The Three Sisters
by Liz Clark
Long ago people could only eat
what they could grow or could forage, explains Louis
Farmer, chief of an eastern woodlands tribethe Onondaga.
They couldnt just go to the grocery store and
buy whatever was on the shelf.
Chief Farmer tells us a bit about the
Three Sisterscorn, beans and squash. They are
not just plants to the First Nations people. They are also
So long as the Three Sisters
are with us, we know we will never starve. The Creator sends
them to us each year. We celebrate them now. We thank Him
for the gift He gives us today and every day.
Corn, beans, and squash are known as physical
and spiritual sustainers of life for not only the Mohawk,
Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga and Tuscaroramember
tribes of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacybut for
many other tribal groups throughout the Americas.
The ancestry of corn is believed to date
back 10,000 years. Beans came to us from Central America.
As trade routes expanded to link the aboriginal peoples, long
before European explorers arrived, beans were soon grown throughout
North and South America. Squash is native to South America.
Its name, askutasquash, comes from an Indian word meaning
eaten raw or uncooked.
Inter-planting these vegetables has been
referred to as the genius of the Indians. They
increased their harvests by understanding the dependence of
each vegetable upon the other for its optimum development.
Before I knew better, I built up a mound of soil, planted
all seeds in and around, all at once. My attempt at companion
planting was unsuccessful.
Properly done, several kernels of corn
are placed in a hole on level ground. As the small seedlings
begin to grow, the soil is gradually mounded, creating a hill
of about one foot high and two feet wide. The hills are arranged
in rows about one step apart. Two or three weeks after the
corn is planted, the bean seeds are planted in the hill and
then, between the rows, the squash seeds.
Each of the Three Sisters has an
important role to play. Sturdy corn stalks provide support
for the bean stalks. A nitrogen-needy plant, the corn benefits
from the bacterial colonies on the bean roots that capture
nitrogen from the air. Only the strongest seedlings are permitted
to flourish in and around the hill. As the lush foliage of
the squash plant develops, they provide shade, moisture retention
and weed control.
From Tyendinaga Mohawk territory near
Belleville, Ontario, Anataras (Alan Brant) interprets, from
the oral stories of Creation, the complex inter-dependence
of Mankind and Nature as best could be remembered from the
telling over the years. The Three Sisters may well
have been spiritual sisters to twin boys whose birth took
the life of their motherSky Womans daughter.
The following is a small section of the legend, An Iroquoian
Story of Creation:
And they say that because this
young woman had lost her life giving birth, that there was
a great force emitting from her in all directions, this life-giving
force, and as the soil touched her, that it was kind of like
a chain reaction. This great life-giving force went in all
directions. Wherever the soil was touching it, that life force
went. And, they say, that right away, all of that vegetation
started to grow all the more. So as
a gift to her daughter,
the grandmother [Sky Woman]
because her daughter
would never see the Sky World as the being that she was
decided to give a piece of that Sky World to her daughter
in her honour. So the daughter was all covered up now with
this soil. And she was buried there. And all of the energy
of that life-giving force was into the soil now and everything
was growing very well. And the grandmother took some seeds
and she put them on her daughters body. And she covered
them up with the soil.
Also, they say who came at that
time, was the partner of this young woman and the father of
these two boys [Teharonhiawako, the Holder of the Skies
and Sawiskera, the Mischievous One]. He came and he gave
the only gift that he could give. He brought water. And he
put the water down on the top of the young woman where she
was there. And they say her father also came. And he cleared
the air around there. He was cleaning the air and throwing
his fire sticks, purifying the air. And they say also, right
after that, they say that the sun came. The sun was always
there and he made it really warm that day. They say all of
those things all combined with this newly supercharged soil
and the seeds from the Sky World and the water and the warmth.
They say that this new life began to spring up from her. And
they say that the grandmother would teach the two young boys,
as they grew to be older, about what had happened that day.
