Sugar maple flowers in spring. Photo: Famartin

Doug George-Kanentiio: How the Creator gave the maple tree to the people

Wahta Ohses: The Maple Tree Story
By Doug George-Kanentiio

The Iroquois mark the beginning of the new year during the seven day Midwinter Ceremony which begins five days after the first new moon following the winter solstice and when the Pleiades star cluster is overhead. These stars are also called the Seven Dancers and mark the place of origin for Native people in this hemisphere which, in effect, makes us star people. But when winter is finally ready to let go its grip we look to the trees for the first signs of spring.

Our story as a distinct people begins in the southwest, in the Rio Grande area of New Mexico. A great migration began which led the Iroquois to the northeast after years of travel across the continent until the ancestors arrived in this region to disperse and ultimately become the six nations. Over the generations an in situ culture developed which was intimately tied to the land. Along the way legends were created, stories told to tie the people to events, land and thereby wed them to time and place.

One of the characteristics of Iroquois life is to connect people with the natural world in intimate ways. Things like personal, family and clan names reflect our deep respect with nature. My own name 'Kanentiio" means 'handsome pine" and comes from the Bear clan. It is a name which is both ancient and contemporary meaning that for as long as I live I carry it but once I pass it returns to the clan to be given to another person. No other person may have the same name.

When our ancestors arrived here they came upon a land which was rich in its ecological diversity. Perhaps no other place in North America had such a wealth of life forms from mammals to birds, pure waters and open meadows. The ancestors learned to cultivate the soils and to plant not only crops but trees as well. They brought with them black walnuts and chestnuts, then planted other trees to create complex ecosystems which were beneficial to humans and other species.

They also identified certain trees as 'leaders" like the eastern white pine, the oak, willow and especially the maple. It was the Iroquois who invented maple syrup (wah:ta oh:ses in Mohawk) and the technology which went into taking sap and making it into that most delicious of sweeteners. It is the maple which tells us that spring has come and it is time to celebrate. To begin we tell our children the following story.

At one time, long ago, the Creator came to realize that the long winters of this land meant the health and well being of the people suffered. They would become physically ill and their spirits would be sad. Many months would pass since they had fresh food and deep snows meant hunting was also difficult. Something had to be done. The Creator went to the people and said he would give them a special gift. The Creator would go to the maple trees and ask them to share their blood at a certain time so the people could come and be nourished and made happy by drinking directly from the tree. They would only have to insert sumac tubes beyond the outer bark of the tree and pure syrup would flow. The people did so and were made stronger in body and mind.

The Creator was pleased with this and then left the earth to attend to other worlds. He was gone a long time.

While he was away he wondered about the human beings and how they doing with the gift he had given to them. He decided to return to earth and to the Iroquois village where he had taught them how to obtain syrup. When he arrived he saw that the longhouses were empty of people, that there were no hearth fires, no children playing about and no dogs barking. He did see dog and human footprints in the snow which went in a single direction towards a grove of maple trees. He followed the tracks and came about an amazing sight.

There, lying prone beneath the branches of the trees were the people with the long sumac tubes extended from the maples to their mouths. So great was their desire for the pure maple syrup that they had forsaken all of their normal duties including the care of their homes and their own children. The Creator also noticed that the dogs were also using the tubes to drink the sweet water with their paws waving in the air.

This was not good. The Creator awaked the people and brought them together. He said that since they had abused his gift they would have to work to make the syrup. He told them that no longer would syrup flow directly from the trees but they would have to use taps and then prepare to heat the sap over many hours and watch it very carefully until, with labour and care, it became maple syrup. They would also have to hold a ceremony of thanksgiving for the maples by which they would not only ask for this gift but express their gratitude directly to the trees.

This is how maple syrup came about, one of the many things developed by the Iroquois and shared with the world. It is also one of the 13 ceremonies the Iroquois hold to this day to mark the lunar years and to celebrate the blessings of life.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.

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