I have to be honest. I had no idea who the three sisters were and what their importance was. Or how it was connected to Thanksgiving until just recently when I came across it on social media. My interest was sparked and so here I am researching what this relationship is all about.
I recall growing up and hearing my parents say “back in the day” or “in my generation”. As I read this legend it brought back fond memories of learning things that were passed from generation to generation. The legend of corn, beans and squash – and these plants being referred to as the “three sisters” – relates back to Native Americans. According to Iroquois legend these three plants when planted together thrive in the same way three sisters can be found to be inseparable. The Native Americans chose to plant corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, which created a sustainable system that provided for soil health and fertility. The connection of these three plants gives us a look back to how things were done when the America’s were first being inhabited and agriculture was in view as far as the eye could see.
Iroquois believed that the corn, beans and squash were gifts from the Great Spirit. The plants were thought to be watched over by the three sister spirits, called the De o-ha-ko or Our Sustainers and translates to “life support”. These three sister spirits protect and inhabit the croplands. Sister Corn stands tall to guard and protect the crops. Sister Bean feeds the roots of Sister corn. Sister Squash, the oldest of the three sisters stays close to earth and encircles the sisters in a protective fashion and uses her large leaves to protect and shade the soil. Planted together the sisters get their water supply from Father sky.
Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops for early settlers. By the re-telling of the story and this way of planting as well as the legacy was passed down from generation to generation. This process of planting did much for the health of the crop. Corn provided a physical pole for the bean vines to cling to. The beans (as legumes) host bacteria on their roots that help increase the nitrogen levels of the soil around the plants roots and fertility of the soil would then increase. The bean vines would actually strengthen and stabilize the tall corn plants. Nearer to the ground the squash vines created natural shading and helped to hold moisture in the soil and also prevented weeds from taking over beneath the corn and beans. I am amazed to see how the early farmers knew the importance of all of the components of planting and not just the end result of a crop. They worked diligently to protect the soil so that a good crop would be maintained for years to come.
These three crops also helped provide Native Americans with a nutritionally balanced diet. The corn provided quick energy in the form of carbohydrates. The beans were rich in protein. And the squash helped supplement the diet with vitamins from the fruit and oils from the seeds.
Corn, squash and beans are all native to the Americas and have been cultivated for thousands of years. This trio helped keep soils healthy and it helped keep the Native Americans healthy. When early settlers landed and pushed west these three crops were quickly adopted into cultivation practices. The bounty of fall harvest surely included these and now, hundreds of years later, they are still served on the table as part of our Thanksgiving dinner menus.