The Iroquois and the Three Sisters

The Iroquois were agricultural people with agricultural villages. Farmed crops represented 50 percent of their food and, because of their agricultural success, provided the foundation of their power. The Iroquois were a matriarchal society, in which women held important government and sociocultural roles. Women held the knowledge, controlled all aspects of farming in the villages and were the source of the skills and expertise. They were highly sophisticated and productive farmers. Corn, supplemented by beans and squash, was the foundation of the Iroquois physical and spiritual life. Known as the “Three Sisters,” these three crops were grown together in what is known today as a polyculture, a system in which each sister (or plant) serves a role in the mutual benefit of all three. The Iroquois visualized the Three Sisters as their sustainers who were put on earth by the Sky Woman to ensure their survival.

Below is an interpretation of an online presentation given by Dr. Jane Mt. Pleasant, a Cornell University professor of agriculture and descendant of the Tuscarora, in which she describes the spiritual relationship of the Three Sisters and their functional purpose as a food source to the Iroquois.

The first sister is Corn. Corn is the elder sister. She stands up tall and straight. She wears a hat at the top, and her face is the ear. She is serious, important and responsible. She is the engine of the trio. As a food source, she produces the largest amount of calories and energy, as well some protein. She is a very productive and competitive crop, providing weed and insect resistance, and support to the other plants. The second sister is Bean. Bean is shy and twines herself around the legs of her elder sister, occasionally peaking out from behind. Bean provides large amounts of protein to the Iroquois diet, as well as essential amino acids Corn does not contain. She also provides nitrogen to the other sisters, by converting nitrogen from the air into a form in the soil that the plants need to survive. The third sister is Squash. She is the little one. She stays close to the ground, is kind of impish and wild, spreads herself all over the place and is always getting into trouble. In addition to being a significant source of calories, Squash also provides valuable vitamins, minerals, oils and protein to the diet. Her low, wide leaves suppress weeds from growing around their space, capture sunlight and preserve moisture in the soil.

The Iroquois’ polyculture system resulted in their being a very extensive agriculture power. Reports from European diaries and journals from the 1700s have described Iroquois villages as being surrounded by large fields of corn with storage buildings containing up to 1 million bushels of corn grain. They were better farmers than the colonists and enjoyed a high standard of living due to their level of production.


an excerpt from the book by Laura Winters Falk
Reprinted with permission from Culinary History of the Finger Lakes – From the Three Sisters to Riesling, by Laura Winter Falk. Available from the publisher online at arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.