The Three Sisters

If you enter the church by the front door you will notice a garden just past the front parking lot that is bordered with cedar and spruce logs. This demonstration garden – the St. Francis Indigenous Garden – is intended to act as a focal point for parishioners and neighbours to educate us about Indigenous agricultural practices.

If you look in the centre of the garden, you will see four mounds with new corn and bean plants just sprouting from the ground. Soon squash will appear. What might look different however is that unlike many of our North American gardens, these plants are not growing in neat, straight rows but are instead ‘stacked’ in layers. Welcome to the Three Sisters – corn, beans and squash.

The tradition of calling these crops the Three Sisters originated with the Haudenosaunee (a confederacy of six First Nations), who were agricultural people living along the eastern shores of Lake Ontario and in northern New York State. Each of the sisters contributes something to the planting and when planted together, the Three Sisters work together to help each other thrive and grow. Corn is planted first. As the oldest sister, the corn will become the tallest and will provide support to the younger sister, the beans which are planted two to three weeks later to climb. Known as the giving sister, beans pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil, benefiting all three plants. Finally, the middle sister, squash, is planted and as it grows it spreads across the ground, its large leaves covering the soil helping to retain moisture and prevent weeds and its prickly skin keeps hungry animals away.

Where did the story of the Three Sisters come from? As the Haudenosaunee tell it, when the daughter of the Original Woman passed away, she was buried in ‘new earth’ and from that soil the Three Sisters grew. An oral account by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island continues the story this way:

Once upon a time there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size, shape and way of dressing. One of the three was a little sister, so young that she could only crawl at first, and if she wanted to stand up she had to twine herself around her eldest sister. This sister wore velvet green with delicate tendril ribbons. The second of the three sisters, wore a frock of bright yellow and had a way of running off across the field when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third sister was the eldest. She was always standing very straight and tall above the other sisters trying to guard them.

Take a few minutes after mass to visit the garden and say hello to the sisters as they grow.

~ written by Marion Thomson Howell