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Reclaiming maple sugaring on an Anishinaabek farm

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Sierra Clark
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The Anishinaabek practice of sugaring was largely erased from the Upper Great Lakes with the arrival of white settlers. Indigenous producers like Nikki Nelson Bailey are working to reclaim this tradition.

Off the back roads in Bear Lake township is Mino Mishkiki, a 60-acre farm where Nikki Nelson Bailey and her family are reclaiming a sacred Anishinaabek food.

“When we got to this land, I didn’t want to leave it,” Bailey says. “I knew this is where we had to start because we had a dream of starting a traditional farm and sugarbush.”

The land has a special connection for her. When she bought the farm seven years ago, she didn’t realize that her 81-year-old great-aunt had worked and played there as a child.

Her great-aunt told Bailey that her great-grandmother was a farmhand on the land for the original homesteaders. She helped sow the earth and tend the plants that are now in Bailey’s care. For Bailey, having the farm feels like coming home.

“This is where I was supposed to be,” she says. “My family has always been working the land, I just didn’t know it yet.”

Bailey and her family are tribal citizens of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. The farm came from a vision she had to help other Anishinaabek access traditional foods.

One of the ways she’s doing that is through sugaring.

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Sierra Clark
Bailey prepares the first batch of syrup to be bottled for ceremonial purposes. She says maple syrup is one of the foundational blocks in Anishinaabek culture. It comes with a lesson of working together for one goal.

On a cold, sunny day in April, Bailey takes my son out to their oldest and favorite tree to tap. She gently opens her hands to give an offering of tobacco. She drills a little hole into the tree, then taps a spigot into the hole that lets sap flow out.

The process is a whole family effort. Bailey’s two youngest children have gone out every spring since they could walk to help tap, collect, boil the sap, and turn it into traditional maple sugars and syrup.

“Sugar bushing being like our family's absolute favorite time — that’s like our Christmas-time because we love doing it together,” she says. “Everyone pitches in.”

The first few years on the farm, her family tapped about 75 trees, and hauled the sap from buckets to their homemade firebox to be slowly boiled over an open flame. In the earlier days, Bailey recalls staying up all night during sugar season to tend to these fires.

This year, their production is much larger. They tapped 200 trees and upgraded to a large-scale evaporator. It allows them to process the sap more efficiently and ensures there’s no waste.

Bailey and her partner David have been teaching sugaring workshops for more than eight years. They teach the full creation story that includes how Anishinaabek were gifted maple syrup from Nanaboozhoo.

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Sierra Clark
Bailey in northern Michigan wearing a ribbon skirt.

But Bailey wants to expand production so that anyone can access Indigenous-produced maple syrup.

“The goal is to not only be able to provide this sacred food to our people and our community and ourselves,” she says. “We’re hoping to be able to be an Indigneous producer for those that are Indigenous culinary artists.”

Sugaring wasn’t something that Bailey was able to grow up with. She reclaimed this tradition, and credits her partner for teaching and guiding her throughout the years.

And she says other Anishinaabek have had similar experiences of not having access to this practice, because sugaring was pushed out hundreds of years ago, with the expansion of settlers in Michigan.

“To systemically erase our culture and our part in this is so hurtful,” she says. “I hope that we can take back sugarbushing and put the Indigenous narrative on it, back where it belongs.”