Manataka American Indian Council







14-Minute Maple Fudge

Maple Milk Fizz

Maple Upside-down Pudding

Round Cream-Style Candies

Sugar Making Story

The Sugarbush Story


Round Cream-Style Candies

1 cup maple sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 tsp almond extract
Walnut meats

Cook sugars and water together to 240° (soft-ball stage), add almond extract. Cool to lukewarm then beat vigorously until creamy-firm. Knead on cold, smooth surface (marble candy board or use a cookie sheet) until smooth. Form into small balls, press walnut half into each.

14-minute Maple Fudge

4 cups maple syrup
1 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup butter
1 cup chopped nut meats
1 tsp lemon extract

Starting cold, cook maple syrup, cream and butter together at a gentle boil for 9 minutes after boiling point is reached. Remove from heat, add nut meats and lemon, stir vigorously with wooden spoon for 5 minutes. Pour into buttered pans. When cool cut in squares.

Maple Milk Fizz

1/4 cup maple syrup
1 quart milk
12 oz bottle ginger ale

Add maple syrup to milk, mix very well, perhaps use blender. Pour into tall glasses (about 2/3 full) and fill remainder with ginger ale. Good way to get kids to drink more milk.  Makes 6 8-oz glasses.

Quick Maple Upside-down Pudding

1 cup maple syrup
2 tsp baking powder
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
1/4 tsp salt
3 tablespoons brown (or maple) sugar
1 cup sifted flour
1 egg
1/2 cup milk 

Heat maple syrup to boiling and pour into bottom of buttered baking dish. Cream shortening, add sugar, cream together until fluffy. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, and add alternately with milk in small amounts beating well. Pour batter into hot syrup and bake in hot (420°) oven for 25 minutes, turn upside-down onto serving plate, garnish with chopped nuts, whipped cream. Or serve like a puddling in bowls with nuts and plain cream to pour on it.  Makes four servings.


MAPLE (Ininatig-- the tree) SUGAR/SYRUP (Zinzibahkwud)

Sugar Making -- Ishkwaamizige in Anishinaabemowin -- happened for several weeks during zhwigun, spring. Sugar was a basic seasoning for grains and breads, stews, teas, berries, vegetables. Large amounts were made during the few weeks each spring when the maple sap ran. Maple sugar was so important that it gave its name to the month (late March-April, in northern Minnesota) when sugaring took place: Izhkigamisegi Geezis, the Moon (month) of boiling.

Nodinens (Little Wind), a Mille Lacs Band Ojibwe from central Minnesota, was 74 in 1910 when she told Frances Densmore about sugaring in the old days. She describes going to and building the winter hunting camp for 6 families. The wigwams would be insulated with evergreen boughs, dirt, and snow shoveled onto a framework of logs, covered with birch bark and woven mats. The men would leave for deep woods hunting and trapping. During the winter, women dried meat the men brought in. 

"Toward the last of winter, my father would say, "One month after another has gone by. Spring is near. We must get back to our other work." So the women wrapped the dried meat tightly in tanned deerskins and the men packed their furs on sleds or toboggans. Once there was a fearful snowstorm when we were starting. My father quickly made snowshoes from branches for all the older people.

Toboggan comes from the word odabaggan. The toboggan is an invention of the Eastern tribes.  The Anishnaabe word for it is nobugidaban, from nobug, flat, and daban, drag, "Toboggan" is a French mispronunciation of the word. 

Aboriginal hunters first built toboggans made of bark to carry game over the snow. Though the Inuit used to make toboggans of whalebone, the traditional toboggan was normally made of wood and cut during winter when the trees have no sap.

The front end of the flat-bottomed snow carrier is heated by boiling then bent upwards. Usually a rawhide covered the bent front end, to protect riders. Loads were tied onto cleats along the sides. Dogs or several people pulled it from the front. A strap in the rear was held by the driver or a companion running behind as a brake to prevent slides from getting out of control downhill. It required only the width of a woods footpath to carry large loads. Sleds or sledges required wider paths, were harder to pull, usually smaller, constructions made with bodies raised above bent runners. Small ones could quickly be improvised in the winter woods from bent and tied branches.


