Sunday, January 6, 2013

Three Sisters and Beans

Red Beans by cookbookman17

January 6

National Bean Day

Happy National Bean Day. Considered one of the Three Sisters by Native Americans, beans were a staple of Native American food when Christopher Columbus discovered America. It was also one of the food sources that Native Americans taught European settlers to grow. Without the Native Americans teaching European settlers how to grow, harvest and eat the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) the European settlers would have died. 

In 1683, William Penn wrote of the Native American diet. "Their diet is maize, or Indian corn, diverse ways prepared: sometimes roasted in the ashes, sometimes beaten and boiled with water, which they call hominy; they also have cakes, not unpleasant to eat. They have likewise several sorts of beans and peas that are good nourishment."

Native American beans were typically shelled, boiled then dried. They would cook the beans in stews or soups. Sometimes they would add the beans to cornbread as well. 

Although beans were important to the Native American tribes they were not indigenous to the east coast. Beans were a trade item that came to the Native American tribes from Central and South America. The three sisters had been grown by Native Americans during prehistoric and historical times.  You can read how the domestication of the Three Sisters at

Three Sisters Garden
There are many stories told by different Native American tribes as to the origins of the Three Sisters Garden. Here are just two of those legends. They were taken from an oral account given to students at Centennial College by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island. The legends are found in "Indian Legends of Eastern Canada."

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.

The Iroquois Legend of the Three Sisters
Erney, Diana. 1996. Long live the Three Sisters. Organic Gardening. November. p. 37-40.

The term “Three Sisters” emerged from the Iroquois creation myth. 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.

You can build your own Three Sisters Garden. For more information on how to do this go to this link.

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