Tag Archives: tapping sugar trees

Making Sugar at Sugar Camps

Gathering Sap in Makuks

Gathering Sap in Makuks

When sugar camps were ready (see last post), tree tapping began as soon as the sap started running. Though only experts tapped trees, these could be either men or women, and an individual could make up to 300 tappings a day.

In the Chippewa method of making sugar, workers put down sap dishes in the early morning and gathered them when they were filled. After taking the sap back to camp, workers poured the liquid into kettles or into troughs at the door of the tipi used for making the syrup. Other workers heated the sap in small kettles before pouring it into larger kettles so that all the sap could be heated gradually. The sap in the large kettles would then be boiled until it thickened, which could take all night.

Mrs. Dick Gahbowh Boiling Sap, Mille Lacs, 1925, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Mrs. Dick Gahbowh Boiling Sap, Mille Lacs, 1925, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

When it was thick enough, the sap was strained from a full kettle into an empty one through a mat woven of basswood bark. (In later days, burlap was used instead of the mat.) After the kettles were cleaned, the syrup was reheated; women placed small bits of deer tallow in with the syrup to keep the sugar soft. At the proper consistency, the syrup was transferred to a granulating trough and worked with a paddle to make sugar.

Chippewa Indians With Maple Sugar in Birchbark Containers, 1909, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Chippewa Indians With Maple Sugar in Birchbark Containers, 1909, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

All of this was hard work, but everyone enjoyed the end product. Women stored sugar made from the last run of sap in makuks (birchbark containers) buried in the ground. This valuable product could last for a year if properly covered with bark and boughs to keep it fresh.

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Sugar Camps

Building a Birch Bark Tepee at a Maple Sugar Camp, Mille Lacs Reservation, courtesy firstpeople.us

Building a Birch Bark Tepee at a Maple Sugar Camp, Mille Lacs Reservation, courtesy firstpeople.us

Native peoples who had access to trees with sweet sap (such as the sugar maple) made sugar products just as later Europeans did in New England states like Vermont. In the spring,¬†Chippewa families or groups of two to three families enjoyed working together at sugar camps. The families worked their own sugar bushes, which were stands of maple trees measured by the number of “taps” available. Each tree, for instance, might have two or three taps, and a bush might have 900 taps.

Each sugar camp usually contained a permanent lodge, which would be cleared of snow and repaired each spring, sometime around March. Women went early to examine their sugar-making utensils, like bark dishes for gathering sap, makuks (birchbark containers) for storing sugar, syrup buckets, and troughs where the buckets of sap were poured. When the equipment was ready, women went back to their home camps to fetch large kettles for boiling the sap; they also got the rest of their family ready to move to the camp. Both men and women were involved in setting up these sugar camps.

Native Americans Making Maple Sugar, Cass Lake, 1905, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Native Americans Making Maple Sugar, Cass Lake, 1905, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

My next post will explain the Chippewa’s sugar-making process.

Ojibwe Woman Tapping a Sugar Maple, 1908, courtesy Elder Nmenhs-Arthur McGregor of Whitefish River First Nation

Ojibwe Woman Tapping a Sugar Maple, 1908, courtesy Elder Nmenhs-Arthur McGregor of Whitefish River First Nation

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