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Legends of Maple Syrup, and the Uncle who made it difficult for the rest of us

Posted by William Farrell on
maple syrup collection

The Discovery of Maple Syrup

Maple syrup, or more specifically, maple sugar, was originally made by multiple Native American tribes in the northern United States and Canada for sustenance and taste. The actual moment of discovery is unknown, but there are many origin stories and folktales that give us insight into the relationship between humans and the practice  of maple sugar making.

The American Maple Museum, in Croghan, New York, tells of one of the folk tales about the discovery of maple sugar, a more reduced form of maple syrup that facilitated its storage. The museum account is as follows:

Legend has it that the first maple syrup maker was an Iroquois woman, the wife of Chief Woksis. One late-winter morning, the story goes, the chief headed out on one of his hunts, but not before yanking his tomahawk from the tree where he’d thrown it the night before. On this particular day, the weather turned quite warm, causing the tree’s sap to run and fill a container standing near the trunk. The women spied the vessel and, thinking it was plain water, cooked their evening meal in it. The boiling that ensued turned the sap to syrup, flavoring the chief’s meal as never before.

The Ottawa and Chippewa Native Americans, as told by A.J. Blackbird, have legends about the use of maple sugar in their cultures that are quite similar to one another. According to the legend, the “sugar tree did produce sap, at certain seasons of the year, which was almost like pure syrup.” But then the supernatural but mischievous Ne-naw-bo-zhoo tasted it, he said it was “too cheap”, and that it would not do. “My nephews will obtain this sugar too easily in the future time and the sugar will be worthless”.  Ne-naw-bo-zhoo diluted the sap until he could not taste any sweetness, and said “now, my nephews will have to labor hard to make the sugar out of this sap, and the sugar will be much more valuable to them in the future time.” (History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan: a grammar of their language, and personal family history of the author. s.l. : Ypsilantian Job Printing House, 1887)

This is a direct reference to the labor-intensive nature of maple sugar, but also indicates how the  Ottawa and Chippewa Native Americans understood the value and  goodness of maple syrup.

Now, if only we could take our pancake out to the maple tree, hold it under the spout and have maple syrup (!)

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