The Wisconsin Tales: A Maple Sugarin’ Legend

Maple sugar season is nearly upon us, and so here is another installment of the Wisconsin Tales.

Standing Reed was a Meskwaki (whom the French called the Fox) living with his people in the Mississippi Valley, a place that was destined to become the state of Wisconsin. He lived a simple life devoid of modern technologies; and while he heard rumors of pale-faced men from the east that wore strange clothes and bartered exotic goods for animal furs, he had never met them. Standing Reed had no other method to cook than over an open fire; no other way to preserve foods than by drying and smoking them over that same fire; no clothes other than those handmade from animal furs and skins; and the most important of his meager possessions, his birch bark canoe and bow, were painstakingly crafted over many long days by the man himself.

Standing Reed, like most of his people, was an adept hunter. His skills were developed by necessity: hunting was the primary source of food, the other being the gathering of wild fruits and vegetables from the woods. During the spring and summer these tasks required little effort: wild game was abundant, and wild fruit painted the forest in bright reds and purples and yellows. Even in fall game was still plentiful and the harvest of squash and corn brought much needed sustenance. As winter crept in upon the land, however, game became scarce and fruit refused to grow. The seasonality of their food was a part of life of the Meskwaki, and summer through fall they made preparations for the lean winter ahead: smoking fresh cuts of venison and elk over a fire, and drying large stores of corn in dugout caches. To have enough of these foods to last the winter was critical: any shortages would almost certainly lead to starvation.

Standing Reed understood this, and he readily hunted elk, and deer, and waterfowl, and on one occasion shot a rather stout bison, and smoked this meat and placed it in a cache beneath his family’s wigwam in preparation for the coming winter. Likewise his wife and children harvested their crop of corn, dried it, and then reduced it to a fine powder between two worn stones before storing in in large mukuks. This year the corn crop was especially bountiful, and Standing Reed particularly skillful with his bow; his family had nothing to fear from starvation this winter.

Then came the first morning frost in the fields. This was a signal to the Meskwaki that it was time to move to their wintering grounds in the interior, away from the Mississippi, many miles up the Wisconsin River, to the lands that the tribe used for generations. Standing Reed set his family out in a large canoe, along with his parents and his brother’s family. Standing Reed and his brother, Bow Fist, loaded a second canoe with the jerkied meat and corn meal and followed, making the slow paddle upstream, against the churning waters of the Wisconsin.

The journey at first was steady, and the Meskwaki moved many miles a day, camping along the sandy banks of the river at night, or on occasion among the many wooded islands in the middle of the channel. They overturned the canoes to use as shelters if it rained, or they slept out in the open on clear, cool nights. They proceeded like this for many days until they reached the lower rapids; these could not be ascended by paddle, and so the Meskwaki had to disembark and portage their canoes along the rocky edge of the falls. This was a perilous undertaking, as the canoes were heavily laden with gear and the rocky shoreline was wet and uneven. Standing Reed implored the young Bow Fist to take the stern, as it was lighter and did not require one to walk with their back to the rocks; but the headstrong younger Meskwaki quickly took hold of the bow and began ascending the falls.

Slowly the brothers ascended. The path was difficult, and both men struggled to maintain their balance under the weight of the ladened canoe. It soon became clear that Bow Fist was beginning to tire, and again Standing Reed begged his brother to set down the canoe so they could change positions; but Bow Fist only shook his head and continued up the falls. As they neared the top Bow Fist was near exhaustion, and in his debilitated state his concentration faltered. No longer paying attention to the terrain at his feet, he landed his left foot upon a slickrock, and without time to arrest his imbalance he tumbled from his perch and fell with a splash into the raging rapids. The bow of the canoe heaved forward, collapsing upon the rocks and then, carried by the strong current, swung downstream in the same direction as Bow Fist.

