Michelle Defoe, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, stands near her sugarbush camp in northern Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Maple sap runs best when temperatures hover in the high 30s to mid-40s during the day and dip below freezing at night. Minnesota temperatures stayed in that ideal range for most of the month of April. While many Minnesotans complained about the delayed start of spring, maple syrup hobbyists enjoyed a longer-than-usual season. 

Just 19 states make maple syrup. In Minnesota, four types of maple trees can be tapped for syrup, but sugar maples are the most popular. Between hobbyists and professionals, Minnesota produces approximately 35,000 gallons of maple syrup per year, according to Minnesota Grown, a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota producers of specialty crops.

Native people have sweetened food with maple sugar for generations. The month of April is known as “Iskigamizige-giizis” in Anishinaabemowin, the language spoken by the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe people. That means, boiling maple sap and processing it into syrup or sugar. 

Sahan Journal photojournalist Jaida Grey Eagle caught up last month with Michelle Defoe, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, and her three daughters: Max, age 16; Kyla, age 10, and Nova, age 8. They tapped four trees in a sugarbush–a grouping of sugar maples–near Duluth, and took pictures of the process. This is Defoe’s story, edited for length and clarity, in her own words:

The tree is giving you medicine

Each year I expand my knowledge and the amount of sap I collect. The first year I tapped one tree, and I didn’t have any supplies, so I borrowed stuff. 

Photo by Max.

This was my third year, but my brother taps trees every year. So this year we combined sugarbushes on permitted land on the Fond du Lac Reservation. I did four trees by myself; each year I’m doubling my number of trees. When you’re first learning how to boil and gather, it’s so much learning. It would have been overwhelming to do four.

When I was younger, I had been to other people’s sugarbushes, and an elder at White Earth, Anna Gibbs, told us traditional stories of maple trees and how they gave gifts to us and medicine. I learned how to do it then. But for a long time I just felt sad because I didn’t have land to do it. Throughout history we lost our land or were displaced.

When I had kids, I thought, ‘Oh my God, they need to be connected to their culture and land.” This is a memory I want for my kids. I want my kids to have a connection to the land and want them to know these medicines. 

Of course the little ones are always in awe of the outdoors–the little bugs and animals. My youngest is very outgoing and has to be outside regularly, so she loves everything about the process. And my 16-year-old doesn’t even want to go out there. 

Photo by Michelle.

When it comes up to like 40 degrees and freezes at night, that’s when you put the taps in. That’s when the sap will start flowing. Then you take the taps out when you hear the frogs. As soon as you hear them, it’s too warm, and you don’t want to over-take from the trees. 

The tree is giving you medicine and you have to respect the tree and do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the tree. If you take the sap after the frogs come out, you’re hurting the tree.

There are all kinds of stories behind that, but the tree is giving you medicine and you have to respect the tree and do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the tree. If you take the sap after the frogs come out, you’re hurting the tree. Once spring is officially here they need that sap. 

Everything’s ceremonial. When we take something, we always have to ask permission and make an offering. You can’t take without giving. It’s a very simple ceremony. We talk to the trees and offer tobacco. We hold it in our hands to communicate from our spirit to theirs: “Thank you for your medicine.”

Photos by Michelle and Nova.

We’re asking that it helps heal us and keep us strong, forgive us if we do anything harmful. Then we put tobacco down and a food offering. You should cook something, but we put raspberries out this year and you feed that spirit. And then we put the taps in.

I keep an eye on the weather. Some days you have to check it every day. If they’re flowing really easily, you empty them every day. I’ve never had that experience. I usually go every other day. And this year there was a stint where it was below freezing for about four days and I didn’t go out. 

When I have one full bucket, I bring it home. I’ve boiled four times this year. I haul it home and then strain out the bugs and bark with cheesecloth. I use a strainer with cheesecloth in it and then pour the sap in so it catches all the debris. The first year I used coffee filters and that was dreadful. 

Photos by Kyla, Michelle, and Nova.

I don’t know what size the kettle is, but it’s one of the biggest soup kettles. I fill that up and boil it for five to six hours. When it gets down to the bottom of the pan I transfer it to the smallest pan I have—it’s kind of sad—for about 20-30 minutes. You wait until it starts to foam and pull it off. This year I bought a candy thermometer and at 219 degrees Fahrenheit it’s technically syrup. 

The first time when we just did one tree, all we got at the bottom of the pan was a spoonful. I have a picture of the kids licking the bottom of the pan. The second year I made half a pint maybe. Last year I had enough to split with my mom. This year we got a lot–about three pints. 

I gave away the first boil to a young girl who got her period this year, so was berry fasting [a tradition in which girls avoid berries for the first year of their menstrual cycle]. When she’s done she’s supposed to eat hand-harvested food. The second I gave to an elder in the community. I just did the third. We’ll probably make pancakes. 

My kids are learning to have a relationship with the maple trees. Like any relationship in your life, you have to nurture it and spend time with it.

The basis of our culture is the connection to the land. So my kids are learning to have a relationship with the maple trees. Like any relationship in your life, you have to nurture it and spend time with it. Building relationships with medicines and plant life, that would be the biggest lessons that they’re learning. They’re also learning how to wait for things.

One of the biggest stories in our legend is that we believe syrup used to come right out of the trees, but people got to be lazy and took that medicine for granted so the creator made it harder. So we’re working hard to get that medicine now.

Michelle Defoe stands with her three children near their sugarbush camp in northern Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...