much anyhow. But the sap doesn't run very good every year. Sometimes they only made enough to fill one or two baskets, and that was all they had for their next all-summer and winter use. I've seen two fifty-pound sacks, and I've seen two hundred pounds of sugar. But even in a poor year, they also had a lot of syrup though. They'd probably get at least five or ten gallons of syrup besides the sugar. Some years the sap doesn't run; some years it runs. It's still the same way now. Sometimes the Indians have a good season and sometimes they have a poor season. That's the way of nature.
In my time we always had enough to eat year around, anyhow. We had enough to eat, enough sugar, enough game. It was nice. It was a great country we lived in. There was so much game and natural food like sugar, and we knew where to get it, and who had it. The best workers and the bigger group usually had more sugar. The smaller the group, the less they had. We didn't have much equipment, but we had enough. And if sometimes we didn't have enough sugar and other foods and equipment, we always knew where to get it. The adults always knew where to buy it or trade for it.
The men would make a little money this time of the year
by trapping mushrats. If it wasn't a short sap season they'd start the
women piling up wood and boiling sap, then they'd cut their stakes for the
trapping, and they'd go out taking care of their trap line. There was
a lot of mushrat, but they didn't get much for their hides. Maybe they'd
get fifteen cents a hide. Well they got enough to buy some things
anyhow. That kept the wolf away from the door.
When they returned from their trap lines the men usually tried to get some syrup from the women to sell. Whatever the women make they're the boss of. Whatever sugar the women make, whatever syrup they make, belongs to them. The menfolks will have to coax a woman to give them a gallon of syrup to sell. Sometimes it takes great coaxing to get them to give you some syrup. If three or four women work that sugar bush together, that maple sugar and syrup belongs to all of them. One individual doesn't own that. There's four of them together who own that. If they want to leave a gallon to each of their husbands, well that's all right, but that's four gallons.(6) They had to have a lot of sugar and syrup made up before they'd give away four gallons to sell or gamble with early in the spring. They did give away a lot of sugar and syrup, sometimes even half of it, but that was to the old folks who may have stayed home, or to their relatives and friends.
The men gambled a lot in those days, at certain times of the year when people from different areas got together, particularly with a game we called the moccasin game.(7) We had a lot of games. If they had a moccasin game going on they'd be betting for canoes, for bow and arrows, for maple sugar. They bet boxes of sugar, and twenty-five to thirty pounds -- maybe fifty pound cases -- would be sitting aside as a bet. They played for sugar and syrup; they played for canoes; they played for anything valued. For these games the women would let the men bet their sugar and syrup while they stood in back of them watching and siding-in with them. The men used sugar for betting because it was of great value to us. You need certain sweet stuff in life to give energy to your system. Nature gave us that sweet sugar. It was nature giving us that, and it was one of our main foods.
In the late spring, when we were done with sugar making, the women would clean up the equipment we left from season to season and store it away in the small warehouse wiigwaam. Ottertail Point was our main sugaring territory and we always intended to come back to it the following year. See, when you leave a place, when you leave a camping ground, you are not supposed to take all of your belongings if you're coming back. You leave something for when you come back. That also proves to others that you're going to come back. That's why they still do that now. That way it's understood that no other family is supposed to go into that area without permission of the originals.(8)
We also hung up small shoes or clothes or something else
we owned on a tree. That was a gift to the Great Spirit, and it marked
that there was an Indian family using that camp. Indians respect that.
They respect it.
We hardly ever had a problem with anybody stealing things or coming into our territory without permission -- at that time. Oh, in some places they might take a few baskets or something, but the ones that do are looking for trouble. If you steal, in the olden days, the owner might know it. It would never never repay you to steal. You lose. We never had any problems with our sugaring equipment in my younger days. The lumberjacks didn't want it, and most Indians were scared of that Indian medicine. They were scared of a medicine man and what he might do to them if they bothered anybody or their property.(9)
As the spring sugar time ended and the women began packing
up our things we'd begin to think, "We have to raise a garden, corn.(10)
We have to plant a garden." When everyone was ready, we'd pack our camp
and most of our sugar and syrup -- pretty much the same way we did coming
to the sugar bush, only we put all of it in canoes this time -- and move
to a plantation or somewhere where there was good soil.
2. Acquaintances within the tribe.
3. Not only did they not want rainwater in the sap, as that created more work in the boiling-off process, but they also didn't want impurities to get mixed in with the sap that might come with rainwater running off of the trees and down the pegs and into the sap baskets. It is often also not always pleasant working out in the rain, especially in the early spring when it is generally a cooler rain.
5. Running very heavily from the trees, which happened with very cold nights and warm days.
6. It takes about forty gallons of (2%) sap to make one gallon of (66% - 67%) maple syrup; the amount of sap required to make a gallon of syrup varies with the sugar content of the syrup. The sugar content of maple sap can vary from about 1% - 5%. One gallon of maple syrup will yield about eight pounds of sugar, so it takes about 250 gallons of sap to make up one fifty-pound makak of sugar.
8. The individuals who were originally or previously in that location.
9. The medicine doctor might put jiibik on them, i.e., use their power to force someone who has done wrong to contemplate the nature of their errors. Depending on the person and the severity of the incident(s), sickness, death, or remorse -- sometimes accompanied by public shaming -- often resulted. Sometimes this process is talked about by whites as "putting the hex on someone." In any event, the power of a medicine doctor was most highly respected. See Ch. 29, "Midewiwin," Ch. 30, "An Indian Curing Ceremony," Ch. 31, "Spiritual Doctoring, Tipi-Shaking, and Bone-Swollowing Specialists," Ch. 32, "Medicine Men / Medicine Women," Ch. 33, "Messengers and Unusual Events," and Ch. 34, "Fireballs, and 'The Shadow Man.'"
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