Standing Reed had only moments to react. If he let the canoe go he could save himself; but an unmanned canoe would certainly be dashed upon the rocks and destroyed, and with it their entire supply of winter stores. If he attempted to ride the rapids with it he would certainly risk his life; but with the Great Spirit’s help he could save the canoe, the provisions, and his hapless brother who was being rapidly thrown downstream. Without much thought Standing Reed held fast to the canoe, and with great difficulty managed to pull himself into the tumbling boat. He grabbed an oar and furiously paddled, attempting to wrest control of the boat from that of the swollen waters and prevent capsizing. The canoe was thrown violently through the rapids; but Standing Reed’s skill as an oarsman nearly matched his as a hunter, and it did not capsize. The canoe rapidly overtook the position of Bow Fist, who was struggling to keep his head above the furious waters. Standing Reed paddled harder in pursuit; but in his haste he misjudged the waters, and mistook the position of a submerged boulder. The canoe took it full force, and the action thrust the canoe sideways, throwing Standing Reed to the waters.

Now Standing Reed fought the forces of the rapids as well. He was dragged beneath the water, dashed broadside against a large boulder, and then thrown clear of the rapids as the water’s rage subsided at the bottom of the falls. Shaken, and exhausted from his furious paddle, he managed to swim to shore before collapsing onto the sand. It took him some moments to recover; when he came to he found his brother Bow Fist there as well, also exhausted, and bruised from his flight through the boulder field, but still alive. There was the canoe, through some great miracle. As Standing Reed rushed to meet it, though, his hopes evaporated: there along the bow was a giant gash from where the canoe struck the boulder; and inside it was nearly empty, as most of their provisions were thrown clear at the same time as Standing Reed. Glancing downriver he could make out several waterlogged mukuks moving swiftly downstream and well beyond the reach of either of them. Much of their winter supply was now gone, save a few sacks of cornmeal and handfuls of jerkied meat.

Bow Fist was dejected and deeply embarrassed by his folly; Standing Reed could not spare to dwell on the misfortunes already handed to them. As they continued upriver in their family canoe, he already began to plan his next hunt at the winter grounds. He would now be relied upon to feed his family with an entire hunting season’s worth of meat in a short period of time, or watch them starve. He was determined to avoid that fate.

The Meskwaki reached their winter grounds as the first snowflakes of the season began to fall. The family’s stores quickly dwindled, and even the kindness of friends delivering what little surplus they could spare would not be enough to sustain Standing Reed and his family for long. He watched as his children grew thin, their bellies nearly empty, and it filled him with a pain much greater than the hunger from his stomach. Gathering his bow, and a cache of hand-tuned bolts crafted expertly from arrowwood, he vowed not to return to the village until he had procured enough food to feed his family through the approaching winter. Taking little rations, but leaving most for his children, he left in the morning before sunrise and headed through the woods toward the river valley.

For days Standing Reed saw little signs of life save for the trees nearly barren of leaves, and the aged and decaying tracks of small rodents and coyotes in the days-old snow. At night he found what shelter he could, sometimes in crotch of an ancient oak tree, or in the eaves of a pine, wrapping himself in the warm bison hide he brought with him. There was little to eat, although sometimes he could find sumac berries or some fragrant pine and make a simple tea with meltwater. In the end he was hungry, but he chose to stay in this state to remind him of his family and the desperate need they had for food to sustain them. He would eat just enough to sustain him, but not enough to turn away the hunger, until he procured for them a means to eat as well.

After several days he came upon a rabbit and promptly shot it. He set upon a fire and jerkied thin strips of meat to preserve it. It would hardly provide his family a meal, and he continued on. After another day he came upon a lumbering porcupine and promptly killed it, again making jerky of the meat and with some disappointment unable to save its quills. It would provide a fine meal for one night; but Standing Reed needed many nights of meals yet, and continued on. He still ate little, subsisting on sumac and pine tea alone, and the pangs of hunger grew stronger, and Standing Reed weak; but his desire to see his family fed was as strong as ever, and he continued on.

After many days like this Standing Reed had scarcely the meat he needed for his family, and hardly anything of substance for himself. Hunger awoke him early one morning, where he spent the night in a tangle of brush for shelter. As his rose to begin his day he thought his eyes deceived him: there, hardly more than a stone’s throw away, were fresh tracks in the snow: the heart-shaped foot of a deer that passed his way not more than hours before, and betrayed it’s trek to the east. Standing Reed knew the land that way, and knew that the deer would be slowed through the low lying wetlands. He could circle around the wetlands by following the ridge to the north and intercept the deer in its path. The animal would provide his family with many good meals. Standing Reed could not afford to allow such luck to pass him by, after so many unfortunate days. Without hesitation Standing Reed struck out for the ridge, moving as quickly as his diminished strength would allow him.

