North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

The Three Sisters: Sustainers of Life

Three SistersTo the Iroquois people, corn, beans, and squash are the Three Sisters, the physical and spiritual sustainers of life. The three vegetables composed the main food supply of the Iroquois. These life-supporting plants were given to the people when all three miraculously sprouted from the body of Sky Woman's daughter, granting the gift of agriculture to the Iroquois.

The Iroquois agricultural system was based on the hill-planting method. Iroquois women, who were responsible for farming, placed several kernels of corn in a hole. As the small seedlings began to grow, the farmers returned periodically to mound the soil around the young plants, ultimately creating a hill one foot high and two feet wide. The hills were arranged in rows about one step apart.

Iroquois women mixed their crops, using a system called "interplanting." Two or three weeks after the corn was planted, the women returned to plant bean seeds in the same hills. The beans contributed nitrogen to the soil, and the cornstalks served as bean poles. Between the rows, the farmers cultivated a low-growing crop such as squash or pumpkins, the leaves of which shaded the ground, preserving moisture and inhibiting weed growth.

Image: Three Sisters
Gregg M. Thomas (1952- ), Nedrow, New York, Wolf clan, Onondaga, 1996
Iroquois sculptors carve the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash), a favorite theme, in stone or antler.
Serpentine, steatite, varnish?; 36181-1

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