One-hundred twenty jars of Oshesda’ was her original goal: Angela Ferguson, the Onondaga Nation Farm’s supervisor, first envisioned filling a quart jar with maple syrup for each of her elders last winter.

“If I fill every single one of those jars, then that’s a success,” said Ferguson. “I want my people to have everything. As long as I’m physically able to and my back is still working, they will have it.”

She kept her word, tapping 600 maple trees during their first season to fulfill her dream of distributing 30 gallons to the elders. 

In fact, she even exceeded her own expectations. 

Ferguson still had some surplus syrup left — 11 gallons to be exact — to save some for future ceremonial purposes.

Without Karl Wiles of Cedarvale Farm along Pleasant Valley Road in Syracuse, this outcome wouldn’t have been conceivable upon entering a lease agreement with the Onondaga Nation to utilize his trees, lands and sugar shack last year. 

It was Ferguson who approached him with an unexpected offer. Motivated not by money, Wiles admitted he “isn’t getting rich off of this lease” and earnestly wanted to “help them connect back to their roots.”

“They came to me and had absolutely no idea how to make syrup on any kind of scale other than in a pot. We basically had a tutorial last year,” said Wiles. “It was ironic that I’m teaching them about making maple syrup. It seems it should be the other way around.”

His assumption was anything further from the truth. 

The Nation needed his help if they were to ever succeed in expanding the supply of syrup from their elders to the clan mothers, chiefs, faith keepers and rest of their families.

The treasurer of the nonprofit New York Maple Producers Association, who also serves as NYSMPA’s Central New York regional director, has been a stalwart within the state’s industry. 

He founded the Cedarvale Maple Syrup Co., once a 265-acre farm, at 23 years old and vigilantly tended to that local institution for virtually half a century.

Exterior of Cedarville Syrup Co. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

His company tapped some 4,000 trees, producing up to 1,200 gallons of syrup at peak operation. Far fewer trees were tapped in recent years, yielding 850 gallons once he started inching closer to retirement. 

Wiles tapped Michael Spicer to become the CEO of Cedarvale Maple Syrup Co. for a brief time before he decided to head out west. The Marcellus native kept all the lines, pipes and tubing up before the Onondagas took over the lease.

Although Ferguson has tapped trees by hand and boiled sap in an iron kettle pot, she never produced New York’s natural sweetener commercially, so she heavily leaned on her landlord’s expertise and wisdom spanning five decades.

Her new goal is to give some 300 to 400 jars of syrup away this season, one to every household on their reservation. They’ve already made gains in achieving that quota, filling more than a third of all jars needed after boiling sap for only a handful of days. 

It wasn’t so simple either. Wiles had to learn their ceremonies steeped in  time-honored syrup making traditions, often clashing with the commercial routines he mastered. 

Angela Ferguson holding up a fresh bottle of maple syrup.

Three to four pairs of Onondaga hands, including Ferguson, work shoulder-to-shoulder with Wiles inside his sugar shack cabin less than 10 miles southwest of downtown Syracuse, churning the sap mostly on weekends.

Cedarvale Farm and the Onondaga Nation, two neighbors separated some six miles apart, now share a passion for sugarbushing. It’s been a year since this partnership emerged and evolved into a friendship living in accordance with age-old treaties.

Seven buffalo and a generous donation

Almost everything had already been sold off when Wiles agreed to enter a lease with the Onondagas last February. Cedarvale Farm was stripped down, so Ferguson needed to gather new equipment to start maple sugaring at his site once more.

She was given instructions, jotting down a shopping list on a little notepad. One item in particular stood out among the rest: an evaporator, which essentially turns raw sap into syrup. 

A brand-new one costs anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000. It’s a big-ticket investment for the Nation that declines to accept any federal funding. Ferguson solicited the assistance of Michael Snyder, the former director of Gakwi:yo:h Farms.

The Seneca Nation placed an evaporator into storage on the Cattaraugus Territory. That smaller model was no longer efficient for the farm due to the rapid scaling of their commercial operation.

So, the Nation’s agricultural enterprise purchased a larger evaporator from the Gage family, who much like Wiles, has been aiding the Senecas reconnect with their cherished maple season.

The Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino have been buying quarts of syrup in monthly batches from Gakwi:yo:h Farms, which began with some 400 taps five years ago and has since grown to almost 2,000 trees. 

Their commercial operation has already doubled to 440 gallons of syrup this season, compared to 210 gallons from last year.

Gakwi:yo:h Farms has doubled its production of maple syrup from 210 gallons last year to 440 gallons so far this season. (Photo Courtesy of Bradley Jimerson) Credit: Photo Courtesy of Bradley Jimerson

Snyder, at the time, told Ferguson that the Seneca Nation would sell their used evaporator for $12,000. Still, Ferguson asked what they would be willing to take for trade in lieu of cash. Ten buffalo, he immediately responded.

They wouldn’t budge beyond seven buffalo. Ferguson consulted with an Onondaga chief, who told her there would be no counteroffer; he was right. The Onondagas butchered seven buffalo and the Senecas came to pick them up after last maple season.

“That’s what we’re calling our maple company: the Onondaga Nation Seven Buffalo Maple Syrup Company,” said Ferguson. “That’s our story.”

Labeled branding for their glass syrup jars is under development in honor of that trade. 

It filled Ferguson with pride, given that the Onondagas didn’t swap any legal tender with the Senecas to acquire their much-needed evaporator. She’s been trying to establish a currency-free Haudenosaunee food economy for years. 

Brokering this deal proved it was possible. 

“There’s no way of going back,” said Gerry Fisher, acting director of Gakwi:yo:h Farms. “The only way is to go forward and try to help everybody else, like the Onondagas who reached out to us.”

Inside Cedarval Maple Syrup boiling room. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Not all of their needs were initially met, though. Firewood and other supplies were still essential before the Onondagas could begin turning sap into syrup at the Cedarvale sugar shack.

Fortunately, Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who serves as director of SUNY’s Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, earmarked a $2,500 donation for the Onondaga Nation Farm. 

One of only two Indigenous MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’ winners from last year, the Syracuse-based author of “Braiding Sweetgrass” sought to extend her gratitude to Ferguson by supporting her tireless work on the farm. 

“That was exactly enough for all the supplies,” said Ferguson. “Isn’t it funny, we had exactly enough to get everything done. We’re doing it as a Nation.”

Once Ferguson got unanimous approval from the Nation’s council of chiefs to use those funds, she swiftly contacted Kimmerer to personally thank her for essentially financing their new maple enterprise. 

“I was so thrilled when Angie told me their plan for community tapping and sugaring,” said Kimmerer. “Angie and the farm crew are inspiring restoration of relationships with the land who provides for us so generously. This is Indigenous food sovereignty in action.”

Adam Wild, director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid at the Cornell Maple Program, emphasized that accessing land and capital are some of the biggest barriers for aspiring sugar makers. 

This is particularly an obstacle for tribal communities breaking into the business in New York.

In the case of the Onondagas tapping at Cedarvale, Wild said this lease agreement is “a wonderful model” for both parties involved.

Trevor Hill testing the sap for consistency. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

“As sugar makers, we want to take care of our trees so they’re healthy, can be tapped and continue to collect sap for generations to come,” said Wild. “If you get a good tribal community to take over after you’re ready to retire, I think it’s a great opportunity.”

‘We’re not late; we’re on time’

Tapping should typically start at the beginning of February, but the Onondagas would often begin by early March. 

“The first of February you should be ready to go, and they’re never close to that,” according to Wiles.

They’re always late based on his schedule, and yet Ferguson waits until she hears the ‘Big Thunder,’ as she put it, caused by the Four Messengers. “They’ll pound the sky, and when they do that, they wake up the trees,” she elaborated. 

It’s interpreted as a sign from above, a definitive message for them not to extract too much sap from the maple trees amid a short season, typically lasting no longer than a month.

Much more than purely maple syrup season, it’s a time for sacred celebrations among the Haudenosaunee communities scattered across New York and Canada. 

The Midwinter Ceremony, marking the beginning of their new year, precedes the maple syrup ceremonies. That special date falls during the second week of January.

A shift in seasons, ousting winter and welcoming springtime, awakens the dark and sweet sap stored deep inside the living maple trees like flowing blood.

