Returning the ‘three sisters’ – corn, beans and squash – to Native American farms nourishes people, land and cultures

By The Conversation

Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too. For centuries before Europeans reached North America, many Native Americans grew these foods together in one plot, along with the less familiar sunflower. They called the plants sisters to reflect how they thrived when they were cultivated together.

Today three-quarters of Native Americans live off of reservations, mainly in urban areas. And nationwide, many Native American communities lack access to healthy food. As a scholar of Indigenous studies focusing on Native relationships with the land, Iowa State University associate professor of anthropology Christina Gish Hill began to wonder why Native farming practices had declined and what benefits could emerge from bringing them back. To answer these questions, she is working with agronomist Marshall McDaniel, horticulturalist Ajay Nair, nutritionist Donna Winham and Native gardening projects in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota.