The Three Sisters: A brief look at how corn, beans and squash have sustained life and culture in Haudenosaunee communities

Corn, beans and squash are prevalent food staples in many indigenous cultures of the Western Hemisphere, including my own: the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka or Mohawk nation of present-day New York and southeastern Canada. 

The Three Sisters have been some of the main Haudenosaunee food staples since before European contact and their creation is found in our traditional, oral origin stories. 

It is said that when the daughter of Skywoman (who fell from the sky and made our continent, known as Turtle Island) died during childbirth, five plants grew where she was buried. From her heart grew strawberries, from her head tobacco, corn from her breast, beans from her kidney and squash from her navel. 

The Three Sisters are eaten in the Longhouse at many of our Haudenosaunee ceremonies and festivals, including the O'rhotsheri (green bean), Okahsero:ta (green corn), Kanen’shon:a (seed) and Ka'khowanen (harvest) ceremonies. The Longhouse, which was the multi-family clan dwelling for the Haudenosaunee precontact, is now predominantly used for ceremonial purposes

Today, there are still many Haudenosaunee farmers who harvest the Three Sisters together using traditional, companion planting techniques. Through companion planting, food producers grow specific plants together for higher yields, increased nutrient distribution and the prevention of soil erosion, among other benefits

My ista (mother), Lorraine Kaneratokwas Gray, continues to grow these plants together on her farm in New Mexico. 

"The Three Sisters in the Mohawk language is Kiohehkwen, which literally means, ‘They give us life,’ " Gray said. "That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Corn, beans and squash – along with wild game, strawberries and maple sap – were the main sustenance of the Mohawk people. Without them there would be no life."

In areas like the Southwest, where rainfall can be a rare commodity during many growing seasons, farmers may plant them in a sunken hole to help collect rain water and dew to nourish the plants. Regions that typically experience excessive rainfall in the summer — like the Northeastern states — would traditionally grow these plants in mounds to keep the roots from getting oversaturated and drowning. 

It can also be traditional to place a fish in the mound with the seeds as a fertilizer in some communities, like the Wampanoag Nation of Massachusetts. When the body of the fish deteriorates, the soil is fertilized as nitrogen is released.

Once the corn is fully grown, picked and dried, it is later processed in one of two ways for human consumption. 

The first method traditionally involved pounding the corn kernels using a large mortar, made from a hollowed out tree stump, and a pestle to break the dried kernels into corn flour, as I did when I worked as a cultural interpreter at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

While working at the Plimoth Plantation, we were dressed in the traditional, buckskin clothing of Northeastern tribes and demonstrating what life would've been like for indigenous people in the 1620s. At least once a week my daily assignment would be to tend to the fire and cook traditional foods over it, and when it was time to make boiled cornbread, I'd have to pound the corn kernels into flour by hand. 

In this modern era, I usually resort to using an electric grain grinder, coffee grinder or food processor to speed up the process. The flour can be used to make boiled cornbread or a corn mush porridge, depending on how finely it is pounded. 

The second processing method involves boiling the dried corn with hardwood ash to break open the hulls on the corn kernels through a process known as nixtamalization. It is then strained and washed using a traditional corn-washing basket, a Haudenosaunee utility basket with small holes in the base that allows water and the hulls to pass through. 

Once the hulls are removed, the softened corn is used to make corn soup and Three Sisters rice.

Prior to colonization, salt and refined sugar would not have been present in our diets, so some dishes (such as corn mush) use raw maple sap, maple syrup or locally-foraged berries as a natural sweetener. 

In a way, Three Sisters Rice is an example of early trading efforts with other nations. Corn, beans and squash were readily available in the Haudenosaunee region, but the wild rice to make this dish would have been sourced through trading with nations in the western Great Lakes region. Wild rice is known as Manoomin, “the food that is grown on the water,” to the Anishinaabe people, who continue to collect it in the Great Lakes region today.

Living in California, I am thousands of miles away from the Kanien'kehá:ka territories where my family is from — Akwesasne in Upstate New York and Kahnawake in Quebec). Though I do not cook traditional dishes as much as I would like, I often try to incorporate the Three Sisters into my daily meals. Preparing and consuming traditional foods like boiled cornbread is one way for me to feel like I am home again.

Whether being eaten for ceremonial purposes or for brunch on Sunday morning with steak, eggs and gravy, boiled cornbread continues to be an important part of Haudenosaunee culinary culture. I typically have Mohawk white corn from Akwesasne stored in my freezer, but whenever I don't, I either order corn flour or kernels to grind myself from the Ganondagan State Historic Site's Iroquois White Corn Project.  

My recipe is very typical in that it is made with kidney beans, but they can be substituted for any cooked beans that you have on hand, or you can use blueberries or strawberries and walnuts for a sweeter version. 

Cornbread patties getting ready to be boiled.
Photo credit: Lauren J. Mapp
Haudenosaunee Boiled Cornbread
  • 2 LBS Mohawk White Flint Corn Flour
  • 2 cups Kidney Beans, cooked and cooled or drained and rinsed if using canned beans
  • Salt, to taste*

1. Start boiling a large pot of water.
2. Mix flour and salt (if using).
3. Mix in beans and slowly mix in water until the dough sticks together firmly. Be cautious not to
add too much water, and depending on the weather you might use more or less than usual.
4. Roll balls of dough, then flatten against the table to make a burger-like patties that are 3-4 inches across.
5. Boil cornbread for 30 minutes until they rise to the top of the pot and are cooked all the way through.

Serving Suggestions:
It has emerged as a modern tradition to serve boiled cornbread with brown gravy and steak for Sunday brunch. To incorporate the third sister, you can serve the cornbread with sauteed or roasted butternut squash.

*Note: It is not traditional to use salt, but many people do today to please modern flavor preferences.


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