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The Three Sisters: a mutual thriving

Joan Ishibashi shares the importance of the Three Sisters in American farming and food – maize, beans and squash.

To many of North America’s First Nations, particularly the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Lenape people, whose land includes present-day New York City, these three plants were a sacred gift that provided physical and spiritual sustenance. In this ancient system of companion planting; maize plants offer support, beans provide nitrogen and the twining squash knits the system together, providing shade and retaining moisture. Together, they provide balanced diet for humans while promoting biodiversity and enriching the soil for the long term.

Growing up with the Three Sisters

I grew up in a predominantly Mexican-American community in the Los Angeles area. Nearly every week in the school cafeteria until we graduated secondary school, we saw refried beans plopped onto our food tray. We loved the tacos or enchiladas which came as the main course. In the morning before heading out the door for school, I often had fresh corn tortillas for breakfast, along with my hot cocoa. After school I snacked on taquitos and guacamole. Corn and beans were ever present.

My parents grew up in Japan, so our home was embedded in Japanese culture. But we loved to exchange food and song with our Mexican neighbours. At Christmas and New Years, we swapped sushi for tamales and salsa, our traditional holiday fare. It wasn’t until I went to university that I found out other Americans from European backgrounds eat turkey and roast beef for the holidays. 

In a bit of fusion, my mother would serve tamales with rice and soy sauce on her beautiful Japanese dishes, and we would eat with chopsticks.

I was vaguely aware of the agricultural Three Sisters, but it took coming to London and St. James’s Piccadilly to learn more about these staple foods. I realised that as a Pacific Southwest American, the Three Sisters have always been a prominent part of my life. 

A favourite food

Over 90% of the Mexican community has Indigenous roots, and it can be seen in the simplest of ways in the food. I still crave the fresh corn tortillas that I have eaten since my youth. A meal of refried pinto beans (the most commonly consumed bean in the United States) and a stack of tortillas provides complete protein as well as antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. I didn’t know this before; I only knew that these two dishes along with some fresh pico de gallo were enough to make me a happy and contented diner.

The coming of autumn always brings out massive quantities of squash of all different varieties,  shapes and sizes in the grocery stores. Piles and piles of squash and gourds. Fields full of pumpkins are a common sight. Households who have artistic inhabitants will dazzle with displays of these gourds to celebrate autumn. And the food preparation…baked squash, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin latte, pumpkin soup, pumpkin cheesecake, yes, pumpkin, is a favourite squash sister.

Learning from Indigenous communities

Our current, so-called modern methods of agriculture encourage planting one crop in massive fields, including the Three Sisters, to the detriment of the soil and water table.

I have a picture of me (see below) standing in a field of corn that is being grown for cattle feed. Something is out of kilter here, entire swaths of the United States planted with crops to feed cattle, seems like a waste of resources. The corn is a delicious and versatile food that can feed so many people directly. 

The Indigenous communities took a symbiotic approach to planting these basic food crops, cultivation that developed over many years. We could learn something from them. 

Joan Ishibashi standing in a 800 acre field of maize in Columbus, Nebraska, USA. (Acknowledging the traditional territory of the Pawnee, Omaha and Oto indigenous peoples)

The Three Sisters

They show us how to live.

The straight corn-shoot
anchors those twining tendrils of the bean,
the second sister, who works underground
to fertilise the soil.

The squash, third to emerge,
spreads bristly leaves
which shelter and protect.

This is a trinity of gifts
offered by First Peoples:

a diet
of starch, protein, vitamins; of tastes
which enhance each other.

a composition
of living colours, shifting textures, shapes;
of sky-seeking verticals whose line
is softened by spirals;

while green, the host colour,
plays and shifts
ripens to yellow, swells into bold shapes
of saturated orange:

a way of living
surprising those who join its generous flow:
by growing together each becomes
more fully themself.

The Puritan invaders did not see.
Their eyes, which looked for rows of monocrops,
saw only a muddle.

But we must see, and fast.
The three sisters
show us how to free our colonised earth;

how to grow our selves
in a diversity
that is creative one-ing.

Diane Pacitti, 2023

A Wonderful 3 Sisters Lunch

After a recent trip to Wolf Fields community nature reserve, Joan treated us to a delicious home-made lunch of Pinto Beans, Three-Sisters Salad and home-made white and blue corn-tortillas. 

Blue Corn was originally from Mexico and was grown by the Hopi people, it has a higher protein content than yellow corn and also has a lower starch content.

Homegrown Delights

One of our community growers brought in this magnificent Patty-Pan Squash last week.

Squash is one of the Three Sisters species – its trailing growth spreads over the roots of the maize and beans and keeps the ground shaded, preserving the moisture content and reducing weeds.

Celebrating with the Three Sisters

On Sunday July 23th we celebrated St James’s Day, our Patronal Festival.

Our community prepared a delicious 
‘Three Sisters’ lunch and we feasted together in the courtyard.

Native American Farming Facts

Native Americans began farming in what is now present-day Illinois around 7,000 years ago.

  • Natives could support roughly three times as many people per acre than ‘modern’ European farmers.
  • Native women, generally oversaw land-ownership and cultivation, were responsible for selecting seeds for desirable traits, maintaining species purity by planting different seeds sufficiently far apart to prevent cross-pollination.
  •  To discourage the transit of pests from one plant to another, Natives ‘segregated’ like vegetable species.
  • Because the Indigenous Peoples did not use ploughs, their soils were healthier, more biologically diverse. (Plowing causes soil degradation).
  • Corn-farming Indians in the New York State region were more productive than their European wheat-farming counterparts.
  • Natives in the British Columbia regions practiced a sophisticated permaculture, using over 250 species of plants for food, tea, fuel, construction, fibre, canoes, dye and glue.

The Hopi People

The Hopi people used corn in ceremonies, placing blue corn in a framework of directional associations in which yellow corn was associated with the Northwest; blue corn with the Southwest; red corn with the Southeast; white corn with the Northeast; black corn with the Above, and all-coloured corn with the Below.