Haudenosaunee Gardening: The Three Sisters

On Saturday, Mario Vittelozzi and I traveled to an area near Fonda, New York, called Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community.  Mario is a screenwriter.  He is helping me improve my screenplay for a movie about Matilda Joslyn Gage.   When he arrived in Syracuse by bus from New York City on Friday, we immediately visited the Gage house in Fayetteville after a quick stop at the cemetery to visit Matilda’s gravestone.  It is iconic because it proclaims these words on the gravestone: “There is a word sweeter than mother, home, or heaven and that word is Liberty.” This was Matilda’s last rebuttal to her “arch-enemy” Frances Willard.    It was an emotional experience for Mario to see the grave of this woman he had come to learn of only a few months ago. He has since been inundated with information about this “hidden figure” from the many sources I have shared with him ever since producer Antonio Saillaint connected us.

After our tour of the Gage House and viewing the video about Matilda, Mario purchased a Matilda tea set for his mother and bought a copy of Matilda’s Woman, Church and State.  Colleen, the Gage Foundation’s only paid employee, threw in a free copy of Pope Joan, a book based on a rumored history of a time in the 800’s when there supposedly was a female pope for about a year and a half.  It is an intriguing story written by a local Cazenovia College professor, Donna Woolfolk Cross.  It was made into a movie several years ago and starred John Goodman as the Pope immediately preceding “Pope Joan.”  (Purportedly, it is because of this glitch—Joan had pretended to be a man so that she could get an education—the papacy now always checks the sex of a candidate with a certain bottomless chair before allowing the ceremonies to continue.)

After fortifying ourselves with a delicious meal at the Dinosaur Barbecue—an establishment even Mario from Long Island has heard about– we talked over our agenda for the weekend and decided to make the two-hour trip to Kanatsiohareke.  Mario is as determined as I am to “get it right” when we include the parts of the future movie that pertain to the Haudenosaunee.  It was a serendipitous coincidence that this special event was happening at Kanatsiohareke this particular weekend.  Terrylynn Brant, Mohawk Seed Keeper and Traditional Haudenosaunee Agricultural Expert, lectured to our small circle of about ten people on “The Three Sisters” method of planting and other indigenous concepts for growing food the Native American way.

Terrylynn began by emphasizing to us non-Natives that “The Three Sisters” concept is much more than the ingenious planting style of corn, beans and squash.  It pertains to the wider concept of planting and nurturing together those animals and plants in nature that naturally complement each other when grown in the vicinity of each other.  Some of you may already be familiar with “The Three Sisters” from seeing depictions of three indigenous women representing corn, beans and squash (melons).  There exists many painting and sculptures of these representations.  The Haudenosaunee culture is saturated with them.  And no wonder!  It is an ingenious method of planting and farming.  Briefly, the corn is planted first.  After a few weeks when the stalk has started to grow, beans are planted in a circle around the corn plant.  After the beans have rooted, squash or melons are planted in an outer circle.  Thus, the beans have the cornstalk to support their vines and the large squash leaves help catch the rain water and also provide shade from the hot sun.  The leaves also provide nitrogen and other nutrients when added back to the soil (compost!) at the end of the cycle.  As women have always been designated as the life-givers, they are also given the role of the planters and harvesters of the life-sustaining foods and medicines.

This three sisters concept is extended to much more than these basic foods.  All “systems” of combining naturally “friendly” plants and animals are also designated as “three sisters.”  This includes flowers interacting with bees and poison ivy often growing near it’s antidote jewel weed.

I have a black walnut tree in my back yard.  I also learned this day that the black walnut tree sends out roots that are poisonous to most surrounding plants.  That is why one never sees much vegetation around these walnut trees—except for raspberries!  Sure enough, I DO have raspberry bushes growing in abundance beneath my black walnut tree.  And, sure enough, all the flowers I have planted nearby have not survived.  I had been blaming it all on the deer.  They ARE partially to blame, as they frequent the back yards of everyone in our neighborhood.  But now I have learned that they are being poisoned through the root system of the walnut tree!

