The Three Sisters

By Rita Bober

Three Sisters Garden

Gitchi Manitou, Great Spirit, gave the People all living plants. The People learned how to live with those plants and this interaction made it possible for them to survive. Jack Weatherford in his book, Indian Givers, How The Indians of the Americas Transformed The World, describes how Natives of the Americas gifted the rest of the world with knowledge of many species of plants previously unknown. These include white and sweet potatoes, sunflowers, amaranth, quinoa, chilies, beans, corn, squashes, peanuts or groundnuts, wild rice, among other edible plants. Native people were also known for having "chacras" or traditional Indian farming plots back in the jungle which today sound a lot like "edible forests" or permaculture gardens. For over five hundred years, Native farmers have been teaching others how to grow and process plants. Some of us are beginning to listen.

By the Late Woodland period of history, about 500-1600 A.D., many of these plants had been brought from South America through Central America and Mexico to most of North America where they changed the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of Native Peoples in this area. The People developed strains of corn adapted to shorter growing seasons and used a mixed crop field system that enabled them to improve their agricultural base to a more subsistence economy. The Three Sisters garden evolved from this early traditional Indian farming system. What exactly is the Three Sisters system of gardening?

The most common vegetable plants grown in earlier times were corn, beans, and squash. For thousands of years, they have been planted together, eaten together, and celebrated together as a symbol of the interconnectedness of all life. The ancient Native peoples planted these vegetables in a particular way that enhanced the growth and viability of each of them. Without modern scientific knowledge, The People knew that these three plants complemented each other—the corn would grow tall and allow the pole beans to climb its stalks. While the corn depleted some nutrients from the soil, the beans would replenish nitrogen in the soil and help the plants to grow faster. The squash plants with their large leaves, provide shade to prevent "weeds" from growing and hold moisture to help the plants during a dry season. Corn was planted first in mounds spaced about four feet apart. The small mounds or hills hold moisture better thus helping to stabilize the soil. In the book Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, by Gilbert L. Wilson, Buffalo Bird Woman describes how she planted six to eight corn seeds in the inner circle (two in each direction), thinned to the best 3-4 plants. Then when the corn was about four inches high, the pole beans were planted close to the growing corn. Around the perimeter of the circle of corn and beans, the squash were planted.

What varieties of seeds should one use? It is best to grow heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. Native peoples had many types of corn including soft, 8 rowed flint, dent and even popcorn. They came in many colors, white, yellow, red, black, purple or blue, and calico or multi-colored. Pod, Miami, and Tom Thumb popcorn are some of the names of these corns. Beans included mostly dry beans such as Hidatsa Shield, True Red Cranberry, and Cherokee Trail of Tears. Squash included acorn, butternut, pumpkins, and gourds.

The Grandmothers knew many ways to prepare the corn they had harvested. In cooking the Three Sisters, they seemed to know that combining these three vegetables resulted in a complete nutritional meal. Today we know that corn lacks two essential amino acids—lysine and tryptophane as well as riboflavin and niacin. These are supplied by the beans. Squash are rich in carbohydrates and Vitamin A and provide vegetable fats that cannot be gotten from corn and beans.

Corn is a plant that cannot cultivate or reseed itself. It needs a human hand to help. Today, we humans can continue The Three Sisters garden started thousands of years ago by Natives by planting our open-pollinated corn, dry beans and squash as the Ancient Ones did with mindfulness, care, and thanksgiving.

Here's a Three Sisters recipe to try:

Three Sisters Corn Casserole

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, mix sour cream and eggs. Blend well. Add corn, beans, squash, butter, cornmeal, peppers if desired, cheese and salt to taste, mixing well after each addition. Pour into prepared baking dish. Bake 45 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 10 1-cup servings.

Published in the Michigan Land Trustees Newsletter, Spring, 2011