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Pauline Danforth

The Four Seasons of Ininaatig

          Ininaatig, a silver maple tree, sits precisely in the center of our half-acre suburban lot. He was planted by the previous owners when our house in Roseville was built in 1952. Ininaatig has a nine foot wide trunk with five tall and graceful limbs branching out from his main trunk. He is young for a maple tree as they often live one-hundred and fifty years. ‘Ininaatig means ‘man tree’ in Ojibwe; ‘inini' translates to man and 'tig' comes from ‘metig’, meaning tree.
          Like my people, the Ojibwe of Minnesota, his roots grow deep and wide. We Ojibwe people believe Ininaatig has a spirit that talked to our ancestors when they were starving in the spring after a long cold winter. He told them how to harvest the sap that runs through its trunk, telling them how to make sap into syrup and then sugar. Each spring we thank Ininaatig for this life-saving advice with a gift of tobacco left next to his trunk
          Ininaatig symbolizes many things to me. He has roots. I went to thirteen schools in Minneapolis moving often with my mother as freeways were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, like Ininaatig, I have roots in this quiet suburban neighborhood. He symbolizes connection to the Ojibwe cycle of life and traditions I’ve participated in over the years
          Many generations my ancestors moved seasonally from summer villages near lakes where they gardened, to wild rice camps in the fall, on to sheltered winter camps in the deep woods to hung, and to spring maple groves where they harvested sap to make into syrup and sugar. These ways changed when the 1887 General Allotment Act forced my ancestors onto acre land allotments on the White Earth Reservation. Here government agents taught my relatives how to raise domesticated animals and farm large tracts of land.
My grandmother Nancy Kettle, born in 1898, was allotted 160 acres of land around 1910. Her first allotment was located in the eastern forested area while her second allotment was located in the western prairie side of the reservation; she lived on neither and most likely didn’t see them either. Both were illegally sold when she a minor attending boarding school off the reservation.
In the 1920s my grandmother lived with her husband’s relatives on land allotted to her mother-in-law, Wah-we-yay-cumig-oke, Round Earth Woman. Here she raised her four children among their Midewiwin kin who taught them traditional ways including the tapping of maple trees. My mother told stories about sleeping in a wigwam on blankets put over a bed of pine needles. My mother talked about her grandmother who told her traditional stories of Nanabozho admonishing her to not repeat these stories in the summer as the animals do not like being talked about.
          By the 1950s my grandmother was living just off the reservation near Ponsford, Minnesota. She tended a small garden, gathered wild strawberries and blueberries, snared rabbits and hunted deer in nearby fields. She also picked potatoes for the neighboring Finnish farmer. Some family members continued to harvest wild rice and make maple sugar. As a small child I remember savoring maple sugar cakes made by my aunties and uncles.


          All winter Ininaatig waits for warm days when snow melts and when his sap begins to run; it is one of the first signs of spring. My husband Bob also waits for spring. After a couple years of tapping Ininaatig, he knows the signs. He knows the sap will run when the night temperature is below freezing and the day temperature above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. However in the beginning, we had to figure out when the sap ran, the equipment we needed and where to buy a handful of taps for Ininaatig and the small red maple in our front yard. City hardware stores don’t stock maple taps and online supply stores sell them in batches of one-hundred. A friend in northern Wisconsin suggested we check local small town hardware stores. In Cumberland, Wisconsin the clerk didn’t have taps but referred Anderson’s Maple Syrup, Inc. When we arrived there, a friendly woman in her seventies greeted us and gave us a tour of the sapping operation. She explained that it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. She sold us maple syrup and threw in a handful of taps. Since this was after the maple sugar season, we had to wait eight months to figure out the rest of the process.


          During the short delicious months of summer, we spend a lot of time under Ininaatig’s canopy. My writing group meets sometimes in the shade he casts, all five women sprawling on colorful tablecloths as we read aloud. I imagine that Ininaatig dips his branches low to hear Annamary recite, “And let the breeze whisper. It whispers in gentle puffs. It comes from the mountains and blows away the heat of the day.”
          In summer when we play badminton, Ininaatig teases us, catching the birdie in his branches and holding it captive as we hurl first our rackets and then our shoes up to him, trying to dislodge the birdie. At dusk, Bob and our eleven-year old son Nathaniel, play baseball game batting and running for their imaginary teammates. Ininaatig serves as first base, an ash tree is second, a large stick from Ininaatig serves as third base and a catcher’s mitt by the east garden is home plate.
          Some evenings after a long day of games and gardening, I say goodnight to Nathaniel and I look out at Ininaatig. The back yard is now lit by moonlight and rabbits hop diagonally from raspberry bushes across toward the gardens. They stop suddenly and pose perhaps sensing my presence. They are pretty creatures, soft-looking like our three house cats. I cannot imagine snaring them as my relatives did.
          I know rabbits, or wabbose in Ojibwe, are secretly sharing our backyard harvest, squeezing in under the fences and nibbling on our lettuce at night. Our largest garden is protected by a knee-high fence planted along the eastern property line as far as possible away from the long shadows cast by Ininaatig. Knee-high fences keep the rabbits out. Or, do they? In the summer, this garden is lush with tomatoes, green beans, and green peppers, some with tiny nibbles. Ininaatig’s little seedlings take root in our garden, growing like weeds. If left alone, these seedlings would turn our backyard into a maple grove

