This time last year, Manidoo Ogitigan, the Spirit’s Garden, had helped coordinate a sugarbush camp, along with the local school district in a community on the Red Lake Nation when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the tribe to shut down.
Like many of us, Zac Earley and Nenookaasi Greiner remember last March well, specifically the onset of the pandemic when life changed as we knew it. Earley and Greiner are co-directors of Manidoo Ogitigan, a Native-led grassroots organization working to strengthen Ojibwe cultural and language knowledge.
“The tribe shut down the reservation so after that it was just us out there and that was hard to have it closed. We really wanted to have people out there but we had to be respectful of what the tribe wanted so when people were asking to come out, we had to say, “well, not right now” because we didn’t want to have too many people out there. It was mostly us and school employees last year. It was really empty and felt so different. I’ve never experienced it quite like that before,” said Greiner.
Roughly 12 months later, and as much of the country begins to safely open back up with more people getting vaccinated, Manidoo Ogitigan has again done what it was made to do. It set up its seasonal sugarbush camp earlier this month, this time near Ponemah, a small community on the Red Lake Nation known for its rich traditional values and history. And of course, home to many maple trees.
For the Ojibwe, harvesting maple sap in the spring, like harvesting wild rice in the fall, is embedded with tradit ion and meaning.
Even in the new normal, the pandemic has left its mark. It has forced teachings handed down generations to adjust, at least for now.
“When that first sap came out, we used to share the same sap out of the same cup during that ceremony. That’s one of the things that’s different. Everybody has their own little cup. During a pipe ceremony they don’t share a pipe, those are some little difference because of the pandemic,” said Earley.
For Earley, a camp in Ponemah is near full circle. He spent some of his early life in the Ponemah area and remembers the traditional teachings and the stories passed down by his elders. The camp feels like home, as it was meant to be for all visitors. Nearly 200 trees are tapped and the camp focuses on making sugar cakes and granulated sugar.
“Sometimes we’ll boil into the night and that’s when it’s fun because we’ll have people come visit and sometimes somebody will bring a hand drum and sing some songs, or people will bring food. It’s really fun at night time around the fire,” said Earley.
Manidoo Ogitigan was created by the late Ponemah elder Larry Stillday and his adopted daughter, Greiner. Its sugarbush camp is only part of the organization’s larger mission. The camp is open to all visitors, and encourages young people to stop by. It’ll be open for a few more weeks as Minnesota warms up. Safety measures are in place, masks are available, along with hand sanitizer and a handwashing station.
“Even with people being vaccinated, we like to be cautious still. A lot of people who have come out chose to wear masks. We don’t force anyone to wear masks but we also are mindful of burning medicines in the air to clean the air and keep the air germ free. We think about it and we do try to take our precautions the best we can,” said Greiner.
Dalton Walker reporting For Minnesota Native News