The Sweetest Sip: Drinking From a Tree at Sugar Bush Camp

Courtesy Tamie Rodenwald - A young camper pours maple sap into a bucket.

Everything depends on the weather.

With the right combination of cool nights and warm days, sap begins to flow in a grove of maple trees on the White Earth Indian Nation, a 1,300-square-mile reservation in Minnesota where the White Earth Band of Ojibwe makes its home. Every spring, Tamie Rodenwald, executive director of Sah-kah-tay Indigenous Preservation Society, stockpiles tree taps, buckets and pots in preparation for her annual sugar bush camp.

“Usually we start watching the weather in mid-March,” she said. “We watch the wetness, the birds, the woodpeckers, the crows, how much crust is on the snow—a lot of things in the environment and animals.”

Courtesy Tamie Rodenwald - When the weather is right, the Sah-kah-tay Indigenous Preservation Society starts tapping maple trees for sap.

When the sap starts running, Rodenwald extends an open invitation to anyone who wants to learn how to collect and process maple sap. About 120 Native children participate in the annual camp, which combines traditional knowledge with modern practicality, but it also attracts a growing crowd of elders, college students and non-Native spectators.

“Anyone is free to join us and learn,” Rodenwald said. “Elementary kids, junior high, high school, college, anyone who lives around here. We had a group of elderly gentlemen once, and now they run their own sugar bush.”

The sugar bush camp is one of four seasonal camps offered by the Sah-kah-tay Indigenous Preservation Society. The camps started two decades ago when Rodenwald’s parents, Earl and Kathy Hoagland, decided they wanted to do something to help preserve the White Earth culture. Now, the preservation society welcomes crowds to its annual berry camp in the summer, wild rice camp in the fall, storytelling camp in the winter and sugar bush camp in the early spring.

Courtesy Tamie Rodenwald - A group of visitors at the Sah-kah-tay Indigenous Preservation Society’s Sugar Bush Camp learns about the traditional methods of collecting sap.

Rodenwald’s daughter, Natasha Rodenwald, grew up attending the camps. Now 25, Natasha brings her own children to the sugar bush camp and helps her mother teach.

“When my daughter first learned to walk, she was out at the sugar bush drinking sap from the tree,” Natasha said. “A lot of people don’t know how to do these skills that we used to rely on to live.”

Maple syrup is one of the oldest agricultural products in the United States, according to data from the USDA. It was one of the first foods Native Americans introduced to the European settlers.

The White Earth Tribal and Community College uses federal funding to help support the sugar bush camp, where campers use traditional methods of cooking sap over a wood fire—a process that can take days but starts with campers learning how to tap a tree.

“Once they know how to do that, we give them each a five-gallon bucket to collect the sap,” said Larry Olsen, board president for the Sah-kah-tay Indigenous Preservation Society. “We fill up the buckets, then load them on a vehicle. Then we bring the sap back to where the kettle is, where we boil it down in a 50-gallon cast-iron kettle for 12-14 hours.”

Courtesy Tamie Rodenwald - Maple syrup boils in the kitchen at the Sah-kah-tay Indigenous Preservation Society’s Sugar Bush Camp.

Once that’s done, the campers take the sap inside the house to complete the process—making syrup, sugar and even taffy. As the sap is boiling, leaders teach campers about plant science and the historic and cultural significance of maple trees.

“We want participants to get a sense of achievement, a sense of getting to know who they are,” Rodenwald said. “It’s about preserving our old ways. We try to teach them as much as we can so they always have a tool to survive.”

Courtesy Tamie Rodenwald - Maple sap is boiled outside before campers take it inside to make sugar, syrup or candy.

The camps are part of a bigger initiative to ensure food security on a reservation where grocery stores are scarce and unemployment can run as high as 25 percent, Rodenwald said. The camps also foster a natural, intergenerational community. When she teaches, Rodenwald shares the same stories she heard from her mother’s grandfather.

“A lot of this is about the stories that are shared during this season,” she said. “We talk about the sap, how it’s like a medicine, how it purifies our bodies. The sugar bush is a gift given to us. What our ancestors taught us, that’s what we’re trying to continue teaching the next generation.”

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