Many hours passed. Standing Reed tramped through snow drifts and scrambled along rocky slopes, moving with renewed vigor in the hopes of a successful hunt. The pangs of hunger were thunderous now, reaching out beyond his stomach and extending to the very tips of his fingers and toes. He took solace that soon he could satiate his hunger, and that of his family, and live the rest of the winter in comfort. These thought drove him on, even as his body cried in protest for food and rest. Standing Reed continued on.

He descended the ridge at the point where the wetlands opened into a broad oak savannah. He took his position behind the broad trunk of a beech tree nearest where he expected the deer to emerge and waited. After many long moments he heard the soft shuffling of an animal tracking through the snow. Crouching low he craned his head around the tree’s trunk and spotted the approaching deer. It was a doe, fat in the belly with an unborn fawn, grazing along the naked tree limbs within its reach and oblivious to his own presence. Within moments the deer would be beyond his reach and his opportunity lost.

Standing Reed deftly drew an arrow from his quiver, and in one swift motion nocked it against the bowstring and drew it across his chest. He swung the point of the arrow toward the deer, placing it precisely where it would deal a quick and fatal strike. He held the bow like this and drew his breath.

Then he hesitated. Still clutching the bowstring his arms trembled under the great weight they held. The doe then saw him in this moment. In a last second effort to claim his prize his loosed the arrow, which sailed harmlessly above the doe’s back as she bounded through the snowdrifts and into a thicket of woods unmolested.

Standing Reed collapsed to the ground and threw down his weapon in disgust. The deer was gone! And for what? For why did he, such a respected hunter among the Meskwaki, hesitate to release his arrow? And cost himself and his family so dearly? He did not know. Upset, hungry, and near exhaustion, Standing Reed fell against the thick trunk of the beech tree and fell into a fitful slumber.

In his dreams he saw the Great Spirit. It called to him, “Standing Reed, follow me and your worries will be over… for there lies abundant riches in the forest for the man who will discover them!” And the Great Spirit moved swiftly among the trees of the dark forest while Standing Reed struggled to keep pace, so emaciated and weak was he as the Spirit was healthy and strong. And still it called to him, the voice growing thin as the Spirit grew distant, “Standing Reed, follow me… follow me…!” He wanted to respond, “Wait! Please Spirit! Wait!” But he could not speak, only stumble through the forest, until the Spirit could no longer be heard, and he against collapse to the forest floor, enveloped in darkness…

Standing Reed awoke with a start. It was twilight, and the sun’s rays brought out pastel colors on the trunks of the trees. The beauty was not what opened Standing Reed’s eyes, but rather the curious form that stood before him and watched him as he sleep. He could not believe it!

Could it be so? A fawn, still riddled with the white spots of spring and no larger than the height of his standing knee, stood there, silent, as if patiently waiting for the man to wake up. How could this small fawn survive the bitter cold of winter with nothing but the thin coat of spring upon her? Could it be the same fawn from the mother deer he just watch vanish into the woods? Certainly not! It would still be many months before the doe was ready to give birth.

“But it is me,” the fawn spoke to him. “I am the life you so nearly took away, Standing Reed.”

Standing Reed was moved. “Oh fawn!” He cried. “From what magic have you sprung?! The medicine men of the Iroquois? Or the fevered dreams of an empty belly?”

“It is I, the Great Spirit,” the fawn replied. “I took the belly of my mother deer to be reborn, and with it another Spring. It is a life that you, in your conscience, spared.”

“Great Spirit! I am thankful for sparing you, but it comes at the cost of my own family!” Standing Reed despaired.

“Fear not,” the fawn Spirit replied. “As I told you, Standing Reed, follow me and your worries will be over!”

