Published: March 26, 2024

By Indigenous People’s Caucus Co-Chair Paula Pena-Urenda

On this Earth Day, we want to bring strength, support, and sustainability to honor our Indigenous people and our stolen land. I will be sharing with you the story of The Three Sisters and how as a reconnecting Native, I try to honor Mother Earth in all I do.

This story refers to the relationship between beans, corn, and squash when they grow together. Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island discovered that the crops have a sacred agricultural relationship.

The beans provide nitrogen for the corn to grow, and then the grown corn serves as a lattice for the beans to ascend, while the squash leaves shade both, keeping the soil hydrated and protecting against weeds.

The way in which these three sisters sustain each other has come to represent the strength of our family bond and how they sustained our communities is sacred. 

The conception of this story is part of the creation story for the Haudenosaunee and Iroquois. As many of my union siblings know, I love to cook and have seen me via Zoom meetings cooking, and for those who are not aware, I am also the only female farm labor contractor in Oregon and agriculture is in my blood. 

I will paraphrase a story I heard on a cooking show from Chef Tawnya Brant of the Mohawk – When our Sky Woman came to earth, she gave birth to twin boys. The good twin was born the way he was supposed to be born, during childbirth. When Sky Woman fell – she had these seeds, but she never planted them, and when her daughter passed away she put them on her grave. We have many; purple potatoes came from her feet; corn, beans, and squash grew out of her right hand and left hand; strawberries came from her heart; and our sacred tobacco that we use came from her head. To me, all these are sisters.

Symbolizing Sustenance

Companion planting is a simple way to convey relational connectivity with nature. We say Mother Earth, and the Moon is our grandmother, the Sun is our older brother, and these foods that are on this land are our sisters. This is their job. Everything in the universe has a familial connection to our Indigenous people, our culture, and our teachings. 

There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the US, today we use the companion planting method because the crops spread so far across the U.S., Mexico, Central & South America.

Three Sisters is a teaching tool and metaphor as their symbiosis conveys the concept of working together. It also applies to a range of topics from public health to genealogy. This is also used to enhance conversations and provide evidence of ancestral intelligence, our skills in bioengineering, Indigenous agriculture, and Indigenous science. We have oral tradition, our stories are not written down so they’re very simple but have HUGE concepts that are in them. 

Symbolizing Strength

“Together The Three Sisters have almost every nutrient known to sustain life.” is what Dr. Frank, the co-author of Seed to Plate, Soil to Sky (this is a cookbook). We all know corn is the essence of life and beans are packed with protein, corn and squash together add vitamin C, and all three provide us with fiber, as we know aids in digestion and offers an array of health benefits. 

Symbolizing Support

Incorporating The Three Sisters in Earth Day is a simple way to add meaning to what we are doing to bring awareness to climate change as this affects our food chain. We also acknowledge the impact of our people has long been lacking representation in all areas. At least with Corn, Beans, and Squash, we can help spark the conversation in hopes of effective change.