Reading Sap for Future Anishinaabeg Sugar Bush (Re)Matriation
by waaseyaa’sin christine sy
For the past several springs in Anishinaabewaki (Great Lake region), I’ve returned to the sugar bush with family and friends. Like many Anishinaabeg womyn before me, I’ve spent hours boiling sap into syrup and syrup into sugar. During these times, I think about sugar bush (re)matriation. This form of land (re)matriation is one way to decolonize Anishinaabeg relationships with the land and each other, as well as build readiness and resilience for a dynamic, yet-to-be-determined, approaching future.
I want to illuminate the home fires that create breathing holes where womyn can regenerate their relationships with land: where heteropatriarchal power can be transformed into shared power between Anishinaabeg, and where we can try to create some off-ramps from capitalism—even if only temporary. While it’s crucial to engage in resistance-writing against colonization and to write toward settler and state return of Indigenous lands, I write from an Anishinaabe centre, outward. I’m best able to put forward ideas of Anishinaabeg liberation and persistence of Anishinaabeg life through restoration of land-based relationships from the steady fires, boiling waters, and rising steams of the sugar bush I am close to. From this place, I’ve embodied knowledges and nurtured relationships walking amongst the maple trees and singing to the sap that flows up, defying gravity.
I intend to advance the decolonization of gender relations, which is required to support sugar bush (re)matriation. This is necessary to create a reality where womyn are empowered to engage in and determine their own relationships with land, are supported to negotiate any tensions that arise in returning themselves to land-based relationships, and are inscribed with the authority and influence that accompanies these relationships.
Anishinaabeg Sugar Bush (Re)Matriation
Land (re)matriation is not new to Indigenous communities or womyn; it is practiced within Indigenous Nations across Turtle Island. Some Anishinaabeg womyn are highly visible in media because of their calls for protection and proper use of lands and waters, including Josephine Mandamin, Judy DaSilva, and Winona LaDuke. There are also multitudes of less visible Anishinaabeg womyn who are vigorously engaged in their land-based relationships.
“Land” is utilized in Indigenous discourses in a variety of ways. When I make reference to land, it is a simplified short form for “all the natural world,” including the natural world that persists in urbanized spaces. Attached to the idea of land is the inherent understanding that all the natural world is imbued with spirit.
Land (re)matriation for me signifies a dynamic process that is occurring amongst womyn and like-minded Indigenous peoples. In this process womyn persist their relationships with land inter-generationally or restore themselves from a variety of locations to land-based relationships. Anishinaabeg land (re)matriation is nation-specific, shaped locally, and informed by the shifting ecological worlds we inhabit. It refers to the persistence and the re-generation of relation-ing between Anishinaabeg, land, knowledges, and womyn’s authority in a cagey neo-colonial context—a context that is also impinged upon by the power of Indigenous agency.
In the contemporary moment, this agency looks and sounds like decolonization, resurgence, land-based education movements, and active land protection against resource extraction, exploitation, or degradation. Anishinaabeg land (re)matriation, while having its own geo-political territories and interests, is influenced by (re)matriation occurring in neighbouring Indigenous nations as well. It occurs from within and without—from within the spirit of womyn and her network of relationships with whom there are shared interests, and from those outside her who are in positions of power to validate, nurture, encourage, and genuinely listen to and respond to womyn’s calls for land (re)matriation.
Sugar bush (re)matriation is vital to the re-creation of Anishinaabeg governance and nation-building. While there is so much potential in writing about land (re)matriation as a general construct, I write specifically about sugar bush (re)matriation. I find it generative to speak in detailed ways from one body of land-based knowledge. This body of knowledge cannot be separated from Anishinaabeg life as a whole, but I temporarily tease it away from the broader seasonal cycles and ecological relationships it is connected to as a way to provide focus and detail.
