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Mole Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians Tribal Communications Office
Accompanied by friend Ben Dewing, Van Zile tends to the sugar camp he has constructed across the road from his house east of Laona, Wisconsin. “Ben’s family has been doing this since they landed and got off the Mayflower,” says Van Zile through some light-hearted Indian humor and a laugh. “I have family out east that is also doing it. They have a business they run, probably a couple thousand trees,” adds Dewing.
Although Van Zile’s camp is a little more modest, perhaps 130 trees tapped in total, his is much bigger in the sense that his ancestors used the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin from right around the beginning of time until now. Living in two worlds is a constant struggle of modern-day Native Americans, but Van Zile performs an ongoing balancing act, with the help of the Sokaogon Community. “I work at the Housing Authority in Mole Lake and the Tribe gives us cultural days – which is nice because you can come home and do this. When the sap runs, you have to be there. I really appreciate that they let us do this,” he adds.
Van Zile has tapped trees since he was a child, and now passes the tradition down to his own children. “My kids get to come out every day after school. The two oldest collect the bags,” he says.
The art of making maple syrup and maple sugar is one of patience and perseverance, and requires a keen understanding of nature. For the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, the tradition is alive and well. Van Zile enjoys what he does and says he wants to share his knowledge. “This camp is open to any Mole Lake youth who may want to learn how to do this.”