Native American Gardening: The Three Sisters and More

Connect to an ancient heritage by growing these rare vegetable varieties traced back to Native American gardens.

| February/March 2013

Considering how corn, beans, squash and other “New World” foods have changed the course of human culture, the time is ripe to take a fresh look at Native American gardening. Here, within easy reach, is one of the greatest horticultural treasures — a system of gardening that is, by definition, an icon of biodiversity. Offering a rich array of unusual tastes and textures, the Native American garden is part and parcel of what I consider the “soul” of American food. And yet the full story is not exactly a happy one.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with the late Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899-2005), a Mohegan anthropologist with whom I discussed some of the pressing issues facing Native American gardening. She expressed frustration about Mohegan garden seeds not being preserved during the 19th century, and how this loss is reflected by what Mohegans — tribespeople from upstate New York and later Connecticut — grow in their gardens today.

Chief James “Lone Bear” Revey (1924-1998) of the N.J. Sand Hill Band of the Delaware Nation also devoted many hours to passionate discussion with me on the seed losses taking place among his people. The causes have been many — inroads of changing lifestyles, poverty, government programs forcing native peoples into a mainstream mold, the loss of foodways and native religions — and the results have at times been devastating.

But much has survived. There are perhaps two distinct Native American gardens: the stereotypical one many of us envision, consisting of just the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash), and a more complex one that served not only as a source of food for native peoples, but was also an extension of their religions. For many tribes, each plant was assigned a specific spiritual role, and each part of the plant (the roots, stems, leaves and flowers, as well as the fruits) was imbued with deep meaning and a role in native healing practices.

Reproducing a Native American garden isn’t easy, which is why I’d like to make this a clarion call to find a way to preserve this heritage. This imperative is especially urgent given the spread of genetically modified corn and the radical manner in which it has transformed corn from the nurturing “mother” of Native American culture into a largely inedible, industrial material. The innate spirituality of this graceful plant has been grossly denatured. Planting a Native American garden is a rewarding way to recapture this connection with the Earth.

The Real Three Sisters Garden

The concept of companion planting, in which one plant helps the other, is the basic idea behind the Three Sisters, but focusing on this alone glosses over many of the nuances in native garden traditions. Growing plants to work together symbiotically — using hills of corn to serve as poles for beans, and interplanting this with squash to keep down invasive weeds — is as much about compatibility and harnessing nature to do part of the work as it is a study in what we take from nature and what we give back. Like strip mining, modern agribusiness is based on yields extracted from the land regardless of the environmental cost. The Native American garden, which was actually a form of small-scale farming, made the land richer — one reason why early settlers were eager to seize Native American fields.

Charles Guffey
3/3/2013 2:30:46 AM

I think there are people wanting to know, and thinking they know, that simply don't know.

Lee Burdett
2/23/2013 3:44:23 AM

There are several local growers in my area growing the native Seminole Pumpkin. That is a good variety for all of the southeast as it does well in the heat. The squash/pumpkins are delicious and can be used anywhere a traditional pumpkin or butternut squash is used.

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