Update 3:55 p.m. Feb. 22: This story has been updated with comments from Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell.
The maple trees are running, and it’s time for the sweet sap of the sugar maple to be harvested. The sugarbush ceremony marks the harvest with a meal, a celebration and a fire. It doesn’t usually include sirens, a helicopter and cops telling everyone to leave.
About a dozen people were gathered around a bonfire Friday night at Detroit’s Rouge Park, which is home to the nation’s largest urban sugarbush, when police showed up.
Rosebud Bear Schneider, an Anishinaabe farmer, food educator and a citizen of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band, says the group was gearing up to kick off sugarbush season at the park, when they noticed cop cars and a Michigan State Police helicopter above.
Schneider says Antonio Cosme, one of the Detroit Sugarbush Project co-organizers, went to the side of the road to see what was going on while six Special Ops officers walked down to the trail into the space that the participants were in.
Cosme says some officers were receptive to the ceremony, while others didn’t care.
“They threatened to arrest,” Cosme says. “They said if you guys all don’t pack up your stuff and leave here in two minutes, we’re gonna start arresting people, which I think was an empty threat but it’s still uncool of them to be like that.”
Cosme says this is the third year they’ve been out there. They had a burn permit and a memorandum of understanding from the city.
In a statement from the Detroit Police Department, officers were responding to a report of a fire as observed by Michigan State Police from their helicopter.
The memorandum was expired, according to police, and there was “no evidence of compliance with key components of the expired MOU, such as a fire permit and proof of insurance.” The officers’ actions were “not directed as a means to break up a sacred cultural ceremony,” the statement says.
Cosme says there is a dispute about whether his burn permit to boil maple sap also covered the bonfire.
Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell told WDET that according to police on the scene, the group said they had a permit but couldn’t produce it. Officers then told the group to put out the fire until they could do so. Fornell said an application was submitted but the process was not completed, so the group did not have a valid permit.
Chief James White issued an apology Monday afternoon.
“I have directed our Executive Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Mary Engelman, to identify opportunities for our officers to work with the organizers,” White said in a statement. “I am very proud of the Detroit Police Department for having an incredibly diverse workforce, however, we can always do better to address these types of incidents. I’ve been in contact with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, state and local elected officials, and community members. We plan to meet with Michigan Sen. Adam Hollier and the Native American community to learn and grow from this situation.”
David Pitawanakwat is a law student and one of leaders of the ceremony. He was disappointed with how it went down.
“It just doesn’t look good for the city and now you’ve got a whole host of indigenous people that were out there with us, including children by the way,” Pitawanakwat says. “We just don’t have any reason to trust the police after this. What were they trying to accomplish? What were they trying to do?”
No arrests were made.
Schneider says organizers are looking at next steps. “There are a few of us that are going to speak with City Council. But on a larger scale, there are lawyers that want to get want to get involved with us,” Schneider says, “but there definitely needs to be some accountability.”