"When we got to the sugar bush we took the birch-bark dishes out of storage and the women began tapping the trees. [Ojiguigun were taps pounded into cut wedges, sealed around the piles with hot pitch (or later drilled) about 3" deep, on the sunny side, about 3' above the roots. Negwakwun were piles, made of large elderberry stems, with the pith pushed out, sharpened at one end, and notched to hold the sap pail.] We had queer-shaped axes made of iron. (Note: these may have been pickaxes, whose points would make more of a hole than a wedge-cut.) Our sugar camp was always near Mille Lacs, and the men cut holes in the ice, put something over their heads and fished through the ice. There were plenty of big fish in those days; the men speared them. My father had some wire, and he made fishhooks and tied them on basswood cord. He got lots of pickerel that way."

"A food cache was always near the sugar camp. We opened that, then had all kinds of nice food that we had stored in the fall. There were cedar-bark bags of rice, there were cranberries sewed in birch-bark makuks, and long strings of dried potatoes and apples. Grandmother had charge of all this. She made us young girls do the work. As soon as the little creeks opened, the boys caught lots of small fish. My sister and I carried them to the camp and dried them on a frame over the fire in the center of our camp."

My mother had two or three big brass kettles (akik)she had bought from an English trader and a few tin pails from an American trader. She used these in making the sugar. We had plenty of birch-bark dishes (biskitenagun, from biskite, ishe bends it, and onagun, a dish) but we children ate mostly from the large shells we got along the lake shore. We had sauce from the dried berries sweetened with the new maple sugar. The women gathered the inside bark from the cedar. This can only be scraped free in the spring. We got plenty of it for making mats and bags later."

"Toward the end of the sugar season there was a great deal of thick sap called the "last run" (izhwaga zinzibakwud). We also had lots of food we had dried. This provided us with food while we were making our gardens at our summer home."

Syrup Making

It takes 30 - 40 gallons of average maple sap -- (zinzibakwudabo, liquid sugar) to boil down to one gallon of syrup. No wonder the birch-bark sap-collection pails were called nadoban, making the word for "she goes and gets" (nadobe) into an object ( ) for going and getting with! On the sunny side of a free-flowing tree, the small sap buckets might fill in an hour. Since there would be several taps in each of at least 900 trees (more like 2,000 trees for the 6 families Nodinens describes) everyone was kept busy running pails of sap to the boilers all day whenever it was sunny and the sap ran.

40 gallons of sap reduces to about 3 quarts of sugar when further heated in a smaller kettle or pail (ombigamizigan). Sugar was made in 2 forms. Thick syrup for hard sugar (zhiiwaagamizigan) was scooped before it granulated from the final boiling kettle, and poured onto ice or snow to solidify. Then it was packed tightly into shells or birch bark cones (zhiishiigwaansag) whose tops were sewn shut with basswood fiber for storage, These were licked and eaten like candy. Sugar cakes were also made in shapes of men and animals, moons, stars, flowers, poured into greased wooden molds.

Small pieces of deer tallow were put into the syrup as it boiled down. When the boiled sugar was about to granulate in its final boil-down, it was poured into a wooden sugaring trough, made from a smoothed-out log. It was stirred there to granulate it, and rubbed with sugar ladles and hands into sugar grains, ziinzibaakwad.. Warm sugar was poured from the trough into makuks of birch bark. This was the basic seasoning and an important year-round food, eaten with grains, fish, fruits and vegetables, and with dried berries all year round. In summer, it was dissolved in water as a cooling drink. In winter it was stirred into with various root, leaf and bark teas. The fancy cakes were used as gifts, showing off the maker's originality of design.

"Maple sugar 
Only satisfies me 

In the spring!"  
Anishnaabe song

The sweet birch called black birch or cherry birch and the white birch (wigwasatig) can also be tapped for sap. These trees run about a month later than maples. They flow much more copiously, a gallon an hour is usual, but the sap is only about half as sweet -- takes twice as much to boil down to syrup and sugar, and the run doesn't last as long. 

A great deal of the present-day knowledge of the traditional way of making sugar was preserved by Walter White, known to thousands by his Ojibwe names Gay gway da kamigishkang (Prancing Horse) and Gahgoonse (Porky or Little Porcupine) who died peacefully on November 13, 2001.  