Historical and Anishinaabeg sources indicate that womyn and the sugar bush have a significant and dynamic relationship. This relationship supports womyn’s well-being and the well-being of her relations, community, and nation; it has done so through various historical periods. The relationship between womyn and the sugar bush has been disrupted through state and settler-colonial interference, the entrenchment of heteropatriarchal power, and the reach of capitalism. A relationship that once secured womyn’s well-being and security in Anishinaabeg worlds and shaped early trading economies and settler food supplies has been destroyed and replaced with economic and social relations of subordination and dependence defined by Canada.
In the present context of decolonization, Indigenous resurgence, Indigenous nationhood and nation(s)-to-nation relationships with Canada, reconciliation, and calls to abolish the Indian Act, I see a place for focused discussion on Anishinaabeg land (re)matriation. Since manokiki (maple groves) continue to dwell throughout Anishinaabewaki, and since Anishinaabeg continue to dwell in Anishinaabewaki, it makes good sense to talk about sugar bush (re)matriation as a real and necessary goal.
Reading Sap for Future Sugar Bush (Re)Matriation
In his retelling of “Spies (Geemootaugaedjig),” an Anishinaabe narrative, Basil H. Johnston-ba portrays the protective and vitally transformative potential found in Anishinaabe womyn’s relationship with iskigamizigan—the boiling place. This is the name Anishinaabeg have for the sugar bush during the spring sap boil. Translated from Anishinaabe language into English, the narrative contains three vignettes portraying spies—all men—who have violent intentions toward Anishinaabeg at the sugar bush. As a result of womyn’s interpretative power of the future presented to her in the boiling liquids and men’s willingness to listen to both womyn and their own emotional intelligence, these violent intentions are thwarted. It is Johnston’s portrayal of the sophisticated relationship between Anishinaabeg womyn and the boiling liquids at the sugar bush that inspires me to harness my own relationship with this place.
In one of the vignettes, an Anishinaabe womon is boiling makwa mideh (bear fat) when she sees the image of an unfamiliar man reflected in the liquid. She determines that he intends violence against the sugar camp. Her husband, who has just arrived from hunting makwa is nearby. She turns to him discreetly to let him know what she sees; upon hearing her concerns, he pretends to demonstrate his hunting prowess, swiftly turning to take successful aim at the approaching intruder.
Anishinaabe womon and man work together to achieve a goal that keeps Anishinaabeg presence in the sugar bush intact. These transmissions of knowledge between land and womon and between womon and man, and the fluidity and sharing of power between them, has been a method in which Anishinaabeg life-ways have been practiced and have persisted for thousands of years. (Re)matriation is a non-issue in this vignette because womon is there in the sugar bush, enacting her relationships, knowledges, skills, and authority; her active presence has efficacious outcomes.
In a present context, however, this vignette takes on particular significance because it illuminates an example of womyn’s centrality at the sugar bush. It also shows shared power between womon and man vis-à-vis knowledge transmission and listening. Today, womyn’s centrality in sugar bush work has been elided. Within the whittled down and regulated spaces that state and settler-colonialism has left for all Anishinaabeg to persist our relationships with land, the important and multi-faceted relationship between womyn and the sugar bush has eclipsed the highly valued, contemporary constructs of community work or family work (where “family” has been made to reflect a Western heteropatriarchal model). In other cases, Anishinaabeg men are centralized or made highly visible as the authority in this work.
As I filter boiling sap from one pan to another I reflect on how my own genealogical and circumstantial routes resulted in my being raised not knowing sustenance-based land relationships. In learning about these relationships in my adult years, I track how it is mostly Anishinaabeg men who have been my teachers. These men, living on their home reserves, have shared time, knowledge, instruction, material resources, and use of their land. I think about how in my familial home, it was my non-Anishinaabeg father who owned the land; my access to land was through him. Amongst many sustenance-based knowledges, regarding the sugar bush, it has been men who have taught me the technical aspects of how to work the sugar bush, how to make sugar, how to harvest birch bark for baskets, how to harvest spruce root for baskets and, in part, how to make basswood rope for sewing baskets. Cultural knowledges have been transmitted as part of the learning as well. The men I have learned from are active in practicing Anishinaabe life-ways, sharing these knowledges with others, and are politically engaged in protecting, persisting, and advancing Anishinaabeg life.
