Kevin Finney thinks it's about time we stop sugar coating how Native Americans boiled down the sap of maple trees before the time of the Pilgrims to make syrup and sugar.
Based on Finney's research, the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids already has eliminated the demonstration that shows Native Americans making maple syrup by boiling the sap from sugar maple trees using hot rocks dropped into hollowed-out logs. He's out to help hundreds of nature centers nationally to stop perpetuating misconceptions during what can be their biggest drawing events for the public.
"When you try to boil down sap that way, it yields a sooty and strongly alkaline mixture that can literally remove the hair from animal hide," says Finney, executive director of the Great Lakes Lifeways Institute in Allegan County, Mich. "There isn't any historical accuracy in that demonstration."
And instead of showing European settlers happily stirring large kettles of boiling sugar maple sap over an open fire to make syrup, it would probably be more accurate to replace them with Native Americans who tend to the process. That certainly would be true in Michigan, Finney says.
It turns out that maple sugaring was a truly big business for Native Americans in our state. Federal records show that tribes in Michigan produced more than 1 million pounds of maple sugar in 1847 -- partly the result of abolitionists who bought maple sugar because they didn't believe in supporting cane sugar produced through slave labor, Finney explains. When maple sugar production peaked just before the Civil War, tribes and farmers in Michigan annually were producing more than six times what we produce today.
"The actual story is we don't know if Native Americans ever made maple syrup before the arrival of the Europeans," he says. "There are a couple of accounts in the early 1600s of Native Americans collecting sap to make a sweet liquid, but it's clear that they didn't put a major stop in their seasonal cycles of life to do maple sugaring at that time."
Finney backs up his assertions with a lot of pain-staking research he has conducted in West Michigan over the past three years with help from researchers at Grand Valley State University and his institute's researcher Erik Vosteen.
He speaks from experience when he says the hot rock-and-log method yields only a thoroughly inedible chemical mixture that has enough lye from wood ashes to make soap. So he has examined other methods of concentrating sugar maple sap by using unglazed clay pots for boiling or even allowing the sap to freeze, then removing the ice that contains largely water.
It's possible that Native Americans hundreds of years ago may have boiled sap in unglazed clay pots that essentially closed the pores of clay to make the process effective, but there isn't any solid evidence that maple sugaring was a widespread practice. "The native people may have mastered ways to concentrate the sap, but the question is whether they really spent their time doing that," Finney says. Further research at the DeBoer site in Allegan County where archeologists have found quantities of pottery shards may provide answers.
Finney has begun to compile his research for an interpretive guidebook and DVD he hopes to publish for nature centers across the country that will correct the historical inaccuracies about maple sugaring by Native Americans and settlers. "Sugar bush demonstrations are often the largest drawing events for nature centers, and they are still showing the standard models that are just wrong," he says. "They want to be able to present accurate material, but they just don't have the resources. I hope to give them that."