<Ojibwe Lifeway: Maple Sugaring and Birch Bark Harvesting (“ziigwan”-spring)

Connect With Culture

Maple Tree Tapping
Learn more about the importance of sugar maple and paper birch to the Ojibwe people, both historically and today. Explore and Evidence that you can see, feel, or experience based on what you observe around you. place-based evidence of how climate change may be affecting the sustainability of these tree species using the online Menu of Resources or through an experiential learning opportunity.
Boiling Mapl Sap, GLIFWC
The Birch Tree
As told by the late Dee Bainbridge, Red Cliff story teller

One day Wenebojo was trying desperately to escape the awful anger of the thunderbirds. He had killed some baby thunderbirds and stolen their feathers, for he wanted to make a very powerful arrow.

The birds with their thunderous voices and lightening-bright eyes were chasing him. Wenebojo ran and ran, trying to find a place safe from the anger of the great birds. Finally, he crawled into a fallen, hollow birch tree. When the thunderbirds reached him, they knew they could not harm him, for the birch tree, which was their child, protected him.

After the thunderbirds left, Wenebojo promised the birch tree that its bark would protect whatever it held.

How the Indians Got Maple Sugar
An Ojibwe Legend
One day Wenebojo was standing under a maple tree. Suddenly it began to rain maple syrup-not sap-right on top of him. Wenebojo got a birch bark tray and held it out to catch the syrup. He said to himself: "This is too easy for the Indians to have the syrup just rain down like this." So he threw the syrup away and decided that before they could have the syrup, the Indians would have to give a feast, offer tobacco, speak to the manido, and put out some birch bark trays.

Nokomis, the grandmother of Wenebojo, showed him how to insert a small piece of wood into each maple tree so the sap could run down into the vessels beneath. When Manabush tested it, it was thick and sweet. He told his grandmother it would never do to give the Indians the syrup without making them work for it. He climbed to the top of one of the maples, scattered rain over all the trees, dissolving the sugar as it flowed into the birch bark vessels. Now the Indians have to cut wood, make vessels, collect the sap and boil it for a long time. If they want the maple syrup, they have to work hard for it.

(Adapted from Robert E. Ritzenthaler and Pat Ritzenthaler, 1983, The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes, Prospect Heights IL: Waveland Press.)

Menu of Resources Learn more about the cultural importance of Sugar Maple and Paper Birch to the Ojibwe

Investigate the Uncertain Future of Wiigwaasi-mitig (the paper birch tree)

Investigate the Uncertain Future of Wiigwaasi-mitig (the paper birch tree)
See how wiigwaasimitig (Paper birch) and ininaantig (Sugar maple) may be moving on due to climate change. How will climate change affect Ojibwe cultural practices that are based on a relationship with these plant beings?  Research from the Climate Atlas and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Making a Birch Bark Canoe

Making a Birch Bark Canoe
Watch as master canoe maker and Red Cliff Wisconsin Tribal Elder Marvin DeFoe constructs a traditional Ojibwe birch bark canoe. Video credit:  Spooner Advocate newspaper

Honorable Harvests

Honorable Harvests
Harvesting maple sugar and birch bark are part of the "seasonal round" of the Ojibwe people. This poster-placement shares information about Ojibwe treaty rights, traditions, and values that are part of the "Honorable Harvest." Made available by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) Natural Resources Department.
DESIGN YOUR OWN PLACE-BASED EXPERIENCE Interview a tribal, non-tribal gather, or family member about their experiences making maple syrup or harvesting birch bark. Ask them to share their observations and perspectives of how a changing climate may be affecting these activities

Interview a tribal forester, federal forester, state forester, biologist or researcher. Ask them to share any evidence they have observed of how a changing climate may be affect these and other tree species and their long-term sustainability. How could climate change affect the management of these species?

Interview someone who makes maple syrup in the spring. Ask them about what changes they have noticed in the maple syrup season. How have these changes affected the quality and quantity of the maple syrup?

Interview a Master Gardener, a farmer, or greenhouse owner in your community. Ask them to describe any changes they have noticed in the growing season. How have these changes affected the plant species they work with?

Identify trees in your backyard, street, or within your community. What kinds of trees can you find? Are there any sugar maple or birch trees? What changes have you noticed in these trees such as when they put their leaves out each spring or if they are turn colors in the fall? Keep a journal of the changes you notice. Could any be caused by climate change?