“With than the fawn turned and began trekking into the woods. Standing Reed quickly followed. The fawn kept a steady pace, ensuring that the Meskwaki need not exhaust himself in the chase. The woods began to grow thick, as in his dream, and when the fawn stopped Standing Reed found himself surrounded by trees so ancient and immense that they seemed reduce him to a mere ant upon the land.

“Take your hatchet, Standing Reed,” the fawn Spirit said, “and cut into that tree nearest to you.”

Standing Reed did as he was told, swinging the hatchet deep into the bark of one of the ancient trees. From the wound came a fragrant, clear running sap.

“Try it, Standing Reed. Do you like it?”

Standing Reed placed the tip of his finger into the free flowing stream of sap and brought it to his lips. It was sweet and had a very pleasing taste.

“It is Siseebakwat—the maple tree—from which this sap flows. It is for you and your people Standing Reed, and it will keep you fat and happy even when the land is cold and lean. Tell all the Meskwaki of Siseebakwat and remember me!”

With that the fawn Spirit left. Standing Reed drank from the maple tree until his stomach was full, then gathered as much sap as he could carry and began his journey home. He thanked the Great Spirit for its kindness and vowed not to forget it.

Standing Reed’s family very much enjoyed the sweet sap of the Siseebakwat, and it more than filled their stomachs. The other Meskwaki, astonished that Standing Reed was able to return with enough food to feed his family—and that he returned in better health than he left!—began to wonder what kind of magic Standing Reed possessed.

“It is no magic!” Standing Reed replied, remembering the promise he made to the Spirit. “In fact, I will share it with you all, just as you so graciously shared your food with my family when we in such great need!” And he went on to describe how he came upon the Great Spirit in the womb of a deer, and how the Spirit in the form of a fawn led him to the ancient maple trees and taught him how to gather their sap.

The Meskwakis quickly grew to enjoy the sweet maple sap, and with Standing Reed’s teachings began to gather it for themselves. It became a staple of their meals alongside the cornmeal and jerkied meat, and they discovered that even when the hunting was poor and the corn refused to grow, the maple trees did not go anywhere and always produced the sweet sap that they came to rely on in lean times. Soon it was the neighboring tribes that began to wonder: what magic did the Meskwakis possess, to always remain so fat and healthy even in the lean winters and dry summers when other food became scarce?

While some remained curious, others grew jealous. None were more frustrated with the Meskwaki’s secret than the mighty Iroquois. The Iroquois tore a path of fear and terror throughout the Ohio Valley and the Northwest, claiming sovereignty over the native tribes as they passed. Those that resisted were presented with war, or the Iroquois would blockade the waterways they depended upon for travel to their hunting grounds, and burn their crops to the ground, starving the tribes into submission. The wily Meskwaki opposed the Iroquois, and even after their crops were destroyed and their hunting grounds abandoned, they fled into the woods and still persisted. The Iroquois could not understand how they could still resist them, as they did not carry the secret of Siseebakwat.

The Iroquois sent scouts to find the Meskwaki hidden in the woods. They came upon them after several days, the Meskwaki having erected shelters among a maple grove along the banks of a small creek. The scouts watched as several Meskwaki cut notches into the trees to allow the maple sap to flow and collect it for that evening’s dinner. From a distance the scouts could not properly observe their actions, and mistook the trees from which they drew the sap. When they returned to their sachem the scouts reported that the Meskwakis were eating pine pitch from the trees for food!

The sachem could not believe these people could survive this way; pitch was for boat building after all, and a poor substitute for meat and corn. Nevertheless the Meskwakis persisted in the maple grove, and as word spread how the Meskwakis resisted the Iroquois more tribes began to stand against them. The sachem decided that the Meskwaki would be made an example of. After long discussions with the great men of all Six Nations, it was decided they would strike against the Meskwaki village and burn it to the ground. Gathering an army of fierce young Iroquois, decked in the dark paints of war, they marched toward the Meskwaki encampment.

A Sauk hunting party came upon the Iroquois on their march through the woods. More fleet of foot than the lumbering war party, the Sauk arrived at the Meskwaki village well ahead of the Iroquois. Having been given a warning of the coming fight, the Meskwaki chose to abandon the village rather than be slaughtered; hiding out in the dark woods where the Iroquois would dare not go.

