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The Three Sisters of Life

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: holidays, gardening, corn, squash, beans,

My fellow GRIT bloggers are quite a creative bunch, and I’ve learned quite a lot from them during the short time I’ve been blogging here. I’ve learned how to build various styles of chicken coops, (though I have no chickens); I’ve learned how to make soap and can apples; I’ve read about the trials and successes of homesteading and starting a farm. There are mulefoot hogs, jujubes, and black bear stories; book and movie reviews, and a narrow escape from a tire flying through a window. The bloggers allow us to see into their lives through their stories, and share with us places we’ve never been, and things we’ve never seen. From the knowledge of their experience, we learn. The readers who take the time to comment on these blogs and share their own experiences, enrich the stories and make them grow. It’s a lot like gardening in a way: gardeners teach what they’ve learned – often by “trowel” and error; they share from their own gardens, and pass along traditions in order that others may benefit. With Thanksgiving just a few days away, I thought I’d pass along a story of tradition; it’s a story that begins in a garden and is about the sharing of knowledge. It’s the Legend of the Three Sisters.

In 1621, a three-day feast was held by the pilgrims to celebrate a bountiful harvest, and to give thanks to the Native Americans who shared their knowledge and taught the pilgrims how and what to plant in this new land. Along with the pilgrims and Native Americans, the Three Sisters were in attendance at this celebratory feast, and without them there would have been no party.

The Three Sisters of Life are corn, beans, and squash, and they were a staple of the Native Americans’ diet. Legends say these sisters are inseparable; one only thrives with the others near. They must be planted together; they must be eaten together. Planting corn, beans, and squash in the same mound was a tradition practiced by many Native American farming societies and dates back to ancient Mesoamerica.

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

Ceremonies and festivals were held in honor of the Three Sisters; planting and harvest times were especially important. Rituals and knowledge were passed down from one generation to the next, preserving the tradition for centuries – knowledge such as what the Native Americans told the settlers: "when the oak leaves grow to the size of a squirrel’s ear – then it’s time to plant."

Planting these vegetables together benefits both the plants and people. The corn stalks provide a pole for the beans to climb. The beans help stabilize the corn from wind, and beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the quality of the soil. Squash vines act as mulch, shading and smothering weeds, and help keep the soil cool and moist. All three were turned back into the soil to add organic matter, improving its fertility and structure. The three eaten together supply nearly all nutritional requirements a body needs.

Had the Native Americans not given their gardening knowledge, and the gift of the Three Sisters of Life, the pilgrims may not have survived. It’s quite possible there would have been no first Thanksgiving. Today, Thanksgiving is a holiday rich in traditions; it’s a time of sharing, and being thankful for the bounty we enjoy – not only the bounty spread on the table, but the bounty of family and friends.

I’d like to wish everyone in the GRIT family – my fellow bloggers and readers, and the wonderful GRIT staff – a Happy Thanksgiving.