North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
The Three Sisters: Sustainers of Life
To 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
Image: Three Sisters
Gregg M. Thomas (1952- ), Nedrow, New York, Wolf clan, Onondaga,
Iroquois sculptors carve the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and
squash), a favorite theme, in stone or antler.
Serpentine, steatite, varnish?; 36181-1