The sacred ‘sisters’ of ancient America

According to Huron-Wendat legend, when the daughter of the original mother passed away, her body gave the world three sisters. In the story, each sister is unique: one stands tall, her long yellow hair blows in the wind. Another wears a bright yellow dress and is known to run off on her own. The third is so young she can only crawl along the ground. Only by working together are they able to flourish and grow – so the trio became inseparable.

But the sisters aren’t people. They’re crops: corn, squash and beans. And the story isn’t just an old myth about cooperation, now shared with tourists who visit the Ekionkiestha’ National Longhouse at the Huron-Wendat Museum, just outside Quebec City. It’s a message from the ancestors of the First Nation that teaches modern Wendat people about the ancient, life-sustaining foods – and a companion planting technique called intercropping that’s so important it survived all the turmoil and cultural losses that came with colonisation.

“Before our dispossession, Lake Huron was our home for centuries,” said Johanne Paquet Sioui, a Wendat seed keeper and farmer. With arable land that stretched from Georgian Bay on Lake Huron to the shores of Lake Simcoe, the region known historically as Wendake or Huronia supported 30,000 to 35,000 Wendat people. 

They lived in settlements surrounded by defensive palisades, with each village containing as many as 100 longhouses. Shared by four or five families, the large rectangular homes were built from log frames and covered with rounded roofs and walls made of cedar, fir or spruce bark. Windowless – the longhouses had two entrances, one at each end. Inside, the walls would have been lined with shelf-like beds that had food storage above them and wood piles beneath. Running in a row down the centre would have been cooking fires where a one-pot meal made from corn, beans and squash, called sagamité, may have simmered.

Back then, the three sisters made up some 60-80% of the Wendat diet, and the Wendat culture, like many others across North America, was centred on the plants’ cultivation. Sioui said the men cleared the land and then the women and children would build up dirt piles and plant the beans. As the small seedlings began to grow, the farmers returned and placed corn kernels in the centre of the mounds (theories vary on whether it was corn or beans that were planted first). Next, winter squash was sown. As the plants matured, the cornstalks served as bean poles while the large squash leaves shaded the soil, creating a microclimate that preserved moisture and inhibited weeds.

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