Indigenous Sweetwater Teachings – led by Kyl and Bill Morrison Moose Cree / Métis

Alison Springate Guelph Smart City Office • 26 February 2019

Sweetwater teachings are presented through Land-based educational experiences. The initial reason for introducing the Sweetwater teachings was to enlighten children and adults to the source and presentation of their everyday foods.

It had been noticed and discussed that there seemed to be a disjoint between the foods we eat and where they actually come from.  Sweetwater seemed to be one of these more obvious products.  As we initially introduced the notion of Sweetwater (the sap from the maple tree) people immediately thought of and said “Oh yes I know maple syrup”.  That was our encouragement and direction to introduce the Sweetwater teachings.

This programme has been presented to thousands of children mostly at the elementary school age, but also many secondary students, as well as adults.  The arena or environment in which these teachings take place usually start in the school, move to the school yard and ultimately progress to the bush, the “Sugar Bush”.  Timing for the teachings is late winter and early spring, around the time of the third moon.  The students come to the bush one day a week for 6 weeks, while the Sweetwater is running.

But, what are the teachings?  They are quiet extensive.  Are they just learning to make maple syrup?  The simple answer to that question is “no”.

We have introduced this topic to students, teachers and staff from various school boards, both public and catholic, which include Wellington, Upper Grand, Dufferin, Peel and Halton.  We also introduce the Sweetwater teachings to conservation authority staff and volunteers in Credit Valley and Halton regions.

The depth and comprehension of these teachings are rather complex, enlightening, adventurous and meaningful.  We do not start with the concept of maple syrup, but we do start with the ability and necessity to develop a relationship with another living organism, the maple tree.  From this relationship, we are able to receive our spring medicine, Sweetwater, which is described as a valuable gift provided by the tree through our action of intrusion, which we must acknowledge and realize, has a lengthy historical connection.  Once the relationship is understood, the next phase is to encourage and open ones development of respect for the water, the land, the tree, fellow classmates, other school’s students (whom you may never meet), your school and the extended community.

This sounds like a lot of material for an elementary student, however, they all seem to embrace the concepts of the relationships, the respect practiced by all and ultimately the opportunity to protect and care for all involved in the Sweetwater teaching.

Students seem to grasp the philosophy rather quickly; however, the adults seem to take a little longer.  Questions put forward by the adults usually revolve around the “curriculum” rather than enhancing the opportunity for the students.

Our concentration is on actions rather than product, therefore there are many opportunities to address the concerns of “curriculum” by describing the physiology of the tree, tree identification (especially during the winter when they have no leaves), the chemistry of sap development, why the sap moves, and then the problems of storage and processing. 

Students are introduced to the significant nutritional values of the Sweetwater, at that time of the year (the spring) while they are just emerging from winter and even more specifically for them as developing children.  In traditional language the maple tree is call ‘the tree that builds bones’.

Complexity of the teachings are rather extensive as students are introduced to human body mechanics, nutritional chemistry, astronomy, periodization (plant interrelations), heat energy, thermal dynamics, food science (storage and numerous other curriculum issues.  Remember these are predominately done in the bush each and every day because the tree only allows us 5-6 weeks to obtain the Sweetwater.

Throughout the teachings are always the elements of work ethic, collaboration, environmental appreciation and respect. Underpinning these teachings is the general appreciation of food security as it moves from Sweetwater (maple and birch), to the availability of fiddleheads and leeks, into the planting season and berry picking, etc.  The true knowledge of our food source is vital to the understanding of what we have to eat.  We believe children like to learn where the food comes from and appreciate the opportunity to be part of that acquisition.

One major traditional philosophy we also introduce is “The Dish with One Spoon” (only use what you need).  It opens up many more teachings on food, harvesting and sustainability.