And they say that what came up from where that young woman
was laying in the ground, those seedsthe grandmother
told these two boysthat their mother, even though she
has died, she has changed from who she was, she is still providing
for her two boys and shes still giving food to them.
And what grew up, they say, were corn and beans and the squash,
which have become the staple of native foods in North America
and Central America and South America. Those were the first
things that grew in this new soil. And the grandmother also
told these two young boys how to relate to these three things.
She told them that these three things came from your mothers
body, just as these two young boys had done, they say, so
that you refer to them as your three sisters. And theyre
sisters because the seeds from these three beings can be replanted
and they will grow again, so theyre considered to be
female. So they are sisters these three things, the corn,
the beans and the squash. And thats where we get that
term from. (www.tyendinaga.net click: Mohawk
Planted together, eaten together and
celebrated together, the Three Sisters are welcome
sustainers of life at everyones harvest
THREE SISTERS HARVEST STEW
1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive or vegetable
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
4 cups (about 1 lb/450 g) yellow summer squash, cut in 1
4 cups (about 2 medium) zucchini, cut in 1 inch pieces
4 cups (about 1 large) butternut squash, peeled, seeded
3 cups (about 1 lb/450 g) green beans, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 cup (250 ml) fresh corn kernels or frozen
1 teaspoon (5 ml) dried thyme leaves or 2 teaspoons (10
2 15-ounce (425 ml) cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 to 1 cup (125 to 250 ml) vegetable stock
Heat oil in large pot over medium heat.
Sauté onion, garlic and jalapeno pepper in oil 2 to
5 minutes, stirring frequently until onion is translucent.
Stir in remaining ingredients.
With lid partially covering, cook over low heat 15 to 30 minutes.
Add vegetable stock, as required. Stir occasionally until
squash is tender and green beans are cooked. Salt and pepper
Makes 6 servings.
THREE SISTERS VEGETABLE MEDLEY
1 medium organically grown spaghetti
2 cups (500 ml) cooked small white beans, or the equivalent
canned, drained and rinsed well.
1 cup (250 ml) cooked corn kernels
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) light olive, walnut or
1/4 cup (60 ml) chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup (60 ml) chopped fresh basil
Sea salt to taste
1/2 cup (125 ml) white soy cheese finely grated.
Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop
Place in steamer over boiling water and steam until flesh
separates with a fork into pasta-like lengths, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile warm beans and corn with 2 tablespoons water in
an uncovered deep-sided oven-proof serving dish. Mix bell
pepper, parsley, basil and oil and toss together with bean
and corn mixture. Add cooked squash, season with salt and
toss gently. Garnish with grated soy cheese.
For additional flavour add 1 teaspoon (5ml) cumin or 1/2 to
1 teaspoon (2.5 to 5 ml) curry powder. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
More recipes can be viewed online, www.oneida-nation.net/cookbook:
Three Sisters Cookbook A gift from the Oneida People
Squash can be divided into two main
categories: Summer and Winter.
Summer squash varieties,
picked at an early stage, have tender skin, white flesh and
small seedsall edible. Zucchini is the most widely grown
summer squash and is most flavourful if harvested at 7"
to 8". Interesting types to grow, other than the ubiquitous
zucchini, are the Papaya Pear, Flying Saucer, and Eight
Winter squash takes much
longer to mature and is great for long-term storage, lasting
for months in a cool, dry space. The skin is hard, the flesh
is usually yellow or orange and the large seeds are delicious
To make it easier to slice a hard-skinned
squash, first make a small slit in the squash, then microwave
on full power for 2 minutes. After piercing once or twice,
these squash can be boiled in the skin. Once halved and seeded
they can be steam-baked in the oven or quickly cooked in the
microwave after piercing the skin.
Sweet Dumpling and Carnival
are colourful alternatives, but my favourite is the Turban.
Placed in the centre of an outdoor harvest display, it looks
especially exotic and keeps well in the cool autumn weather
until its time for inclusion in a nutritious Three
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 52, Summer 2006. Copyright Liz
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