To the tune of “I’ve been working on the railroad,” first and second grade students in Winonah Ojanen’s class gathered around a boiling trough of sap singing a song about the sugarbush. All in the Ojibwe language.
“It’s just something fun we made up,” Ojanen said.
Every spring, students in the Misaabekong Ojibwe Immersion Program at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth tap the maple trees in the woods behind the school and wait for the sap to start flowing. When it’s time to start boiling the sugar, they gather around a fire and hear creation stories about Manabozho, the great uncle who encountered all the natural phenomena on Mother Earth.
“I think because we are an oral-delivery culture, stories like that are extremely important to disseminate our Indigenous knowledge and that is usually informed by the environment that we live in,” said Gordon Jourdain, a former teacher in the program who now volunteers his time. “We give that story to the children and they play with it, they grow with it and they are actually engaged with everything we do.”
Jourdain, one of the founders of the program, said they follow the Duluth Public Schools curriculum, but meet those objectives by “utilizing the knowledge of our grandmother the moon.” The students learn the cultural importance of gathering sap, boiling the sap and making maple sugar while learning science and math at the same time.
“We also use this process to teach the students about solids, liquids and gases,” said Ojanen. “It changes from ice, a solid, to the liquid, the sap and the syrup, back into a solid of the maple sugar. Also there is water vapor, a gas, in the process.”
For the older students in the program, there are other important lessons to be learned. For fifth grade student Sawyer Morrow, Friday’s boil contained a special lesson as Jourdain passed on the fire-starting duties.
“This year was the first time that I let him light the fire on his own and he was able to do it successfully,” said Jourdain, who teaches the boys in the class how to start a fire without any matches.
“I was pretty proud of myself because I’ve been working at this for five years now,” said Morrow. “Last year for Christmas I got a new fire starter so I was practicing over the winter a bit.”
As less and less sap drips out from the maples, students will learn a final cultural teaching about the process: how to give away gifts. All the sugar made will be gifted to teachers and classmates at the school.
“There are so many teachings in this process and that’s why it's important to keep doing this,” Ojanen said. “It’s not just a cultural thing. There are so many more teachings from other areas of life that go into it. And so instead of separating them we integrate them.”