The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Three Sisters

"A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze. There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong."

Lois Thomas oral history. In: Indian Legends of Eastern Canada, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Toronto (Ontario). Education Division, 1969.

Zephyr Squash

We planted the first of this year's "Three Sisters" beds -- a 27-foot bed of Cherokee Trail of Tears Black Beans and Zephyr summer squash (above) along with some winter squash (Waltham Butternut), sunflowers, and a couple of edible gourd varieties.

Prepping the first bed for the three sisters and their gourd cousins

The traditional three sisters, planted together, are corn, beans, and squash. All three have been grown in the Americas for thousands of years, and the three were often grown together in traditional Native American polyculture gardens.

Across North America from present-day Mexico to Canada, there were traditional agricultural practices centered around squash and her two sister staple crops. A practical and sophisticated example of low-impact, high-yield companion planting, three sisters plantings provided a nutritional complement for the peoples that grew them. Polyculture (the opposite of monoculture) prevented pest infestation and the symbiotic relationship between the three plants aided in the growth of all three, for higher yields and healthier crops.

In our garden, we substituted sunflowers for corn for a variation on the Three Sisters tradition --sunflowers are also indigenous to the Americas, and were grown as living trellises for beans in the same way that corn was. We're growing varieties with edible seeds, and hoping the flowers will help bring birds and beneficials to the garden. Gourds, which have a similar look and growing habit to squash, were not native to the Americas, but were grown in Europe for about 2,000 years before Columbus. The gourds are a bigger departure from the ancient 3 Sisters tradition, but the gourd varieties we're growing are really interesting heirlooms (Cucuzzi and Sweet Honey Sponge), so it was worth not being 3 Sisters fundamentalists.

Cherokee Trail of Tears Black Beans

Beans were domesticated in the Americas more than 3,500 years ago, the youngest of the famous "three sisters" cultivated by indigenous people on the American continents. The older sisters, corn and squash, have been cultivated for at least 5,500 years in the Americas.

Waltham Butternut Squash

Ancestors of today's pumpkins and sweet baking squashes, hard and hearty winter squashes, zucchinis, and crook- and straight-necked summer squashes were cultivated on North American soil at least a thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids were built.

With her two sisters beans and corn, wild and cultivated squash in endless variety was savored, nurtured, celebrated, and honored as "that which sustains" by the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
For thousands of years before European colonization, the three sister plant spirits were cherished as green, growing relatives in the family of all living things. Sacred stories, symbols, art, and rituals surrounding the sisters were woven into the spiritual practices of many First Nation cultures.

In some versions of the creation story told by Iroquois peoples, the three sisters were daughters of the daughter of the first woman, Skywoman, who walked across the back of a great turtle, scattering seeds and roots, creating the earth. Other traditions honored a sacred site, a place then called Ogarechny Mountain, where legend held that beans, corn, and squash were first found growing, planted as a gift by a woman from the sky. Still other ancient tales traced the plants to three women bearing gifts from the south: the foods to sustain human life.

The Three Sisters were not only functional staple food crops--they were integral parts of a belief system that honored plants and animals as relatives and understood human beings as part of a community of life. For some accounts of traditional growing methods for the three sisters, there's a great book I'd recommend: A People's Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living: Health, Environment, Agriculture, Native Traditions edited by Gregory Cajete (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 1999).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from the First Nations Agricultural Council of Saskatchewan Youth Education Program Department and I am wondering if I could use your 3 Sisters story in a student journal that our Partner AITC (Agriculture In The Classroom) and I are developing. We will be using the story as a First Nations Cultural component in the student journals for our in-class gardening program "Little Green Thumbs". Please get back to me soon on what you think! Thank-you.