The Indigenous History of Maple Syrup
By Maryam Sheikh
What’s your pancake topping of choice? Whipped cream, butter, or perhaps…smooth and sweet maple syrup? December 17th marked National Maple Syrup Day, and in honour of this delicacy, we’re sharing more about the little-known history of maple syrup and how you can celebrate.
From the tree to the table – How did maple syrup come to be?
The history of maple syrup is one that is not often highlighted. Maple sap extraction originated from Indigenous practices. Indigenous peoples, including the Abenaki, Haudenosaunee, and Mi’kmaq peoples, prized maple syrup for its sweet flavour, medicinal properties, and ability to preserve meat and food. The “sweet water” was used in ceremonies, cooking, and as a cleansing medicine. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Anishinaabe called the sap collection period the “maple moon” or “sugar month”. This time served as a way for community members to join together, create memories, and pass on traditions. The medicine from the maple trees brought people together, kept them together, and ensured that community members grew together and set a strong foundation for youth to be good Elders. The maple harvest has held special significance in many Indigenous communities as it coincides with the end of winter and the onset of spring. Indigenous communities such as the Ojibwe and Haudenosaunee celebrated through festivals, thanking the land, and community gatherings.
However, the Indian Act of 1876 forced traditional ceremonies and festivals to disappear due to the impact of colonization. Maple syrup production was heavily impacted and later capitalized on by non-Indigenous people as a source of economic benefit. Settlers adopted these practices, and now, holes are drilled into the trunk of sugar maple trees and metal spouts are tapped into these holes to collect sap. The clear sap drips into a bucket and is collected in a pail to start the creation of maple syrup. It is boiled down and turned into maple syrup and maple sugar products. Many traditional Indigenous practices have been altered or undermined, and though there are smaller, Indigenous-run businesses, the industry is dominated by larger manufacturers. Producing maple syrup is expensive and requires a lot of equipment and maple trees. Funding is a challenge faced by some Indigenous entrepreneurs such as Jolene Laskey, the owner of Wabanaki Maple, a Tobique First Nation-based company.
So, what can you do with this information? National Maple Syrup Day is an opportunity for us to learn about the Indigenous history of maple syrup, amplify Indigenous voices, and be reminded of the importance of protecting, respecting, and appreciating the environment and Indigenous traditions. You can celebrate this day by sharing your learnings with others and trying out new recipes. Lastly, try to support Indigenous businesses that are reclaiming their traditional practices and advocate for more education and awareness from larger companies.
Maple syrup recipes to try at home
- Braiding Sweetgrass – Learn more about Indigenous wisdom, knowledge, and teachings with this non-fiction book by Potawatomi professor Robin Wall Kimmerer.