In my relational world, I only know of a few womyn who are engaged in such practices—all of them are on the land with their fathers. Until recently, I’ve known no Anishinaabeg womyn or two-spirit Anishinaabeg who work or run sugar bushes.
Recognizing that the home fire I tend is only one of many diverse fires being cared for in Anishinaabewaki, I want to gently fan this one and tease apart these gendered patterns. How did men replace womyn’s centrality at the sugar bush? How did men come to hold the bundles of knowledges, material resources, and land (or access to it) that allow a sugar bush harvest to happen? How can men who have these bundles support sugar bush (re)matriation where womyn in their worlds would like to see this happen? Erased in history and through colonial legislation, how did two-spirit Anishinaabeg have sugar bush relationships historically, and how can they be in sugar bush relationships today?
Reading History for Today: Canada’s “Indian” Policies
Imperialism, state and settler colonialism, and nation-state building have transformed Anishinaabeg relationships with lands and the knowledges associated with these relationships in many ways. Re-spatializing Anishinaabeg peoples from traditional territories onto reserves within their territories created a physical transformation of relationships with land. The groundwork for ideologically transforming these relationships exists in early Indian policies and legislations. They also exist in efforts to domesticate Indigenous womyn into the likeness of white womyn.
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth–century, Britain, and thereafter Canada, began to unilaterally create rules and methods of administrating Indigenous lands. At that time, British views of land were based on ownership, sovereignty, patriarchy, wealth generation, and a value system that categorized certain land uses, like hunting, as savagery and others, like agriculture, as civilized. This orientation toward the land and its early legislative impositions upon Anishinaabeg influenced the shifts Anishinaabeg were already negotiating as a result of economic relationships with the French and British, the influence of Christianity, and increased settler encroachment.
Ironically, British and Canadian Indian policies and legislations regarding land arose from an intention to protect Indigenous lands from settler encroachment. With encroachment reaching crisis proportions in the 1840s and 1850s, legislative acts intended to protect Indigenous lands simultaneously began to codify Indigenous identity. Identity codes linked gender with rights. Specifically, these early acts constructed gender as a binary between men and womyn and made other gender identities common to Anishinaabeg invisible. They organized the relationships between men and womyn patrilineally (i.e., daughters of fathers, wives of husbands, widows to deceased husbands). This in turn restructured womon’s identity from an autonomous, spiritual being within the Anishinaabe world, connected to a clan system, to an identity that was determined in very human-centric, heteropatriarchal terms: her relationship to Indian or non-Indian man. Rights identified by Canada determined her identity; these rights became increasingly attenuated over successive changes.
These legislative acts were (and are) paternalistic, racist, and sexist toward all Indigenous peoples, but they nonetheless inscribed Indigenous men with British forms of patriarchal power over land, governance, and property—which was, and continues to be, governed by the Canadian state. Because Canada granted land, property rights, and governance powers to Indigenous men, land inheritances went automatically to eldest sons unless a man had a will indicating land was to go to his widow. In these cases, the Canadian state determined if, based on her “moral character,” the widow was allowed to have this land. Because womyn were not allowed to participate in Canadian-imposed governance structures (i.e. Chief and Band Councils) they were not allowed to participate in any decisions about land. From 1850 to the present, Canada has enacted and continually enacts powers over Indigenous womyn’s being by claiming and enforcing the authority to construct her identity, and eroding or adding “rights” according to these constructions.
While there is evidence indicating that Indigenous men in more contemporary leadership positions have argued against Indigenous womyn’s efforts to have rights restored, there is also evidence, as early as the 1850s, that documents how some Indigenous men in positions of power advocated for the restoration of Indigenous womyn’s rights. Canada ignored this advocacy. Patrilineal inheritances and exclusion from governance decisions about land undermined womyn’s relationship with land and the authority that once arose from these relationships.
