A Tale of Three Sisters

Lessons from Indigenous agriculture


Andrés Garza, the director of masa development & fermentation at Nixta Taqueria, with a few varieties of heirloom corn (photo by John Anderson)

Andrés Garza, the director of masa development & fermentation at Nixta Taqueria, doesn't personally celebrate Thanksgiving. "I like to host a personal dinner with really close friends and family, but I think of it as a day to mourn genocide and colonialism." He's in good company.

While November is Native American Heritage Month, for many Indigenous folks, that designation doesn't go far enough. In fact, the United American Indians of New England have observed the fourth Thursday of November as a National Day of Mourning since 1970, primarily to observe and mourn the deaths of millions of Indigenous people at the hands of colonial settlers.

How can we observe Thanksgiving while holding space for people who consider it a day of mourning? Is it possible to decolonize the holiday, and what would that look like?

Our region’s first farmers used the Three Sisters method, an Indigenous companion planting model that grows corn, squash, and beans together.

Garza explains that our region's first farmers used the Three Sisters method, an Indigenous companion planting model that grows corn, squash, and beans together. "Around Thanksgiving time, when corn is being harvested, you may see Three Sisters salad on menus, or dishes made from those three ingredients."

The Three Sisters method is similar to TEK, or traditional ecological knowledge, also called "Native science" or "Indigenous knowledge." That means information about farming from Indigenous peoples, developed over thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. TEK has been adopted by the National Park Service and others to help repair damage done by humans and climate change, which is a start in listening to Indigenous people and helping repair the damage done by colonialism.


The Three Sisters, corn, squash, and beans (photos via Getty images)

Thanksgiving, at its core, is a harvest celebration, which Garza can support. "I research heirloom grains, native species of corn, for the restaurant. Because nowadays when you buy corn on a large scale, you're likely getting monoculture corn. Heirloom is handed down from generation to generation, and grown on a smaller scale." And diversity can provide a greater range of flavors, along with being better for our land than big factory farming. Here in Austin, you can find a wide variety of Texas-grown heirloom corn at Barton Springs Mill.

Then there are beans. The Three Sisters method needs a pole for climbing beans to do their thing. Locally, gardeners and growers might find our climate suited for fall crops of green beans. Hot summer weather requires the seeds be planted deep in the soil, which in cooler springtime can challenge the seeds' growth. Hence the method that allows three crops to support each other as they grow.

Instead of repeating harmful tropes this holiday, celebrate what Indigenous cultures have done for us, focus on common values, and add a dish honoring native people and our environment.

The third component, squash, is needed to balance out development and growth among the garden. In her award-winning book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how the Three Sisters method allows squash leaves to protect the ground, and the bean vines can grow around the corn stalks without impeding them. She writes, "One twines easily around the other in relaxed embrace while the sweet baby sister lolls at their feet, close, but not too close – cooperating, not competing." We need each other to truly thrive.

Take this concept with you into the holiday. Instead of repeating harmful tropes this holiday, celebrate what Indigenous cultures have done for us, focus on common values, and add a dish honoring native people and our environment. Instead of a single row of vegetables, plan to grow a Three Sisters garden. It will produce a balanced dish to serve, and the crops together will help to keep the soil cooler and more protected from weeds and plant predators. Introduce these native environmental concepts to your table, talk about them with your loved ones, and celebrate the harvest.

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