Elkhart County museum exhibit teaches more than maple syrup

·4 min read

Sep. 23—BRISTOL — While the process of maple sugaring hasn't changed much over the centuries, the Elkhart County Historical Museum has teamed up with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to offer an exhibit to Elkhart County residents that helps to better under its significance for one local tribe.

Siihsipaahkwikanni, which translates in the Myaamia language to "Maple Syrup Camp," is the Elkhart County Historical Museum's newest exhibit. The exhibit was chosen by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to display at the museum.

"It takes the visitor step-by-step, the process that Miami people used historically, and the process that they use today," said the museum's curator Patrick McGuire.

The tools have changed somewhat, but the process remains mostly the same. Miami collected the sap, boiled it and turned it into maple syrup or sugar, much like today, but for the Miami and other local tribes, the product was much more important to them.

"They were mixing [it] into everything they would make and that's why it became such a prominent food supply," McGuire said.

The exhibit also talks about the removal of the Miami from the area, and how it drastically changed their diet. The Potawatomi left the area in 1838, and Miami left later in 1840, being forcibly removed by ship and transported down the Ohio River before eventually being moved to the central part of the country.

"They started to rely on salt and things like that that completely changed the diet of the whole Miami people," McGuire said.

McGuire showed a replica of a trough in the exhibit that would have been to store sugar, adding that the display case just outside of the building is stored an authentic trough from the 1880s.

After it was processed, they'd store it for long-term usage.

"The sugar that we get today they wouldn't have had access to, obviously, in the 1800s," he explained. "They would use the sugar in the same way that we would use sugar today and the same thing with the syrup. If they could figure out a way to work it in as a sweetener, they would. It was their sweetener for any type of food they were making."

Most of the exhibit is reproductions, although some are authentic.

The Elkhart County Historical Museum has been working with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma for several years, beginning with its main exhibit.

"We wanted to tell a more enriching Native history, and we knew we didn't have the resources here, so we went straight to the sources," McGuire explained. "Thankfully, with the Miami tribe and the Potawatomi, they have historic preservation offices, so it's someone's job to share the history of their community."

"They've given us a much more important history that we have in our exhibit," he added. "When we were developing Crossroads, when we would write things about the Miami or the Potawatomi, we would send it to them to make sure it jived with their interpretation of their own history so a visitor is not seeing anything that they are not talking about in their own history. It was really important for us that these groups are able to tell their own history in the way that they want it to be told."

Even images were run by Native groups before being exhibited to ensure the story told is in a way that tribal members appreciate.

"It's important not just for the museum, but for the whole community to understand the impact the Native people have had on Elkhart County," he added.

There's also a map provided by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma of the trail Native Americans would have likely taken to the maple sugaring camp. A collaborative effort, most of the images within the exhibit, although provided by the Miami Tribe through its exhibit, were gathered from other museums, including the Minnesota Historical Society and the Library of Congress.

"They have images from all over where the Miami used to live and still live today," McGuire said.

In the Siihsipaahkwikanni exhibit, examples of the language, which was revived after being nearly wiped out, are also shown. It's been an ongoing major project of the Miami people.

"You get to see, not just the process of maple sugaring, but you're learning about their culture, you're learning their language," McGuire added.

In an effort to continue the ongoing education of the Miami language and culture, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma has also developed a dictionary app called "ILDA Dictionary" that is available online and through Android and iOS operating systems.

There will be a guided tour of the Siihsipaahkwikanni Exhibit at the Elkhart County Historical Museum, 304 W. Vistula St., Bristol, at 1 p.m. Oct. 22. The exhibit will remain on display at the museum until March.

Dani Messick is the education and entertainment reporter for The Goshen News. She can be reached at dani.messick@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2065.