          Unlike my relatives whose lives depended on gardens, we dabble in growing food. Alongside canned goods from the grocery store, our pantry is stocked with tomato sauce canned from our garden and our freezer is stocked with plastic-bagged vegetables also grown in our garden. By September, we’ve canned tomatoes and frozen green beans, strawberries, raspberries

and grape juice. I compare our meager cache to what I imagine my grandmother and other relatives had to preserve to survive long Minnesota winters.
          In northern Minnesota, my grandmother supported her children with food from family vegetable gardens planted and tended by her and extended family members. For additional income she made deer skin moccasins, miniature birdhouses and canoes to sell at Itasca State Park, thirty miles away.
As a young adult, I walked with my mother in the field where the family gardens were planted. Over time her memories of this place have become mine. I know where their cabin stood, where the cellar was located, and family members are buried. I try to imagine my grandmother as a young woman. Known also as Pewahbickoquay (Iron Woman), I imagine her talking and laughing in Ojibwe with her sisters-in-law Mary and Jane while my mother played nearby.
THIS DOESN’T FLOW….A generation later when I was a child living with this grandmother, I picked strawberries in her garden, planted on rented land one-quarter mile off the White Earth Reservation. In another place a generation later, my son and his friends play next to similar gardens and compete with the sparrows for succulent black raspberries.


          From the protection of the porch I watch lightning streak across the sky above Ininaatig. Before the rains come, I take Nathaniel with me outside to feel the grass. If the grass is dry at dusk, then it will rain by morning, so my mother told me. Later, when rain begins, we put tobacco under Ininaatig’s branches saying aloud to the powerful thunder beings, “Animikiig”, “This is a gift to ask you to not harm our family.” Silently, I include Ininaatig in our prayer. The wind blows wildly and the rain pours down as we run to the back porch. Lightning illuminates Ininaatig and we see his branches thrashing in the wind. As I fall asleep I hope his big branches hold strong.
The next morning, Ininaatig drips rain, his yellow soggy leaves bending and falling. The time consuming, but pleasurable task of raking will have to wait until the sun dries the golden pillow of leaves collecting beneath the branches. They will be used as mulch to protect gardens from the cold. There are also plenty of fallen twigs to gather and burn in the fireplace. And so again Ininaatig give us gifts.
          Ininaatig’s spring sacrifice of maple sap made into sugar flavors Gitchi-Manido’s fall gift of wild rice, a food staple of the Ojibwe. As a child living with my grandmother on the White Earth Reservation, we always had wild rice supplied by my Aunt Ione and her husband Steve. Along with other community members, they harvested wild rice, roasted it in large open barrels and fanned out the chafe by tossing it in large, flat birch bark baskets. Wild rice camp brought people together before the long days of winter kept them apart.
I’ve riced just once. My ricing partner poled the canoe through wild rice stalks while I bent stalks into the boat and knocked green rice into the canoe. It was hot, dirty work compounded by heat, dirt and the daddy long-legs that fell off the rice stalks. We took our meager harvest to a commercial place where it was processed mechanically.  These days I don’t

rice, but instead buy thirty pounds for my family, enough to last all year. I flavor it with maple syrup harvested from Ininaatig.


          Through long winter months we abandon Ininiaatig and our barren backyard. He sits alone, apart from human company. Out my kitchen window I see rabbit and squirrel paths pin wheeling from Ininaatig toward our ash tree, to the Norway pine, to the back gardens and over to the compost pile. All winter we add to the compost pile although it is easily accessed by backyard squirrels and rabbits. Through bare limbs, I see one squirrel’s nest high in Ininaatig’s branches though during the harshest days of winter I rarely see them. Nor do I see the rabbits that burrow around Ininaatig’s roots. My relatives feasted on fat rabbits. Our neighbor Jerry snares them to stem the hordes nibbling on unfenced plants and prepares them for friends who enjoy the wild taste.
          Up north many years ago Uncle George snared rabbits bringing home several tied together at their long ears. Grandma skinned them pulling back soft winter coats, revealing their naked pink bodies. I enjoyed the rabbit stew she made until I discovered a resemblance between skinned rabbits and the cats I love so much.


          Two weeks of boiling sap. Each night Bob brings in several galvanized pails brimming with sap. He pours and I hold the cheese cloth taut over pots to filter out twigs and dirt. We move the pots to the stove and boil the sap rapidly for an hour before we turn the heat down and continue boiling for another twenty minutes or so. By this time the sap has evaporated to half its original content and two pots of sap are combined into one. Now, the sap must be watched so it doesn’t burn.
On this particular night, it is late and it is our final boil of the season. Bob’s sister’s family is visiting and her four kids add to the pandemonium. Bob is distracted and joins his brother-in-law in the basement. I am off somewhere getting kids settled for the night. At the same moment the fire alarm beeps loudly and Nathaniel yells, “What’s burning?” I rush to the kitchen. Of course, it is the sap. While Bob opens the windows and rescues the remaining sap, I thumb through my Ojibwe dictionary and dub Bob ‘Jaagizan Ziizibaakwad’ or “burnt sugar”. We laugh and all go to bed with the pungent odor of burned maple sugar filling our nostrils.
Ininaatig anchors our backyard. His roots are mine anchoring me to this half-acre, reminding me of my Ojibwe traditions. Here in our backyard, my son and I pray to the spirits that populate our Ojibwe world, prayers drifting like mist over fences and freeways. We offer store-bought tobacco, not the kinnikinic our ancestors made from red willow. We make maple sugar like my family once did, harvested from a few trees in our suburban yard. My relatives, as recent as my mother’s generation, spoke Ojibwe rapidly and confidently. I speak in single words or phrases and refer often to my Ojibwe dictionary.
My ancestors moved in a seasonal cycle gathering food. In contrast my family is anchored to one place, one backyard, one maple tree. Ininaatig, our lovely tree, gives us maple sap, syrup and sugar in the spring. He shades us in the summer and bends his branches to hear our laughter. He shelters squirrels, birds and rabbits throughout the year. His roots have become mine, anchoring me to our home and gardens. Majestic, Ininaatig presides over it all.