An Ojibway Love Story for Early Spring: Learning How to Make Naase’igan
by waaseyaa'sin christine sy
In this moment of spring, sap, bears, clan responsibilities, and my survival of forty-five winters, I am filled with the need to tell a good love story. In the moment of being makwa ikawe come away from anishinaabwaki (because a mama has to pay the bills), I am convinced that a good love story will be good love mashkiki.
A good Ojibway love story.
And so begins the story of how I learned to make naase’igan.
Where to begin with the heart?
The beginning is a sound and a response.
So it goes with my question-sound:
How to make naase’igan?
The sad part about this love story is it skips over all the parts that led to the moment of posing the question. The question that opened up new worlds. The good parts. Important parts. Up and down, in and out, gut-wrenching, heart-exploding, hard-working elation parts. The parts that are needed to get to The Question. Parts that are the giants upon whose shoulders the question is posed upon. These parts involve many people and cover much geography, varied terrains. These part beat. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. I nod to all those significant parts so that I can get to this shorter part of the longer Ojibway love story. The part that goes like this:
Telling my fellow sugar bush comrades that I was trying to figure out how to make naase’igan because that’s what we Anishinaabe women did with our children and the many people who helped us …. we made naase’igan, not maple syrup.
Well, we made maple syrup but we made naase’igan. That’s what we did. Historically, Anishinaabeg are naase’igan people, not syrup people. Historically, Anishinaabeg are naase’igan people through the women. Canadians and Americans are syrup people. Syrup men.
And with the destruction and fragmentation of so much everything, many Anishinaabe are now syrup people, too. And that’s ok. But let’s not forget who we were and see how this might work again.
So me, with a relentless desire to learn how to make naase’igan in order to put back into place what was destroyed, what we came away from or were forced away from, what we forgot, what we couldn’t remember, what we couldn’t do or can’t do because, because, because—so many reasons because. And me, with a relentless desire to learn how to make naase’igan because I wanted my daughter to have this back in her body; I wanted my body to have it back in my body; I wanted Anishinaabeg in the circles I moved in to have it back in their consciousness and practice if so desired; and, I wanted the sugar bush community I was a part of to have this back, too.
While I had people to be on the land with, in terms of teaching—mostly Gidigaa Migisi Doug Williams from Curve Lake First Nation—and doing the work, there was nobody who knew how to make naase’igan. In this absence, I put it to creation that I was looking for this and that I would keep my eye open for any signs of being able to learn. In the meantime, I and others, made syrup. In the distance between being able to make syrup and being able to make naase’igan, I was supported in trying to figure out how to make it. I would say that this time of my life was grounded in some of the best Anishinaabe love moments I have ever or will ever experience: to have a group of Anishinaabe, and their non-Anishinaabe kin, who are all distanced from Anishinaabe practices in varied ways, to find ourselves on the same page, collectively working in critical, heart-fuelled ways to reclaim and revitalize Anishinaabe ways?
What an amazing historical moment.
And, the night we tried to figure out how to make naase’igan—an amazing and humorous memory. It is testament to collective spontaneous creation or what my friend Jodi Nippi-Blanchette calls, indigenuity:
In the spring of 2011, at the end of a long day of boiling at Doug’s, myself, my daughter, Doug, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and her family decided to extend the long, hard days work and try to make sugar. If memory serves correct, Doug had the idea to try to boil the syrup down as much as possible and then with his hand-held electric beaters, we would beat the liquid to see if it would turn to sugar.
For the sugar makers reading this, funny right?!
Anyhow, there we were in the dark night, in Doug’s little sugar shack, under the glow of two hanging outdoor work lights/car inspection lights, beating the syrup, trying desperately to turn it into sugar.
We didn’t make sugar but we did make some very lovely creamy smooth maple something something. And while we weren’t successful in that effort, I’m sure our clans and ancestors, as well as the spirit of our future descendants, would have been proud. Belly-laughing and proud.
As it happens, in 2011 my friend Makadebinesiikwe Tessa Reed “friend suggested” me and Ojibway artist and land-based practitioner Biskakone Greg Johnson on Facebook. She did so because she said that his work on the land, particularly with his daughter, reminded her of me with my work on the land with my daughter. Biskakone and I became Facebook friends and while we rarely if ever had any exchange at that point, I appreciated the depth and breadth of his skills which were evidently grounded in Anishinaabe knowledges and values.
One day in the spring of 2012, Greg posted a photo of naase’igan he made.
Let me repeat that:
One day, in the spring of 2012, Greg posted a photo of naase’igan he made.
Not having ever really talked to him, I couldn’t contain my disbelief and excitement. I made a comment on his photo which was obviously very enthusiastic. Honestly, I couldn’t even believe this was happening: somebody in my universe who not only knew how to make naase’igan but who actually made it!
And then, the next most Anishinaabe-thing ever happened almost immediately: Biskakone messaged me and said he’d be willing to teach me how to make it. No fanfare, no checking me out to see if I was worthy, just a quick offer that he could teach me.
