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Larrymore Mckenzie: Wahta — How the Onkwehonwe received Maple Syrup — A Mohawk language tutorial
How the Mohawks Invented Maple Syrup
Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Maple Tree (Wahta in Mohawk) is recognized by the Iroquois people as the representative of all trees.

When the people gather together for social, ceremonial or political sessions the Thanksgiving Address is recited in which different elements of creation are spoken to and asked to carry the gratitude of the people to their relatives. It begins with Mother Earth followed by the waters, insects, fish, food plants, medicine plants, trees, animals, birds, winds, rain, thunder, moon, sun, stars, teachers and spiritual leaders and ending with the creator-a feminine power.

Of particular importance are the maple trees as they are the first of the deciduous plants to awaken from their long winter’s sleep and alert the others that spring is on its way. When the Iroquois were new to this area, many generations ago, they were weakened by the long, cold months both in body and spirit. The Creator noticed this and was concerned so the maple was asked to give its life blood to replenish the strength of the human beings.

Sugar Maple and Yellow Birch
A forest of sugar maple and yellow birch trees. Photo: Cephas

The people were overjoyed with this gift. They were shown how to insert sumac tubes into small holes bored into the bark of the trees and from that flowed pure maple syrup. The people were once again happy so the Creator decided to leave this world to attend to the needs of other human like beings in other planets. The Creator was gone a long time.

Upon the Creator’s return to see how the people were living on Mother Earth in late winter, the first thing observed was that the villages were empty, the homes deserted, the hearth fires cold. Puzzled, the Creator saw the snow tracks of the people and their dogs all going in one direction.

When these were followed it led to a maple tree sugar bush and their, laying prone upon the snow beneath the tree were the people with long sumac tubes leading from the tree into their mouths. It is told that even the dogs had sucking tubes, drinking the pure syrup on their backs with their paws upright. All of hem were so intoxicated by the syrup they would do nothing else but drink.

The Creator aroused the people and told them that the gift of syrup was not to be used in this way. They were told that they had other duties which must not be ignored. Thereafter they were to work for the syrup, that only sap would come from the trees and it would require them to find a way to make it into syrup.

The Mohawks did so and invented ways to heat the sap and keep it at a near boil until the water evaporated into syrup and sugar. They were ashamed of their behavior and thereupon began a ceremony in which Wahta was given thanks for its great gift.

This Maple Ceremony is the first of the Mohawk new year. It brings together the people so they may express their thanks to the Maple and then hold sacred dances in celebration. Maple sap mixed with the first fruit of the year, the strawberry, is the most important beverage of the Mohawks, our “national” drink. To this day inside of our longhouses the songs and rituals taught to our ancestors thousands of years ago are still set in motion as the world around us awakens to the call of our Wahta relatives.

Our ancestors were good and generous people so, naturally, we decided to share this most delicious of foods with the world.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a residential school survivor. He was given the number 4-8-2-738. He serves as the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He previously served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.

Note: Content © Doug George-Kanentiio