Terrylynn Brant, a short blonde robust Mohawk woman, was a font of good information on many other areas of farming. And she was very authoritative about it.  Why not?  Indigenous planting methods have been around for thousands of years.  For instance, she pointed out the foolishness of buying bags of soil that is supposedly full of enriching elements to add to your garden soil. She points out, however, that those bags have likely been bagged weeks ago and have often been stacked and sitting out in the sun on some Lowe’s or Home Depot lot or some other big gardening store for weeks.  She assured us that all nutrient value that these bags of “rich” soil may once have contained had by purchasing time all disappeared.  The soil has died already; don’t waste your money on them.

The subject of saving the seeds for future plantings came up.  I asked about the patent that Monsanto has on most seeds, including their GMOs, these days.  She expanded on that topic and others also chimed with horror stories of their own about the destruction that this giant chemical (think Roundup) produces. If you don’t already know about Monsanto and agri-business, google it.  You may be as shocked as Mario was to hear that this big company that lobbies and donates big time to most political candidates, consumes control of seed production not only in our country but in many other places also.  They formulate many of their seeds to “die” after a certain number of years.  Thus, everyone has to buy seeds from them every year.  The time-honored practice of saving a portion of your seeds from year to year so there will be a continuation of your crops from the starter seeds is now legally impossible to do.  Monsanto will sue.  If you are an organic farmer, you still are not immune from the outreach of Monsanto.  If the wind blows seeds from a neighboring farm that uses GMOs and other patented seeds, and your crops are infected, you are still liable.

I once read an article in a nature magazine that pointed out how very many varieties of apples there used to be just a century or so ago.  It was over 90, I believe!  Yet, now, most apples are hybrids and patented and there are only about a dozen or so varieties.   This holds true for most other fruits and plants as well to a large degree.  In the case of the apple, we are now able to buy apples that are shinier, larger, spotless and last longer.  However, often flavor has been lost.

Fortunately, there are a few safe places in the world where seeds are collected and saved and out of the reach of Monsanto.  But for cultures that have traditionally saved their seeds generation after generation—especially Native Americans—this is extremely insulting and hurtful.  They used to have, for instance, many varieties of corn and beans.  Most of these have been whittled down to only a few.

Terrilynn kept talking long after the call stating that lunch was ready.  She drew six rectangles on the whiteboard.  She asked for volunteers to divide each into four equal parts in as many ways as you could think of.  The first four ways were easy but the last two took some extra thought.  Dividing gardens in this way is the indigenous plan for planting their gardens so that certain plants are arranged next to each other in a time-honored way.  This was more than just lecture material;  we soon learned that we would be applying all she was showing us out in the fields beyond the parking lot as soon as we finished out lunch (which included the traditional strawberry drink sweetened with maple syrup.)

For the rest of the day until about 4:00, we did, indeed, toil in the field.  A rectangle of unplowed land adjacent to several other rectangles that had already been planted, was transformed by us into a planted garden covered with straw mulch before we left that day!  It was not a small area.  We began by lining up shoulder to shoulder spreading our arms.  We each were then responsible for the width of land directly in front of us.  The first task was to find five rocks and put them in a circle around the middle point of the future garden.  A stick had been inserted into the ground in the very middle, which was easy to determine after we made a grid to match one of the patterns we had seen on the whiteboard by two people holding the ends of a string and dividing the plot into equal parts.  Next everyone grabbed a hoe and scraped off the straw that was covering the soil.  Then the hoe was used for chopping anything green (grass and weeds) and then covering the spot again with the straw.  It was hot, thirsty work and was not easy on the back.  To get this all done in a few hours seemed unlikely.  However, since we were all a team working together, the project kept its momentum.

This was the most arduous task and it created a few blisters—but also much satisfaction.  Some of the straw was already in lines and more was piled on.  Several of us walked up and down on these lines to pat them down, as they were the demarcations for the divisions in our plot of land.  Finally, we switched to shovels and each small group of three were given seeds or plants with the directions as to how deep and how far apart they should be planted.  Mario and his team planted bean seeds and… My group planted tomatoes.  Others planted cauliflower and garlic and onions. We did not just plop them into the ground, however.  At the rear of the field were two piles of manure. We were directed to add 2/3 manure and one-third top soil from the nearby field to each plant.  Finally, we watered our newly-planted field of garden vegetables! 

After some refreshments in the house and scrubbing the dirt off our hands, we socialized a bit and then headed for home.  Tired, sweaty, thirsty—but so proud of what we had accomplished this day and to have had the hands-on experience that would imbed our memories so that we would not soon forget this ancient three sisters process.