When the Iroquois finally arrived at the village all the Meskwaki were gone. The sachem was visibly upset, but realized that pursuing them was futile. Instead he ordered all their houses burned to the ground, their crops razed and their farm fields salted. Without a home to return to, and with no food, the Meskwaki would quickly succumb to the Iroquois, or perish.

The Meskwaki hid in the woods for several days, fearing Iroquois reprisal. Finally they sent a scout, Bow Fist, back to the village to see what happened to the Iroquois. He left by daylight and returned by twilight, visibly shaken by what he found: the village was gone; nothing but smoldering ruins, and worse, their supply of food was looted or left to scavengers. Without their village, Bow Fist cried, the Meskwaki would certainly perish. The Meskwaki mourned for another day; afterward the sachem called a meeting of the wisest men and women to discuss what to do. They could return to their village and rebuild; but food was now scarce this time of year and the Iroquois would certainly return. They could flee, and attempt to take refuge with one of the neighboring tribes, like the Sauk or the Menomonee; but the Iroquois’ path of the destruction would only follow. Few dared broach the possibility of the detested solution: total and utter submission to the Iroquois.

There was much discussion, and arguments, but little consensus. By nightfall nothing had been decided and the meeting was dismissed. Standing Reed returned from the meeting in disgust and worry. They would need to come to consensus soon, lest the Iroquois or famine make the first move against them. Upset, hungry, and near exhaustion, Standing Reed leaned against the trunk of an ancient oak tree and fell asleep.

In his sleep he again saw the Great Spirit. It was no mere fawn anymore; rather Standing Reed saw the proud form of a mature buck, velvet shedding from a formidable set of antlers. The Great Spirit did not have to speak for Standing Reed to know it was him.

“Oh! Great Spirit!” cried out Standing Reed. “If only I saw you at a happier time! But the Iroquois have taken our village, and now they will not stop until they take our bodies as well!”

“Standing Reed,” replied the deer, “When I first met you, you were in great despair for your family. Now you despair for your village.” The deer bowed its head. “I know that your people have hidden your stores of maple sap in the cool earth beneath your homes. The Iroquois have not found it.”

“But they burned our homes to the ground! Certainly the sap has been ruined.”

“Return to your village, Standing Reed, and discover that the Iroquois provided you with a great gift even amongst great misery.”

Standing Reed awoke with the words of the Great Spirit still strong in his ears. At first light he left the makeshift camp and returned to the village. It was as Bow Fist described, every home burned to the ground and nothing left standing. Dejected, Standing Reed came upon the remains of his former home. As the Great Spirit promised, the earthen cache of stored sap had remained undiscovered. Standing Reed remembered the Great Spirit’s words of a gift, and with renewed vigor he dug up the earthen cache. There he found the stores of sap, but he could have wept when he saw it: the once liquid sap was burned to a dark brown solid. As he feared, it was ruined!

He grabbed a handful of the burned sap. It felt light in his hand, with the texture of well sorted river sands. Then he noticed a faint smell: it was sweet, and rather pleasing, like a much more fragrant incarnation of the sap itself. Pinching a small amount between the thumb and forefinger of his other hand, he brought the burned sap to his lips.

It tasted wonderful. Standing Reed took another morsel of the burned sap, and could not believe his luck. The heat of the fires lit by the Iroquois, the same fires meant to destroy their village, had transformed to the liquid sap into sweet maple sugar.

Standing Reed rushed back to the Meskwaki, still hiding in the woods, to tell them all of his amazing discovery. With the amount of stores found beneath their former homes, the Meskwaki could continue to feed themselves until a new row of crops could be planted, and the first wild fruits could be harvested. Returning to the woods and rebuilding the village, the Meskwaki persisted through the Spring. The Iroquois, befuddled how their attack still failed to draw out the Meskwaki, and their position weakened by the debacle, soon retreated from the Ohio Valley.

Afterward the Meskwaki shared their secret with the Sauk, who saved them from the Iroquois attack, and from there the knowledge of maple sugar spread rapidly among the neighboring tribes.


Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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