The Creator gifted syrup to the Haudenosaunee to restore strength, good health and happiness following the long winter, which is said to weaken the body and spirit.

Finished maple syrup pours into a holding tank. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

The Onondagas, in particular, celebrate two unique maple ceremonies. 

The first one centers around the opening of the trees and doesn’t occur until the loud crackling from the ‘Big Thunder’ is heard in the skies overhead. This isIt’s a time of giving thanks to the sap, which is considered to be their first medicine.

“Everyone goes out and gets their maple and when it’s finished, then we close the trees and thank them,” said Ferguson.

The raw sap is then boiled down into syrup, the final product, and their second ceremony honors that natural gift when the Onondagas close the trees, ending the maple season.

The Onondagas asked the Four Messengers for safety and protection during a tobacco ceremony before the ‘Big Thunder echoed last season. 

A thunderous answer echoed shortly thereafter.

They weren’t disappointed this time either after the ‘Big Thunder’ bellowed once again at Cedarvale, forcing Ferguson to remind Wiles: “We’re not late; we’re right on time.”

This spiritual side to producing syrup drastically deviates from commercial operations, something that Wiles immediately noticed last season as well.

Karl Wiles in the boiling room. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

“They don’t take federal money of any kind, so that puts them sort of in a bind compared to the others, but they are also much more spiritual,” said Wiles, “I think it manifests itself in how they work it.”

Meanwhile, the Oneida Indian Nation’s new Wáhta’ Maple Farm embarks on its first season with 2,000 taps and anticipates quintupling two years later. Their projections place them at producing a little shy of 800 gallons this year alone. 

And the Nation expects to triple the farm’s output to more than 2,300 gallons by their third season. It’ll become New York’s largest Nation-owned commercial syrup enterprise at that pace.

An average-sized commercial operation in New York is now closer to 10,000 taps. Each tree can produce between a third and a half gallon of syrup, partly due to advanced state-of-the-art sap-collecting technologies.

These three major Haudenosaunee maple syrup operations spread across the Oneida, Seneca or Onondaga homelands have yet to reach that industrial scale or size.

New York trailed only Vermont in U.S. maple production last year. Some 2,000 maple sugar makers statewide tallied 845,000 gallons,15% of the nation’s output, increasing by nearly a third compared to the previous season.

Despite the state’s maple industry quadrupling during the last 15 years, Wild saidexplained the contributions of tribal syrup producers are a drop in the bucket and haven’t prominently played into New York’s economic calculation yet. 

“They’re the ones who figured out that you could tap maple trees, collect the sweet sap and turn that into syrup,” said Wild. “I think moving forward, that will change as we see more tribal communities getting into it and it’ll continue to grow.”

Unlike Gakwi:yo:h Farms or Wáhta’ Maple Farm, however, the Onondaga Nation Farm’s affectionately named ‘Seven Buffalo Maple Syrup Co.’ is not a profit-seeking enterprise. Like the rest of the farm’s fresh foods and produce, their syrup is also given to its Nation members at no charge. 

Steam rises from the boiling pan as Trevor Hill waits. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Ferguson even noted their syrup lease had rekindled the intergenerational tradition of backyard tree-tapping on her reservation. Now, she’s even passing down the knowledge Wiles imparted to her.

“He basically showed us everything we needed to do,” said Ferguson. “If we have a question, he’s right there and that’s been really convenient having him on premises.” 

‘Remember to be gentle because it does hurt’ 

No one better understood the essence of maple besides her uncle Thomas Ferguson, known to the Anishinaabeg as Sinzibakwaad Inini, or the ‘Maple Sugar Man.’ 

He experienced the powerful healing properties of that sweet substance after leaving Kitigan Zibi, a Canadian reserve home to the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Algonquin First Nation, in search of becoming a sugarbush expert.

Struggling with a lifelong battle against addiction, his niece believed maple helped him heal his mind and body. 

After enrolling at Cornell University and graduating as a horticulturist, he returned to his hometown of Maniwaki in the province of Quebec.

