As the Haudenosaunee, a confederacy of six First Nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) tell it, when the daughter of the Original Woman passed away, she was buried in “new earth,” and from that soil the Three Sisters grew. Each sister appeared in different sizes and dress: One stood tall with long yellow hair that blew in the wind and wore a green shawl. Another wore a bright yellow frock and had a tendency to frolic off by herself. The third sister, dressed in green, could only crawl along the ground. The inseparable trio each had their own unique qualities that helped the other sisters flourish and grow.
But the sisters weren’t people. They were crops: corn, beans and squash. And the story isn’t just a fable about cooperation and support. It also outlines a traditional crop-growing technique that originated with the Haudenosaunee.
“It’s not just the myth; these three vegetables have actually been proven to help each other grow to their maximum productivity better than if you were to plant them all individually,” says Chef Bill Alexander, the new executive chef and culinary curator at Caldwell First Nation.
Corn acts as a strong support for the beans, while the bean’s vines helped stabilize the corn in case of a strong gust of wind. They also help fertilize the soil with nitrogen to help the corn grow. The squash’s leaves protect the soil by keeping it cool, moist and shady, while its prickly skin keep hungry animals at bay.
“The fact that the sisters were provided together means that they’re stronger together than they ever would be separate… the lesson, besides one of gratitude, is an appreciation and respect for the gardening technique,” Alexander says.
The Three Sisters story also highlights the importance of preserving Indigenous teachings and cultural practices that date back thousands of years. “We weren’t people that were known to write a lot of things down; all of our teachings were actually oral teachings, visual and hands-on showing, and working together as a community… We often refer to legends and teachings as something that may be true or may not be true. But for us, those legends and teachings and stories were the only way we could survive. It was the only way to pass down knowledge from generation to generation,” he says.
That knowledge is especially important today; following colonization, younger generations of Indigenous peoples are less likely to have traditional knowledge around agriculture or foraging, which can have a profound impact on their health. But Indigenous peoples across Canada are working to reclaim their traditional food practices, Caldwell First Nation among them.
Part of Alexander’s new job is overseeing the reimagining of the Nation’s restaurant, which was formerly known as The Happy Snapper. The new name is still under consideration, but Alexander already knows what the food will be: proudly Indigenous and made using locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients.
And yes, he’ll be using the Three Sisters.
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