(Anishinaabe share what we have. We don’t squirrel things away and use it to advance ourselves individually. That’s Capitalism-aabe.)
As I write this I relive the moment of that exchange and my heart beats just as fast as it did that day. Not only was this sweet Anishinaabe reality before me but this person who I didn’t even know was offering to teach me how to make it.
This moment shapes me.
There was one problem though—geographical distance. Greg lived in the western part of anishinaabewaki and I lived in the eastern part of anishinaabewaki. A settler imposed international border cut through this distance, to boot.
Within minutes we resolved the problem: Skype.
Ha! Technology right? There is so much trickster-ness about it.
Anyhow, Greg told me what I would need and we set up a time.
I immediately let Doug and Leanne know what had transpired. I was ecstatic that this had happened and wanted to let them in on it. During the summer of 2010, Leanne–who had learned of the work that I and my peers were doing with Doug on the land–asked me to include her in that work. Of course I said I would and from that point on we all riced (and learned how to process it), harvested bark, worked at the sugar bush, and did ceremony etc. On this occasion regarding the sugar, I wanted to open up the space for them to learn too, given we had been on this path of doing land-based work together, at that time, for over a year. I told Doug I needed a cast iron frying pan and it just so happened that he had some hanging around in his shed. I figured out how to clean them up using some instructions from the internet. A few hours of elbow grease and a solid little wooden spatula from the dollar store and I was ready. That following Sunday, both Doug and Leanne came to the den my daughter and I called home in Nogojiwanong.
There, in my tiny Native housing kitchen which was beloved to me (mostly because it had nice cupboards and matching fridge and stove), I set up my laptop on the counter beside the stove and Doug and Leanne sat at my bright, yellow table. It was such small space and it was such a good space. This was the first time I was “virtually meeting” Greg; I introduced him to Doug and Leanne—and then he got into teaching me how to make naase’igan. As he was making it on his end, I was making it on my end.
To this day, I still can’t believe it did. I remember asking gizhe manidoo the whole time to please let it work for me; let me be able to make this. I mean really: teaching someone how to do this over Skype? Greg gave a lot of good instructions and being able to watch helped so much. Every time I make it, I think of all the steps he shared with me and am mindful of all the things that can go wrong. Every time I make naase’igan, I ask creation for it to work; to let me make it again.
After this first time, I practiced at home again the very next day. I wanted it in my body and I wanted it to stay there. While Doug’s operation focuses on making syrup, I was known as the naase’igan mama and always made it at home out of personal passion and commitment. There didn’t seem to be much interest by others in making it. That said, I have been so supported by Doug and other community folks in my work at the sugar bush; the sharing of historical, gendered, and cultural knowledges about this work; and, in teaching others about it. In that community of people, naase’igan and its political, economic, gendered, and practiced significance hasn’t quite take off the way I hoped it might. In fact, there have only been a few people interested in making it. As a matter of my heart and clan though, I still make it; use it in ceremony; learn about it; write about it for my PhD; and, use it for important gift-giving. I am determined to persist this practice and its significance and ensure that when the future greets us, some of us are still making it the anishinaabe way for anishinaabe purposes.
Prompted by both the amazing generosity shown me by the Coast Salish people I have met and my own clan responsibilities (makwag LOVE naase’igan) and inspired by the season (even though I am in balmy WSANEC territory), I decided to make up a batch of naase’igan this evening. I was able to use some of the syrup made at Doug’s sugar bush which travelled across the country with me and my kid. Every time I make this, I am filled up with love. I think of Doug, Tessa, and Greg. Because of them and the long trails that led us each to this moment, I am able to do what I do and have been able to open up space for other Anishinaabe, particularly women and their relations, to learn about Anishinaabe-specific ways. Because of the people who have helped me, I am able to make up some naase’igan and ziinzaabaakwadoonsag for spiritual responsiblities. I am able to smell the smells, see and hear the bubbling of the syrup, smudge myself up with the sweet steam, and give some to some Coast Salish kidlets I know. I can’t wait to see their facial expressions when they taste it!
Now, that’s a real good Ojibway love story, na?
 Jodi Nippi-Blanchette used this witty phrase one morning over coffee. It made me laugh and I am happy to use it here.
Note: Although I am opposed to sourcing every Anishinaabe word I’ve learned since I started learning my mother tongue, I want to acknowledge that the word naase’igan came to me through Kevin Finney, a helper to Anishinaabeg and beloved man with deep relationships with a Pottowatomi community along western Michigan. I was introduced to him by fellow (Pottowatomi/Fire-keeper) ikawe, Barbara Wall. I have learned much about sugaring from him as well however that is another story. The point here is that while there are important reasons to engage in a social analysis of power through race, gender, and indigeneity-settler locations, it is important to note that there are non-Anishinaabe, white men who are not only engaged critically in being helpers to Anishinaabeg but who are kin.