As a boy of five, he accompanied his mother to her sugar bush stand at Sugar Point on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. He learned the complex process of making sugar from the sap of maple trees, and he practiced this skill in an annual camp located at Lake Independence, Minnesota.  His keen sense of timing and solid understanding of the sugaring process is documented in the book Ininatig’s Gift of Sugar, Traditional Native Sugar Making (Lerner, 1993).

Fresh birch sap tastes almost like cold water, just a hint of sweetness, with a slight mint taste, wintergreen taste (birch twigs are used to make non-synthetic wintergreen flavoring). In late spring, birch sap could be a useful drink for a traveler in marshy areas, where there was no pure water at hand. To make sugar of it, though, took twice as much sap and twice as long to boil it down. Birch syrup (which is rather like molasses) and sugar have no hint of the wintergreen flavor; it is volatile and is driven off by boiling. Wintergreen-flavored tea is made from fresh spring twigs steeped (but not boiled) or from under-bark scraped and carefully dried in the shade.

Birch bark comes in many different thickness, depending on the age of the tree, which Winabozho gave to be a protection and benefit to the people, after it had saved him from the thunderbirds (whose child the birch tree is). Thick bark for making canoes may be 6 - 9 layers thick. Thinner bark may be almost like tissue, but is very tough, and usable for wrapping small packets. Birch bark lasts a very long time (especially if buried in earth). Trays and containers in heavy use might last for 10 years or more, especially if repaired with balsam gum (coatings of which reinforced twine sewing).

Birch bark has some unidentified biological property that lets it preserve foods stored in it, for example gummy sugar in birch would keep for 2 years or more. Partially dried vegetables, fruits, pressed cakes of berries, though not sterilized by boiling (as in preserving or canning) all could be stored tightly wrapped in it for years. Though birch bark is highly inflammable, freshly cut with its wet inner surface turned outward, it can be made into a cookpot, where stews or soups are boiled without burning up the wet bark.

Winabozho made all the little short marks on the outside of birch bark, while hiding in the "king log" from thunderbirds whose feathers he had stolen. But birch bark also contains little pictures of these amiinkiig that can be seen very well on some special white birch trees. Birches are always thanked with tobacco whenever any of their gifts are used.

The Sugarbush Story

One day when the world was young, an Indian chief came home from a long, unsuccessful hunt. It was early spring, and the animals were still sleeping in their warm dens. The chief was tired and angry because his meal was not going to be good. As he came home, he stuck his tomahawk in one of the trees outside his longhouse. By chance, the tree was a maple.  


The chief had a daughter who cooked and kept his longhouse for him. The daughter made him a slim dinner of dried meat, and he slept. The next morning, he took his tomahawk out of the tree and returned to his hunt.


Every morning the chief's daughter took a large bowl to the stream to get water. This day she was lazy, and wasted time enjoying the returning sun. She forgot the bowl at the base of the maple tree. As the spring sun warmed the tree, sap began to flow into her bowl from the gash that the tomahawk had made.


When it was almost time for her father to return, the daughter realized her plight. She had to make a meal quickly. She found her bowl already had a liquid in it that looked like water. Thinking it was a gift from the Great Spirit, she used the "water" to boil the dried meat and grains for her father's meal. As the meal cooked, it became sweeter. The chief complimented his daughter on her hard work, and from then on the sap of the maple tree became an important part of their diet.

Recommended Reading

Grades 3-6: Ininatig's Gift of Sugar: Traditional Native Sugar Making, Laura Wateman Wittstock, photos by Dale Kakkak. $19.95 hardcover, $6.95 paper, discounts to schools. Lerner, Minneapolis, 800-328-4929. 


Adult Reading:  Chippewa Customs (Publications of the Minnesota Historical Society); Frances Densmore; Paperback; $9.95


Canada SchoolNet's CanaDisk image library

Frances Densmore, Chippewa Customs, material she collected from 1905-1925 (U.S. Bureau of Ethnography) which was reprinted in hardcover by Ross and Haines Old Books, Minneapolis, 1970. 

Frances Densmore, How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts, Ross and Haines Old Books, Minneapolis, 1970.






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