As a strategy to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society, Certificates of Possession were created in 1951 to replace the existing location tickets, allowing “Indians” to purchase land allotments on reserve. Where women were prohibited from obtaining location tickets, there was no legal reason preventing them from obtaining Certificates of Possession (CPs). Historically, men obtained CPs more frequently than womyn, but in the last decade womyn have obtained these certificates or been named on them as spouses or common-law partners at a higher rate.
CPs, and womyn’s increased attainment of them, seem to suggest solutions to the problem of poverty and gender disparity in land “ownership.” This is, however, a misreading. Four clear reasons why are:
- CPs arose from dual efforts to civilize all Indigenous peoples’ forms of land tenure and to alleviate, to some degree, economic poverty on reserves. CPs are a state-identified solution to state-created problems. Ideas of land ownership as set forth by the state—individual land ownership, and individual wealth generation—contradict the values that underpin Anishinaabeg relationships with land and kinship.
- The increase of Indigenous womyn attaining CPs suggests womyn are finding some autonomy to actualize their relationship with land—even if it is only within the boundaries of the property line—as they see fit. However, womyn’s purchasing power is limited to those who can afford it and can sustain loan payments. Colonization, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism have ultimately subordinated and marginalized Indigenous womyn regardless of where she lives, denying many or most the financial means or security to purchase land.
- In order to obtain a CP, all financial loans must be paid off. This presents a double bind for Indigenous womyn living with precarious sources of income and any level debt. Making money and paying financial loans to obtain security as an Indigenous woman in colonized Turtle Island is likely one of the most confounding paradoxes in Indigenous modernity.
- Womyn’s access to CPs do not undo nearly 200 years of legislated alienation from land and decision-making authority about land, loss of knowledge generated from a relationship with land, and the inability to accrue material resources associated with the economic benefits from land ownership—material resources that are required to engage in sustenance-based relationships with the land. Phrased differently, CPs do not undo the imbalances that the Indian Act legislated between Indigenous womyn and men; they do not restore the power balance between genders in Indigenous communities.
The historical patterns of Canadian policy and legislation that govern Indigenous peoples clearly show how, within the broader project of colonizing all Indigenous peoples, Indigenous men have been ascribed particular benefits merely for being men. In this system, Indigenous womyn and their children have had their rights further eroded. And the rights of Indigenous two-spirit people have been completely erased because two-spirit people and their realities are not included in the Indian Act. Since 1851, Indigenous men have been given continued access to land—albeit in limited and state-regulated forms—and womyn and two-spirit peoples have been alienated from it. This constructed gendered reality has been detrimental to all Indigenous peoples. To decolonize this reality, a concerted effort toward land (re)matriation is required.
Advancing Anishinaabe Life-Ways By Being Anishinaabe
In Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations, Tonawanda Seneca scholar Mishuana Goeman states that it is not enough to recover land through pure ideas of indigeneity. Neither is it simply about regaining what has been lost, “but instead understanding the processes that have defined our current spatialities in order to sustain vibrant Native futures.” Since being re-spatialized onto reserves from traditional territories, we can see how, while all Anishinaabe peoples have been alienated from relationships with land, identity became legislated and reformulated into a rigid gender binary wherein two-spirit Indigenous peoples are rendered invisible, womyn are marginalized, and patriarchal privileges are ascribed to men. These reformulations have resulted in long-term, dynamic negative implications for relationships with land and the knowledge, power, and security generated from these relationships. In order to illuminate possibilities for contemporary sugar bush (re)matriation, we must work together to better understand the colonial histories that have defined particular gendered relational spatialities and assigned power within particular gendered relationships.
