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The Three Sisters: Agro-ecology Studies & Methods Inform Modern Farmers

The Iroquois and the Cherokee called corn, bean, and squash “the three sisters” because they nurture each other like family when planted together.

The Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various indigenous peoples of Central and North America: squash, maize ("corn"), and climbing beans (typically common beans). In a technique known as companion planting, the maize and beans are often planted together in mounds formed by hilling soil around the base of the plants each year; squash is typically planted between the mounds. The cornstalk serves as a trellis for climbing beans, the beans fix nitrogen in their root nodules and stabilize the maize in high winds, and the wide leaves of the squash plant shade the ground, keeping the soil moist and helping prevent the establishment of weeds.

Corn -- provides a structure for climbing bean vines to reach sunlight.

Beans -- fertilize the corn and squash by releasing beneficial nitrogen into the soil.

Squash -- broad, spiny leaves prevent weeds, shade the soil to hold moisture, and protect the other plants against predators.

Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Agroecology connects pieces of family history to a field of scientific inquiry that honors traditional knowledge and the pursuit of social justice in order to achieve localized farming practices that are ecologically sound.

Indigenous peoples throughout North America cultivated different varieties of the Three Sisters, adapted to varying local environments. The individual crops and their use in polyculture originated in Mesoamerica; where squash was domesticated first, followed by maize and then beans, over a period of 5,000–6,500 years. European records from the sixteenth century describe highly productive Indigenous agriculture based on cultivation of the Three Sisters throughout what are now the Eastern United States and Canada, where the crops were used for both food and trade.

The intercropping method of planting corn, beans, and squash together, commonly called The Three Sisters has been studied and described by scholars in anthropology, history, agriculture, and food studies for many years. While this practice is often cited in current sources as a way to improve small gardens for individual use, its historical value lay in larger-scale implementations designed to nurture and sustain entire communities.

Diohe'ko, the Three Sisters, had been cultivated for at least five hundred years prior to contact by the Seneca (A dark brown eumelanated tribe of the Northeastern US and Canada, an Iroquoian tribe inhabiting western New York State. Note central Park was first known as Seneca village because of the large populations of red Africans and Natives that lived there. They (the Seneca) were Black. but not African. It’s a challenge for many of the descendants of Homo-Neanderthalensis to realize Africa is not the only continent that produced dark Melanated people The Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash (pumpkins, gourds), were planted together in hills in fields, cultivated and harvested by work parties of women….The Three Sisters was an important cultural complex.

So called Green Revolution based Free-trade agreements and modernization models have been implemented in Asia, South America, and more recently Africa, as a proposed solution to chronic poverty and to integrate developing nations into the global economy while simultaneously keeping them in debt in order to safeguard the prices of food for first world economies. The free-trade agreements built on a legacy of the Green Revolution: was touted as a period of technological advances aimed at alleviating hunger by introducing higher-yielding strains of plants and the fertilizers and industrial farming practices necessary to successfully cultivate the new varieties. These development models spread the perception that traditional farming practices were a barrier to improved agricultural practices that would benefit all.

Instead the Green-Revolution technologies introduced harmful chemical pesticides, high yielding seed varieties that were patented and priced higher than farmers could afford or that did not produce seeds that could grow secondary crops! Modernity brought intensive irrigation practices that destroyed the nutrient biome of the soil, many were implemented in Mexico in the 1940s, but their devastating consequences have lasted for decades by creating unequal and ecologically damaged agricultural landscapes. In predominately poor indigenous communities, Green-Revolution technologies ruined soil productivity and further impoverished farmers all over the world. Meanwhile, in more affluent communities, agriculture production has intensified and relied on the indispensable labor from rural communities to keep their costs low.

Now it seems farmers are understanding the errors of planting based on corporate greed instead of sustainability. It is once again fashionable and economical to plant the 'Three Sisters', a method of inter cropping developed by the Mayan's to produce all three of their staple crops on one plot of land. During pre-Columbian times Native Americans, mainly tribes from North America and Mexico, tried to teach the settlers how to grow corn with beans and squash as companion plants which became known as the Three Sisters. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix the nitrogen with their roots, which improves the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following years of corn. Bean vines also help to physically stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. The spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure. Corn, beans, and squash also complement each other nutritionally. This model supported life, not the banks.

These Indian nations, in the view of the settlers and many other white Americans, were standing in the way of progress. Eager for land to raise cotton, the settlers pressured the federal government to acquire Indian territory. Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee, was a forceful proponent of Indian removal. Native Indigenous believed land belonged to the community, not to individuals. They didn't own land the ways homesteaders conceived of ownership. This conceptual difference raised conflicts between settlers and Native Americans. Working on behalf of white settlers who wanted to grow cotton on the Indians' land with labor from enslaved Africans and captured dark skinned natives, the federal government forced many tribes to leave their homelands and walk hundreds of miles to a specially designated “Indian Territory” across the Mississippi River. This was especially notable in the Georgia territories where gold was found on Native lands. So to expedite the land theft Congress enacted special laws to steal it and impoverish the non white owners also invalidating any marriages or previous land titles belonging to Natives.

In 1828, European-Americans discovered gold in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. This land was the property of the Cherokee Nation. Members of the Nation first discovered this gold in the early 1700s and it remained untouched by whites for 100 years. Thousands of miners flocked to Georgia to seek personal fortune. On May 28, 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson famous as an Indian killer of mostly women and children. The Senate had passed it by a vote of 28 - 19 and the House of Representatives passed it by a vote of 101 - 97. This law did not immediately remove American Indians from their lands, however it gave the president the opportunity to negotiate treaties to do so.

According to a study by Laura C. Merrick Graduate Research Assistant, Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California, Today, the foundation and health of agriculture in industrial countries largely depends on their access to the rich crop genetic diversity found in Third-World countries. Yet the very same germplasm resources most sought after for their potential applications in biotechnology are constantly threatened by the spread of modern agriculture. The new varieties are often less dependable than the varieties they have replaced when grown under traditional agricultural management. On the other hand, the planting of vast areas with monocultures of genetically uniform cultivars makes agricultural productivity extremely vulnerable to yield-limiting factors, as illustrated by the southern corn leaf blight epidemic in the United States in 1969–1970. Agroecosystems established far from centers of origin tend to have simpler genetic defenses against pathogens and insect pests, rendering crops more vulnerable to epidemic attack—a situation that rarely occurs in an unmodified traditional agroecosystem.

Concern for this rapid loss of genetic resources and crop vulnerability consolidated at the international level with the establishment of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), which coordinates a global network of gene banks to provide plant breeders with the genetic resources necessary to develop better crops. International efforts have so far placed more emphasis on increasing yield than on maintaining stable harvests (Plucknett et al., 1983)—an emphasis that has provided the justification for technological innovation and transfer in a manner not reflecting indigenous social, ecological, and ethnobotanical considerations. A major problem is that seed storage freezes the evolutionary processes by preventing new types or levels of adaptations or resistance to evolve, because plants are not allowed to respond to the selective pressures of the environment. In addition, methods remove crops from their original cultural-ecological context and the human-modified systems in which they evolved.


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