Thomas Ferguson (left) and his father drinking sap. (Courtesy of Angela Ferguson) Credit: (Courtesy of Angela Ferguson)

Hired as the project manager for Awazibi Pure Maple Syrup, Ferguson helped transform 140 acres of maple hardwoods with some 11,500 taps into the First Nation’s emerging commercial sugarbush business in February 1999.

It has since expanded into a massive enterprise with 16,500 taps and at least 46 miles of food grade tubing sprawling across roughly 222 acres.

Despite sobering up, Ferguson admitted that her uncle still “had done damage to his body,” causing him to contract a liver disease later in life. That illness forced her to make the six-hour drive to see her bedridden uncle one last time. 

As soon as she arrived, Ferguson realized that his time was short. She likened it to the brief maple seasons they both treasured together whenever she took field trips to see him.

Thomas Ferguson, also known as the ‘Maple Sugar Man,’ holds onto a jar of maple cream inside a sugar shack. (Courtesy of Angela Ferguson) Credit: Courtesy of Angela Ferguson

“He told me, ‘I always wondered when I tap the trees, if they can feel it,’” said Ferguson. “He lifted up his hospital gown and had a tube running into his stomach draining the fluid body, filtering out all the toxins.”

“‘It hurts. It happened to me, look.’ When he showed me that, I was crying. He goes, ‘So, remember to be gentle because it does hurt,’” she added. 

Instead of being stuck inside dealing with the Onondaga Nation Farm’s vast seed collection following the fall harvest, she’s been checking taps, trotting through the powdered snow, and feeling even more invigorated while outdoors these last few winters. 

Largely pulling her strength from her uncle, Ferguson found inspiration from his selfless legacy surrounding the Anishinaabeg.

“I mustered up the energy from the trees because I felt like I was standing straighter and I felt really strong,” said Ferguson. “That feeling carried over all the way to planting time.”

Angela Ferguson tapping trees. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Maybe, she finally understood how her uncle felt on his road to recovery. Her uncle’s passing is a painful memory and an equally important lesson Ferguson has held onto and often contemplated whilst alone in the forests.

That moment flashed in her mind when she tapped her first maple tree at Cedarvale, watching the clear sap slowly ooze out of the trunk and drip down the dark bark. And she’s convinced that his spirit has remained with her.

“Having my hands on the trees and being amongst them talking, you can sometimes hear sounds when they creak and move. It almost sounds like women singing,” said Ferguson. “I thought about him so much that first season when I came up here and every time we do maple syrup I always think about him.”

Living the treaty, forging a lifelong friendship

Ferguson sought to show her appreciation to Wiles after a successful first season, but struggled with finding a way to do so since “he loves the land the way I do.” 

She desired to honor his cheerful commitment to the Onondaga Nation and settled on placing a special order with Tony Gonyea, a heralded Onondaga belt maker, before the start of this season. When Ferguson visited Wiles in late February, she presented him with a replica of the Friendship Belt, explaining its significance.

“The two of us, me Haudenosaunee, and you, descendant of the settlers, we resuscitated this treaty by what we did here,” said Ferguson. “You should tell your children and your grandchildren that they’ll always know my grandfather upheld the treaty.” 

Karl Wiles holds Friendship Wampum Belt as he stands with members of the Onondaga Nation. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Bound by syrup, that beaded-belt made from white and purple wampum shells symbolizes the modern manifestation of treaties between Haudenosaunee and colonial settlers from centuries ago, including Gaswéñdah, or the Two Row Wampum Treaty.

It all started with a simple idea for the Onondagas to lease his property. Despite not selling syrup for profit or personal gain, Ferguson deeply admired his commercial syrup company, considering it “a pillar of Central New York.” 

She would’ve hated seeing “all this maple syrup going to waste,” so Ferguson sought to ensure that wouldn’t ever happen.

“They paid me the money they were supposed to and they seemed happy about it,” said Wiles. “They seem to think it is successful and that’s all I really care about.” 

This fledgling friendship between Wiles and Onondagas has merely begun. The lease, expected to be renewed annually, has benefited both sides and may continue doing so for generations to come. 

“I’m really pleased and thankful that the trees cooperated and rewarded us. The community was just so thrilled about it,” said Ferguson. “It has reignited the flame for our people.”

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