GREENWICH, N.Y. — Prior to the formation of the United States hundreds of Native American tribes lived throughout North America and still do today. For many Native American tribes agriculture focused on the cultivation of the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters were an important food source, and the method in which they were grown still exists today.
The Three Sisters refers to three crops: corn, beans, and squash. These three crops were often grown together and because of this association the three crops came to be called The Three Sisters. For many North American Indian tribes these three crops were the basis of their diets.
Corn originated in what is present-day Mexico and developed from a grass called teosinte. Through centuries of selective breeding by tribes in Mexico maize was developed and became a staple crop. From parts of Mesoamerica maize made its way north and south. Around 1200 B.C. the Pueblo people of the American southwest are believed to be the first people to have planted the crop in North America. By 1000 B.C. it was established in tribes in the south and northeast also. Corn came in a variety of colors from yellow to reddish-browns to blue and offered carbohydrates and other dietary needs.
Various kinds of dry beans were grown depending on the region. Beans provided protein and other nutrients that maize did not. Squash was grown mainly in the form of winter squashes, and other relatives of the squash family like pumpkins and gourds. Squash provided many vitamins that corn and beans did not contain.
In a technique that is today called companion planting or intercropping, various tribes discovered that planting these crops together helped all three produce good yields in the long run. The first sister to be planted was corn. About two weeks later, or when the plant was about 4-6 inches high, beans would be inserted into the ground. Then, one week after the beans were planted squash would be added.
As these crops grew, they formed a symbiotic relationship in which each of the three crops supplied needs for the others. The corn’s sturdy stalk gave the beans a trellis to wrap its vines around as it grew. The corn’s fibrous roots occupied shallower parts of soil and gave stability to the soil which supported the other sisters. Beans on the other hand have taproots that go deeper into the soil thus not interfering with the corn or squash. The bean roots carry a bacteria called rhizobia which pull nitrogen from the air and convert it to ammonia. This conversion fixes nitrogen into the soil helping the next year’s corn and squash crops. Finally, the squash which grows in a long, sprawling manner provided physical protections to the corn and beans. Its prickly vines kept pests away from trying to snack on the growing plants, and its broad leaves suppressed weeds and retained soil moisture.
The Three Sisters style of cultivation was employed in three different methods. In areas where rainfall was abundant the mounding or hill method was employed. All three sisters would be planted in a mound of soil, typically with three corn seeds, three bean seeds, and two squash seeds. Mounds would then be spaced apart from one another and situated in rows. The field method involved planting the sisters in a square plot. Corn was grown in rows in the center, with beans planted in an outer square around the corn, and then squash grown outside the beans. The third way is called the landscape/rotational method. In this method each sister was grown in its own plot and the next season each crop would be rotated to the plot to the right. This method appears to have been used in places that did not receive regular rainfall.
Three Sisters cultivation was practiced by Native American tribes across North America. Southwestern tribes like the Pueblo, Navajo (Diné), and Hopi were likely some of the first to use it. The practice was frequently used by the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) who lived in New York state. The Chippewa and Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) of the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada were known to practice it as well. There is also evidence of companion planting among tribes in parts of the Midwest like the Ho Chunk, Pawnee, and Mandan and in the southeast like the Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw.
In many Native American tribes agriculture was part of women’s duties. Therefore, the cultivation and harvest of the Three Sisters was done predominantly by the women of a tribe, while men performed other needs like hunting. Upon harvest the crops were used in a variety of ways depending on the tribe and region. Crops could be dried to be used in soups. Corn could be ground into cornmeal or flour for porridge, cornbread or corn cakes. The seeds and flesh of squash were eaten, and beans were dried or eaten fresh.
The crops also served non-edible purposes. For instance, the Iroquois used cornhusks to make rope, twine, and mats, and corn cobs for brushes and kindling to name a few uses. The Iroquois also used cornhusks to make cornhusk dolls which were a toy for girls and used for ritual purposes. Cornhusk dolls are still considered an Iroquois artform today. The hard outer shell of the squash was dried and turned into containers and water pitchers by various tribes.
Corn, beans, and squash played an important part in the culture and belief systems of tribes as well. The Three Sisters were viewed as not just physical sustainers, but spiritual sustainers of tribes. In the tribes that cultivated these crops legends and myths exist as to how the tribe received the Three Sisters. The crops were viewed as human-like spirits and were venerated with ceremonies and other religious practices. While the stories and practices varied between tribes, their importance was demonstrated through their belief systems.
Cultivation of the Three Sisters was important to the survival of not only Native American tribes, but also the early European settlers who began arriving in North America in the 16th century. The practice continued to be used by Native American tribes throughout the 18th-20th centuries despite the movements of tribes caused by expanded settlement, warfare, or forced removal. Though the technique is centuries old, it lives on today. Three Sisters cultivation is a popular gardening method that both the experienced horticulturalist and the novice attempt in plots large and small.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.