Understanding the Historic Wampanoag Three Sisters Garden, A Short Lesson in Folklore and Planting

As a new gardener, I’ve been thrust into a challenging sea of recommendations, books, websites, science, opinions, beliefs, and lore. As a novice sailor in an unknown ocean, I recently sowed my veggie seeds indoors (my first time starting seeds inside). I have them sitting in a south facing window. That much, I know, is correct. South = sun, right? I’ve been watering them sparingly, but dare I admit too sparingly? I’ve been trying to keep the heat at a steady comfort, avoiding temperature fluxes, this much too, I seem to understand. And, amazingly, in the past week, I’ve noticed the little green heads peeking through the soil. For this first endeavor, I’m delighted to have somehow successfully navigated the inundated sea of information for the new gardener.

So, I’m setting out to learn all I can in an effort to educate, as well as provide historical narratives to the readers of the Real Dirt. Today’s topic? Companion planting.

The other day, while eating breakfast at Bonner’s River City Grill, of all places, I fell into a conversation with my neighboring table about Native American folklore and gardening. I remember learning about corn and beans and squash while in Elementary school, about the pilgrims and Thanksgiving, but realized I know little more than the idealized children’s coloring books with happy settlers and cornucopias. The Three Sisters planting regimen is a stronghold in Native American Legend. It represents not only a way of cultivating food, but also sharing, spiritual protection, and regrowth in its humblest form.  Yet, I couldn’t shake my fascination with its beginnings, with the cyclical romance and simple cross-pollination of the initial effort. My greatest takeaway was not the proven/unproven science, but the intangibles that the three sisters reminds us of: Gardening is a celebration of growth cycles, of nurturing, and reminds us of the inter-relatedness of all things dirt, seed, pollen, water, and ultimately survival.

According to Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA): Sustainable Agriculture, a project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT),

The term “Three Sisters” emerged from the Iroquois creation myth. It was said that the earth began when “Sky Woman” who lived in the upper world peered through a hole in the sky and fell through to an endless sea. The animals saw her coming, so they took the soil from the bottom of the sea and spread it onto the back of a giant turtle to provide a safe place for her to land. This “Turtle Island” is now what we call North America. Sky woman had become pregnant before she fell. When she landed, she gave birth to a daughter. When the daughter grew into a young woman, she also became pregnant (by the West wind). She died while giving birth to twin boys. Sky Woman buried her daughter in the “new earth.” From her grave grew three sacred plants—corn, beans, and squash. These plants provided food for her sons, and later, for all of humanity. These special gifts ensured the survival of the Iroquois people. (1)

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Example of an historic Wampanoag Three Sisters Garden scene. Photo courtesy of www.ancientlights.org

The term “Three Sisters,” is now the most commonly known term associated with companion planting. Many northeastern tribes believe the Great Spirit passed corn, beans and squash down to the people as special gifts assuring survival. The three crops were considered to be protected by the Three Sisters – spirits collectively called, the De-o-ha-ko, meaning “our sustainers” or those who support us. (2)

The Iroquois lived in the Northeastern United States and parts of southeast Canada. They settled and built villages during growing seasons, living in longhouses and farming the land. Throughout the 1600s, the Wampanoag Nation, a neighbor tribe of the Iroquois, was comprised of over 40,000 individuals, residing in 67 villages spanning the northeastern seaboard. They, like the Iroquois, also kept a quasi-agriculturally based living system, residing in birchbark structures and cultivating the region. (3)

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Drawing of a three sisters garden with corn, beans and squash. Image courtesy of the Centers for Cultural Understand and Social Change, UIC Heritage Garden, http://heritagegarden.uic.edu/the-three-sister-plot/

It was Squanto, a Wampanoag, who first taught the Jamestown settlers the art of companion planting, of harvesting a land unfamiliar to them. Known for their incredible gardening practices and knowledge, many neighboring tribes mimicked the “Wampanoag Three Sisters Garden” design – – Planted without tilling or plowing, the traditional Wampanoag garden includes corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers which were fertilized by alewife, a species of fish (similar to the fish emollition fertilizer we use today on many organic farms). The corn and beans are planted in mounds, with squash planted between the mounds. The sunflowers are planted along the northern edge of the garden, as not to shade the crops.  The concept of companion planting embraces a number of strategies that increase the biodiversity of agroecosystems. Simply, the belief stands that certain plants can benefit others when planted in proximity. These cohesive relationships are thought to ward pests, offer variation in soil nutrients, shade, and protection, as well as vice versa. Although the science is debated, we know that Wampanoag lessons in gardening afforded survival for settlers of the New World, through the teachings of the three sisters. (4)

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Three sisters garden diagram, SF = Sunflower, C = Corn, SQ = Squash, B = Beans. Image courtesy of the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas.

 

The three sisters method is an ancient practice, and something to ruminate on while planning your garden and preparing for the upcoming season. Initial notions of companion planting harnessed the power of collectivity and communal relationships, and perhaps a little spiritual guidance by De-o-ha-ko can help us all. For more information on other companion plants, as well the scientific foundation for companion planting, check out ATTRA Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources. Also, watch this short video, which takes a look at an Aboriginal healing & three sisters community garden in Sudbury, Ontario. It’s sure to visually please.

Don’t miss our April posts! We’ll have some guest bloggers in the coming weeks who will share their insight into seed saving and the foundations of garden plot planning.

Sources:

(1) Kuepper, George. “Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources.” Arizona State University. Last  modified July 2001. http://www.asu.edu/fm/documents/arboretum/   CommunityGardenATTRACompanionPlanting.pdf.

(2) Ibid

(3) Eldredge, Nancy, Nauset Wampanoag and Penobscot “Who are the Wampanoag?” Plimoth Plantation. https://www.plimoth.org//who-are-wampanoag.

(4) Kuepper, George.

Emy Scherrer
Emy Scherrer
Community Gardens Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator at Garden City Harvest
Emy grew up on the rainy shores of Bellingham Bay, Washington, where she spent her youth gardening with her mom, grandma, neighbors and friends. Her love of the American West, and the Pacific Northwest in particular, led to her undergraduate degree in American folk art from Western Washington University. She later pinpointed her passion in historic preservation and the community development associated with saving historically and culturally significant places. She received her M.S. in Historic Preservation from the University of Oregon in 2015 and quickly moved to Missoula to settle down a bit, adopt a husky, build a chicken coop, start a garden, and enjoy all the great things about this amazing place.

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