Legend of the Three Sisters: Companion Planting

One of the best examples of companion planting is the practice of placing corn, beans, and squash in the same mound.

Native Americans have done this for generations. In fact, Native American Folklore often refers to corn, beans, and squash as the Three Sisters. There are many different myths and variations of myths in Native American cultures concerning the Three Sisters, where they came from and why they work so well together.

Here is the Iroquois creation legend of the Three Sisters.

It was said that the earth began when “Sky Woman” who lived in the upper world peered through a hole in the sky and fell through to an endless sea. The animals saw her coming, so they took the soil from the bottom of the sea and spread it onto the back of a giant turtle to provide a safe place for her to land. This “Turtle Island” is now what we call North America.

Sky woman had become pregnant before she fell. When she landed, she gave birth to a daughter. When the daughter grew into a young woman, she also became pregnant (by the West wind). She died while giving birth to twin boys.

Sky Woman buried her daughter in the “new earth.” From her grave grew three sacred plants—corn, beans, and squash. These plants provided food for her sons, and later, for all of humanity. These special gifts ensured the survival of the Iroquois people.

This is another well-known myth of the Three Sisters.

A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.

One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters – a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals – this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad.

Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water’s edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister – the one in the yellow dress – disappeared as well.

Now the Elder Sister was the only one left. She continued to stand tall in her field. When the Mohawk boy saw that she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together and they became stronger together, again.

Here is a third tale of how the Three Sisters came to be.

There once was a family of a mother, father and three sisters. The parents worked hard at providing for the family but constantly had to beg the daughters for help. They also had to continually stop them from arguing and fighting.

The three sisters were different from each other and also unique in their own way. The eldest was tall and slender with long, silky, shiny hair, the youngest was small but muscular and attractive, and the middle sister was average in height and looks but was beautiful in her giving nature.

For whatever reason, although they loved one another as sisters, they would disagree on any little thing and be distracted from doing any work because of these quarrels. The parents tried and tried to get the sisters to help in the garden and help with the chores. When working together they would always fight; when apart they would complain about the others. The work wasn’t getting done and the parents were worried that if this kept up they wouldn’t make it through another winter.

It was planting time and the work had to be done, but as usual the sisters were too busy fighting. The parents needed help, and it was given to them, but not as they imagined. As the sisters argued in the field they were transformed into three plants. The first a long, tall plant with silk tassel-like hair, the second a broad-leafed plant low to the ground, and the third a medium-height plant with gentle vines. The plants, of course, were corn, squash, and beans, the three sisters.

This final example of the Three Sisters myth

This version was imparted by Barbara Pool Fenzl as she told it to Jacques Pepin while cooking for a fundraiser on KAET called Jacques Pepin Cooks for Eight; it aired May 28, 2012.

As the story went there were three girls from three different families. These three girls became very close during the season when all the families camped together. The girls knew they would be separated soon since the hunting season started and each family would be following a different herd.

To keep from being separated the girls decided to run away together. The Spirit saw how much the girls loved and needed each other and decided they should stay together. To keep the girls together the first girl who stood tall and strong was turned into corn. The next girl who was giving but shy was turned into a bean plant and wrapped around her friend corn. The third girl who was very protective of her friends lay down on the roots of her friends and was turned into the squash plant so she could shade their roots and protect her friends from weeds and animals. Thus the girls became the Three Sisters.

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