Public Media Arts Hub

Two people in the woods tapping sugar maple tree to collect sap to make maple syrup in Detroit's Rouge Park.
Antonio Rafael and shakara tyler of the Detroit Sugarbush Project tap a sugar maple tree in Detroit's Rouge Park to collect sap in a bucket to make maple syrup and sugar. Photo by Isra Daraiseh/Detroit Sugarbush Project

Activists tap a sweet Indigenous tradition to connect youth of color in Detroit with the outdoors

DETROIT — Tucked into Detroit's 1,200 acre Rouge Park is one of the nation's largest urban sugar maple tree groves in the country. But for years, the trees went unharvested. While making syrup from tree sap is an ancient tradition of the Anishinaabe who first inhabited the Great Lakes region, it had fallen from local practice. But after learning about sugarbush traditions from Ojibwe and Cree peoples from across the Great Lakes region, Antonio Rafael and shakara tyler of Detroit and David Pitawanakwat of Wikwemikong First Nation wanted to bring this traditional ecological activity back to the city.

That first year, in 2019, they sought permission from the local Indigenous grandmothers. They quietly collected sap in the sugar maple grove off Outer Drive in Detroit's Rouge Park, and boiled it down to make maple syrup and sugar.

"As urban peoples, our relations to nature too often come at a distance," said Antonio Rafael, cofounder of the Detroit Sugarbush Project. "Our modern lives keep us staring at screens, living in boxes, and out of touch with the real world. Sugarbush recenters life."

A group of students gather around a fire in the woods to learn about Anishinaabe sugarmaking traditions in Detroit's Rouge Park.
Students from The James and Grace Lee Boggs School gather around a fire to learn about Anishinaabe sugarmaking traditions and discuss the idea of making maple sugar from maple sap in Detroit's Rouge Park. Photo by Isra Daraiseh/Detroit Sugarbush Project

Since that first year, the Detroit Sugarbush Project has made an annual tradition of inviting local youth to come tap sugar maple trees and learn how to make maple syrup and sugar, but also to get them out into nature and build connections with Indigenous people and traditions.

"Sugarbush" refers to a grove of sugar maple trees growing in the same area used to produce syrup.

"Our goal is to have a slow trickle of people connecting with the sugarbush," said Rafael, a co-founder of Black to the Land, a diverse coalition of nature enthusiasts that connects people of color to culturally relevant outdoor nature experiences and to build equity in outdoor leadership.

Black and Indigenous communities often face similar struggles connected with disparities in housing, economic factors and chronic health disease, according to an overview from the state health and human services department.

READ MORE: A new program 'prescribes' monthly payments for the first year of an infant's life

Showing young people that it is possible to live off the land and make their own food heals and empowers them, as well as plants the seeds for future resistance and advocacy, said Kaela Wabanimkee-Harris, a social worker and an Anishinaabe cultural support specialist.

"Connecting to the land, being in connection to the land, to the community, reconnecting with ancestral ways of being. This is all a form of resistance," she said. "Protecting the land as resistance, kinship as resistance and the solidarity work as resistance. Black and Indigenous solitary."

The sugarbush is important to Indigenous people, in particular for the Anishinaabe in Michigan, "because it is a part of us revitalizing our culture and traditions of tapping maple trees," Wabanimkee-Harris added. "It's especially important for us urban Natives to be able to do this work. It's about connecting to the land aki Mother Earth and the living beings a part of her, and that reciprocity of taking care of the trees, and the trees taking care of us."

The Anishinaabe include the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples who share a common language and are joined in a partnership called the Three Fires.

Historically, the Anishinaabe peoples would separate over winter, into smaller hunting camps, Rafael said. Then, as the weather began to warm and the sap began to flow, the people would gather back together to harvest maple syrup. Sugarbush was an activity that required many people to work hard together — tapping the trees, hauling and chopping wood, building camp, carrying the collected sap, boiling down the sap into syrup, and feeding everybody.

"One key lesson we learned from stories is that you ought to work hard for the sweet things in life, like maple syrup," Rafael said. "It's a beautiful symphony of hard work."

READ MORE: What Native American children endured at one Missouri boarding school

Harvesting maple syrup is not simply about history. It is also medicine for modern people, an antidote to the isolation of the cold winter months, Rafael said. It brings people together in shared work while also connecting them to natural forces like the changing seasons, the Rouge River flooding, the polar vortex, snow and ice, he added.

It's also about supporting local food systems and sovereignty, said shakara tyler, co-founder of Black to the Land and board president of Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network which is a group seeking to build self-reliance, food security and justice in Detroit's Black community.

"The [Detroit] Sugarbush Project represents the revival of ancestral land traditions grounded in communal co-creation, solidarity and spirituality," tyler said. "It revalorizes Indigenous traditions and positions memory, hard work and beloved community at the center of food sovereignty."

Rebuilding connections to the land

The first step was seeking permission from the urban Indigenous grandmothers if the group could tap their sacred sugar maple trees.

With their blessing, Rafael, then a Detroit education coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation, formalized the activity with the city through a memorandum of understanding. The Black to the Land coalition has since taken over that agreement and the legal relationship with the city. They partnered with many more community groups like the Sierra Club of Detroit, Detroit Outdoors, American Indian Health and Family Services, and the Native American Indian Association of Detroit.

The group then invited regional sugarmakers, including Jerry Jondreau from Keeweenaw Bay Indian Community and Jefferson Ballew of Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, to help establish the project.

