Last updated 4/13/2021 at 6:29pm
Canhanpi (chahn hahn pee) is the Dakota word for sugar. Literally it means tree (can) juice (hanpi). It refers to maple syrup. When we think of tapping trees and "sugarbushing" we think of our Ojibway neighbors. Did you know that us Dakota tapped trees too? Many generations have missed out on this traditional practice but let me reassure you that we tapped trees, we boiled it down to maple syrup and boiled it even further down to make sugar.
Ehanna, canhanpi was a trade item as well as psin, wild rice that we harvested. These items held a lot of value because of the work that went into the collecting and processing. Sugar and wild rice take days of work from start finish before you have an end product. Both can keep for a very long time which also made it so valuable. I have experienced the processing of both and I can totally appreciate how hard our people worked for their food.
An elderly lady shared that her grandmother would sing a song as she gathered her sap but that she couldn't remember the song. Other local elders have also shared that they remember their parents or grandparents tapping trees or sharing stories of tapping trees. In our area there weren't many maple trees so they would tap Boxelder trees for sap and make sugar from that. Eric remembered his kunsi telling him about taking the syrup and drizzling it in the snow to make candy. It's amazing what we remember when there is something there to trigger those memories that laid dormant for many years. Beautiful memories that belong to our Dakota people.
When I worked at THPO, Vine Marks, Jim Whitted and I made a trip to Mille Lacs Museum to learn the process. I was disappointed by the limited information that was shared so I called my uncle Lloyd Keoke who lives in Mille Lacs and he took us to see the Sugarbushing camp. He showed us the family plots and how each of them used different methods of gathering sap. This visit was the start for me. It sat dormant until a few years ago when I decided, I'm just going to do it and that's what we did. I researched what we needed and we picked up supplies in Minnesota; there its common and the stores carry everything you need from taps, sap sacs, bottles and tubing. When the weather hits around the 30's is when you start checking. Eric watched a video on YouTube and we forged ahead and tapped our first trees. You can't imagine how excited we were to see those first drips of sap fall from the tap. We may have hugged or high-fived, that how excited we were. And that was our start.
I don't want to see our practices fall and become forgotten. That's why I took it upon myself and my family to revive it. To tap trees, to make syrup and sugar. Stepping into the unknown is always a little daunting but I try not to ever let that hold me back. Last year an AA group came out to tour our little set up and see the trees dripping sap into our blue sap sacs. They were as surprised as I was the first time I sampled the green tasting water that dripped from the tree and the freshly boiled syrup that it became. There is no taste like it, its buttery, with a rich caramel like flavor. I shared sap with my sister-friend Kateri Bird and niece Erica Fischer last year to make their own syrup. This year they are homeschooling their kids and are teaching them how to tap trees and gathering stories from elders. That's how the tradition is carried on, by teaching our children and young people. This is our 3rd year tapping and since that time I have learned a lot and continue to learn. We are in our second week and have collected 32 gallons and made 42 oz of syrup. We have made syrup, candy and sugar and shared with many in our community, especially our youth so that they know that maple syrup and maple sugar are also some of our traditional foods. By teaching others the traditions will carry on.
Ella Robertson, MTAG