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Contours of the Premodern World

Sugaring and Spring

By March 31, 2021September 16th, 2023No Comments

Guest post by Dr. Jacob Jurss, University of St. Thomas, Adjunct Department of History

In November 2020, I wrote a short piece for the James Ford Bell Library facebook page centered on two Seth Eastman images. One was of three Ojibwe women gathering manoomin (wild rice) while the other was a scene depicting a sugar bush camp. I was reminded of the sugar bush image when I stepped outside the other day. It feels like spring came a little bit early here in the north. The gentle spring with its warm days and cool nights has been a welcome shift from the bitter cold of February, it also indicates that sugar bush season is here again.

Sugar Camp

Eastman’s image of sugar bush is a busy scene and one that is renewed each year. Both Dakota and Ojibwe communities harvested maple sugar in the spring, but important to note is that while Eastman’s image depicts a historical sugar camp, contemporary Dakota and Ojibwe communities continue to harvest the gifts of the spring in sugar bushes throughout the upper Great Lakes. For Ojibwe communities, protecting hunting and gathering rights were often at the forefront of community leaders’ minds during treaty councils, as in the 1837 White Pine Treaty (Treaty with the Chippewa 1837 St Peters).


Sugar bush or maple sugar trees

Within the recorded minutes of the 1837 treaty council, Ojibwe leader Maghegabo was recorded as saying, “Of all the country that we grant you we wish to hold on to a tree where we get our living, & to reserve the streams where we drink the waters that gave us life.” Those trees refer to maple sugar trees and the maple sap that flows within them. His statement also indicated the importance of water as life for the community. Hidden in the minutes of these treaty councils are the presence and importance of women. While few women’s voices were recorded by white, male, American officials, Indigenous women held key roles in the harvesting of wild rice and maple sugar, and they are clearly present in Eastman’s images.

Harvesting wild rice.

In addition to the rich historical resources of the James Ford Bell library digital collections, the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary hosts a variety of cultural galleries including one on sugaring. Here Eastman’s historical images merge with contemporary images of Ojibwe community members splitting wood, collecting sap, stirring the boiling buckets to keep them from boiling over. Dakota communities also harvested maple sugar each spring. The Dakota Dictionary Online is an ongoing project at the University of Minnesota. Keep checking it into the fall as it continues to build on its already extensive library.

Often gathering rights are overlooked as treaty rights, but in Ojibwe communities throughout northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, the image Eastman depicted continues to occur with each Iskigamizigan season. These treaties, where these rights were reserved, continue to hold the weight of law.


The Bell’s copies of Mary Eastman’s Dahcotah and American Aboriginal Portfolio are Bell Call #1849 Ea and #1853 fEa.

Anne Good

Author Anne Good

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