READ MORE: Why some Indigenous tribes are being left behind in Louisiana's Ida recovery

This year, families from Black to the Land's Urban Forest School and students from The James and Grace Lee Boggs School went to help with tapping the trees and collecting the sap. The Urban Forest School hosts educational events and adventures for children 12 and under and their families who explore cultural practices and the natural world around Detroit. The Boggs School is a community-based school in Detroit inspired by the social justice work of James and Grace Lee Boggs, with a mission of nurturing creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.

"[Kids] are fascinated by the idea of getting water or sugar from trees," Rafael said. "Kids thirst for real experiences, they learn how to identify trees quickly. With exposure to that knowledge, they soak it up."

Depending on their ages, students learn to drill the trunk of the sugar maple tree, insert a tap, and place a bucket to catch the sap. They learn to split logs with axes, wedges, and chainsaws. They learn to start a fire with steel, flint, and shkitogin — a soft "tinder fungus" that can hold a burning ember — and participate in the long process of boiling maple tree sap over an open fire until it turns into syrup or sugar. Students also learn traditional Anishinaabe ecological knowledge and songs.

Research conducted by tyler at University of Michigan where she teaches, and Michigan State University show that people return to the land and their traditions when they feel a sense of belonging, joy, love and respect.

"Food sovereignty and environmental justice movements [are] about building power to be self-determining and self-reliant on our labors, ingenuity and more, so that we can be less reliant on the systems not built for us, that exploit us. This work teaches us to enact community self-determination as a tool in healing our souls so that we can all be in right relationship with one another."

WATCH: Movement to return land taken from Black and Indigenous people in the U.S. gains momentum

Because the Detroit Sugarbush Project is a Black and Indigenous-led project, the ideals of abolition and decolonization have been central, Rafael said, as have the connections between Native land and Black labor.

"[The] making of the United States of America displaced our ancestors and their ways of relating to the land," Rafael said. "Making 'Detroit' from Waawiyaatanong drained the 90 percent of wetlands of Wayne County, and at higher rates cleared the forests and prairies that existed here since time immemorial."

Connecting to the land is a form of resistance, Wabanimkee-Harris said, as well as a way of reconnecting with ancestral ways of being, protecting the land, creating kinship, and forming connections and solidarity between Black and Indigenous groups.

"We all have a connection and a history to this land, in particular to Detroit," Wabanimkee-Harris said. "This was the place where my ancestors came. To the bending river. To do many things, but a main thing was to make trades. As well as my Black ancestry that was brought here in bondage, and came here to Detroit on the Underground Railroad in search of freedom."

"Historically, Black abolitionist communities purchased maple syrup from sugarbush communities in northern territories of Michigan as a way to avoid sugarcane, a key crop in plantation agriculture during the 18th to 20th centuries," tyler said. "Abolitionists recognized the importance of cross-cultural solidarity in ensuring Black and Indigenous futures that would economically, culturally and spiritually thrive."

"Coming together to do this work is immensely important, not only for the maple trees, but for the land, for our spirits, and for the spirits of our ancestors," Wabanimkee-Harris said.

Challenges and the future

Rafael said new concerns emerged about tapping trees during this year's tepid winter, exacerbated by "the El Niño year, and perhaps some climate change." The project only tapped 40 trees this year, as compared to the 120 trees last year. Each tree can produce 10 to 20 gallons of syrup; making one gallon of syrup requires 40 gallons of sap.

Rafael, who is now land stewardship manager at Friends of the Rouge, said it wouldn't be healthy for the ecosystem to tap too many trees at once.

Still, he wants to expand opportunities for other schools and groups of youth to come visit the sugarbush in the future.

READ MORE: How segregation and neglect left Benton Harbor, Michigan with toxic water

In addition to the unpredictability of winter temperatures in a changing climate, the project has faced some hurdles. At the start of the COVID pandemic, they had to quickly shut down the project after only two weeks, before the sap finished boiling. One evening last year, the group was approached by police and forced to stop despite having permits and permission from the City of Detroit. The police apologized, but the group still worries about future encounters.

"There has been better communication and somewhat of a relationship built with certain people," Wabanimkee-Harris said. "Unfortunately, we have to make sure that we are in a way asking permission to do this work and notify them, even though we shouldn't have to since this is our land. But that's a whole other conversation."

Two people in the woods rip up an invasive honeysuckle shrub in Detroit's Rouge Park.
Gabriela Alcazar from the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and Antonio Rafael rip up an invasive honeysuckle shrub in Detroit's Rouge Park. Photo by Isra Daraiseh/Detroit Sugarbush Project

The work goes beyond harvesting maple syrup and includes stewardship of the land.

In addition to harvesting maple sugar, the group is helping to restore the ecosystems in Rouge Park through stewardship work. "We are partnering with Friends of Rouge Park to eliminate invasive species, plant native fruit and nut trees, clean trash, establish trails, spread seeds, and advocate for the region to handle its combined sewer overflow issues that on-goingly polluting this watershed," Rafael said.

For Rafael, a self-described "mixed-Indigenous descended educator," this work is personal.

When Anishinaabe sugarmaker Jerry Jondreau of Dynamite Hills Farm came down from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community to teach them about sugarmaking, Jondreau talked about records he has from the 1800s outlining the history of Ojibwe tribes selling maple sugar downstate, Rafael said. "There is a history of peoples looking to circumvent the sugar cane, often slave labor economies of the Caribbean. My grandfather was born a sugarcane sharecropper in Puerto Rico. This work is special to me."

The work is also powerful and centering, not to calendars or computers, but to the ebb and flow of the changing seasons, Rafael said. "We watch the snow and ice melt away, and the spring ephemeral flowers and birds return to the forest. The season ends as the maple tree buds flower out, and the bugs return," he said.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.