Just as Anishinaabe womon in “Spies (Geemootaugaedjig)” shared knowledge with man in order to avoid violence and protect Anishinaabe life-ways at the sugar bush, men in my world have shared their resources with others and me. Sharing time, knowledge, instruction, material resources, land, and social connections with womyn who don’t have these tools but want to learn sustenance land-based relationships is one way to support land (re)matriation. It is also one way to support sugar bush (re)matriation. Sharing is deeply entrenched in an Anishinaabe value system and, in the present context, it can be an effective strategy to subvert womyn’s marginalization and help restore her relationships with land. This ultimately shapes governance.
In Johnston’s vignette, sharing refers to the transfer of knowledge and skill between land and people for the purposes of keeping broader relationships and the community safe. Sharing today can mean the same thing, but it also takes on new meanings. In the context of colonially constructed imbalances in Anishinaabeg communities, sharing divests colonially acquired privileges and distributes them so that purposefully marginalized groups can restore their power. Such strategic enactments of Anishinaabe values liberate the marginalized and work to regenerate governance practices and the re-creation of the Anishinaabeg Nation in healthful ways.
It is unclear to me how or if Anishinaabe men have considered how they can decolonize gender in respect to revitalizing sustenance land-based relationships. Or, how they can contribute to the re-creation of Anishinaabeg relations in communities animated by diverse gender identities and expressions, sexualities, and relational compositions. I am also unsure if men are ready to utilize or divest their privileges strategically to create space for womyn’s land (re)matriation. What is clear to me is that multiple possibilities are revealed in the perspectives, reflections, and refractions surfacing the cold, still-clear sap waiting to be collected and rendered into sugar. In the microcosm of my own relational world, Anishinaabeg men have shared their privileges. Because of this continuance in Anishinaabe being and subversion of colonization, one more Anishinaabe womon and her child are in the sugar bush and with her, more womyn, more children, more youth. More Elders. And two-spirit Anishinaabeg. Men, too, learning to be helpers. And there are settlers, allies, white people; some of them are learning how to be with Anishinaabe womon tending the fires and boiling the liquids of the sugar bush while others resist or try to dominate. More sugar is being made, more songs are being sung, more trees are being visited, more stories are being told. Relationships expand and recede, expand and recede just as the ice and snow does at this time of year, ushering in the spring. This is how the Anishinaabeg universe works.
While there is a long way to go for the material heft, authority, and security that comes with sugar bush (re)matriation to be actualized, the work has started. And the crows, they say what they’ve always said since they failed to listen to Anishinaabeg and had their first run-in with fermented sap, “Kaa, kaa. No, no.” And the trees, they sway back and forth, yielding to movement with sound, “Eya. Yes.” The red squirrel scratches through the bark to take a drink of the sweet water and chickadees perch, benefiting from squirrels’ labour. They proceed to sing their love song, benefiting everyone. And the star world—it sparkles with Fisher and Chief constellation, governing all of us.
While some elements of the boiling place remain untouched by human interference, many dynamics have been manipulated with detrimental effects for Anishinaabeg, particularly womyn and two-spirit Anishinaabeg. The possibilities for how we tend our home fires in the present, however, are endless; this is important as we move toward the futures we want and as unknown futures move toward us. Let’s keep it going as best we can with our active minds, full hearts, unyielding spirits, and moving bodies toward the (re)matriation of our relationships with land and each other. Let’s do this for the equitable security of all Anishinaabeg within our networks of relationships, for the vitality of Anishinaabe life-ways and all our relations, to honour the legacy of our ancestors, and to do our part to ensure the good life of our descendants.
waaseyaa’sin christine sy is Ojibway Anishinaabe of mixed ancestry from Obishkikaang (Lac Seul First Nation) and Bawating (Sault Ste. Marie); she presently lives in Mississauga Anishinaabe territory. She is a mother, PhD Candidate in Indigenous Studies, and is actively engaged in Anishinaabe land-based sustenance practices and language learning. She has won awards for creative and academic writing and makes regular entries to her blog, Anishinaabewiziwin.
All images by waaseyaa’sin christine sy