The Current·Personal Essay

How tapping sugar maples is reconnecting me to the land — and my roots

The pandemic has upended the plans, and even traditions, of so many people in this country. On a reserve just outside Thunder Bay, freelance journalist Jolene Banning has spent the spring trying to carry on with a practice her ancestors began well over a century ago: tapping the sugar maples.

For Anishinaabe journalist Jolene Banning, the sugar season can be healing

Jolene Banning, left, pictured with her granddaughter Cassius Rose, while tapping the sugar maples on Anemki Wajiw. (Submitted by Jolene Banning)

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For me, sugar season is my new year — the promise of new beginnings — and tapping the maple trees gives me a stronger sense of self and connection to my community. 

Back in February, when the Sugar Bush Family gathered in the woods on top of our sacred mountain Anemki Wajiw to talk about tapping the sugar maples, worries about COVID-19 hadn't even crossed our minds.

The Sugar Bush Family is a collective of Fort William First Nation community members that are reviving our ties to traditional knowledge and land. 

In late winter, we hike almost every day to break trail and check on the trees. We talk about what tapping could look like this year and what our plans are for the season. 

Everything changed when news of COVID-19 hit. 

Despite worries about COVID-19, Banning decided to tap the sugar maple trees at the top of Anemki Wajiw on her own in February. (Submitted by Jolene Banning)

Many in the collective were undecided on whether or not to tap, but the overall desire was to remain at home for safety and protection against the virus. I was devastated. 

I reminded them the land is healing and there are safe ways to tap by staggering times and maintaining physical distance. 

I also have worries and concerns about the virus, but for me the land calms my fear. 

When they tell me they really aren't tapping this year, I cry all night until I cry myself to sleep. 

I decided this year I'll tap alone.

Traditions taken from us

Anemki Wajiw, which settlers have since renamed Mount McKay, is located on the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation, just south of the city of Thunder Bay.

The name loosely translates to Thunder Mountain. Our ancestors say that on the very top of the mountain is where the thunderbirds nest and ceremonies are held on the land. 

Melting snow at the base of the sugar maple trees means it's time to tap, writes Banning. (Submitted by Jolene Banning)

There are thousands of sugar maples in the sugar bush, protected by mountain ridges on either side to shield them from our harsh, cold winters. 

Sugar maples aren't typically found in our northern region of Canada. As I stood surrounded by all the maples, I wondered how they got there. 

Maple sugar was a form of currency in the 1800s. It's believed that our ancestors would have traded for the trees with Anishinaabeg from other places along their trade route, and planted their "bank" in their most sacred of spaces, Anemki Wajiw.

It's a part of our history that Canada claims as part of its heritage, and other maple syrup producers continue that erasure by not crediting our contributions. 

Most times, it's not acknowledged that our culture, traditions, children, land and language were forcefully taken from us in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples. 

Banning's husband Larry helped collect sap from the trees. (Submitted by Jolene Banning)

Healing the past

As I hike up the mountain, I can't help but think of this lost connection to land that I try to reconnect with. 

I was raised in the city by my mom, living well below the poverty line. I didn't grow up with my dad, though I always knew who he was. 

On the mountain, I think about our relationship. 

As a child, I loved my summers because that's when my mom would bring me home to Allanwater, Ont., where she comes from. She had a strong connection to the land. She could read animal tracks, travel safely up the river rapids, and knew the best fishing spots. 

In rebuilding my relationship with the land, I discovered my family includes the trees. ​​​​​​- Jolene Banning

Growing up in the city, I heard just about every derogatory thing you could say about Indigenous people. They would call us names like bogan, drunk, wagon burner and dirty indian.

I experienced violence almost daily — having garbage thrown at you while walking down the street, or being followed around the store because of your skin colour. I lost close family members to violence, and after the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, panels of white experts said genocide was the wrong word — that the inquiry got it wrong. 

Then someone asked me to make maple syrup.

Still standing

One of the first lessons I learned from tapping the maples was to build that relationship to the land — to watch the ground change as the sun melts the snow away from the tree trunk. 

As the sap warms and begins to flow through the tree, it melts the snow away until eventually you can see the earth. That's when it's time to tap. 

Before I make that first entry point on the tree, I lay down my tobacco and give thanks for all I have. I make up an offering of some traditional foods like berries, manomin — also known as wild rice — and water. I lay it down by my tobacco and I feast the trees for all they will give me. 

Normally when we are boiling down the sap, there is an open invitation to come visit. Almost everyone that drops in to visit will bring a dish to share, but this year, there is no feast of food and no one is stopping by. 

With her husband, Banning collected nearly five litres of sap from Anemki Wajiw's sugar maples. (Submitted by Jolene Banning)

This year, I'm tapping without my Sugar Bush Family, and without my dad. 

But what I do have is my family — my husband, my children and grandchildren — and for the first time all season, I don't feel so alone because I know I still have the trees and they have so much to share with me. 

My husband and I collected enough sap to make nearly five litres of maple syrup. It's no small feat for just two people.

At a time of so much uncertainty, going out on the land gives me a sense of peace and belonging. 

I thought my Sugar Bush Family was only made up of people. In rebuilding my relationship with the land, I discovered my family includes the trees. 

They are still standing, and so am I.

(Leigh Nunan)

Jolene Banning is an Anishinaabe journalist who highlights stories of resilience and culture, and how these push back against settler colonialism. She lives on her traditional territory of Fort William First Nation. 

Her documentary, The Sugar Bush, was made as part of CBC Radio's Emerging Indigenous Doc Mentorship Program.

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