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Emergence Magazine

Photo essay

Three Sisters

In this photo essay, Seedkeeper Rowen White shares corn, beans, and squash from her ancestral seed bundle. These “three sisters” are considered by the Haudenosaunee people to be special gifts from the daughter of Original Woman.

The Haudenosaunee people are a confederacy of six nations native to the Northeast in the US, as well as Ontario and Quebec in Canada. This confederacy consists of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Haudenosaunee means “people of the longhouse.”

Corn, beans, and squash are considered by the Haudenosaunee people to be special gifts from the daughter of Original Woman (Skywoman). As the story goes, when the daughter was dying in childbirth, she said that from her body would come the foods that would sustain the people. From her hands came the beans, from her breasts grew the corn, from her bellybutton grew the squash vines. From her legs grew the sunflowers, and from her head grew the sacred tobacco. From her heart sprouted the strawberry, and from her feet the original potato, known as a sunchoke. This is the cosmological story that comes to life every time Haudenosaunee people plant a Three Sisters Garden.

We are told that our creation story never ended. The well-being of each crop is believed to be protected by that of the others, and their relationship reminds us of our cultural teaching of interdependence. This collective of original foods is called Tionhnhéhkwen, or our life’s sustainers. They nourish us, so we must remember to nourish them in turn as a reflection of our gratitude. The creation story that began so long ago continues to unfurl and come alive in every moment, as our life sustainers emerge from Mother Earth and remind us of our Original Instructions. Dancing in the direction that the sun goes, First Woman put into place the cycles of continuous creation, continuous birth. As human beings we have been given the Original Instructions to follow, which maintain the cycles of continuous creation, of this continuous birth put forth by Skywoman.

In English, this interplanting is often called “The Three Sisters,” which refers to how we understand these indigenous crops to be our living relatives, who we descended from in our cosmo-geneology. This indigenous planting system refers to the planting of corn, pole beans, and squash or pumpkins together in hills.

All of the seeds shown here represent a small portion of my ancestral seed bundle. These seeds came to me at a time when I was seeking deeper connection to who I was as a young Mohawk woman. These seeds became my teachers and guides, helping me to rehydrate the ancestral memories that would encourage me to forge a more meaningful connection and relationship to the land and to my people. Through endless seasons and life cycles, they have persevered, passed down with the fragrance and memory of so many mothers’ prayers throughout the ages. Today they feed my children, along with the soil that feeds and nourishes so many here on our seed farm. May my breath, carrying seedsongs, be one of many prayers that reside at the very heart of these seeds, so that in generations to come they will protect and nourish those who courageously carry on the legacy of the ancestors.

Through endless seasons and life cycles, they have persevered, passed down with the fragrance and memory of so many mothers’ prayers throughout the ages.


Yellow Eye Bean (Mohawk)

These Yellow Eye beans are one of the most resilient and productive beans in the Haudenosaunee seed collection. Adaptive to nearly all weather that the Northeast growing season offers up, these beans are short, twining cornstalk beans used in Three Sisters plantings. They are used in soups and breads.


Bear Paw Popcorn (Abenaki)

This popcorn has a cob shape that resembles the paw of a bear. The ears are fasciated so that the cob splits into a splay of multiple “fingers” rather than concentrating in a single point. This incredibly prolific corn is held in the seed bundles of both the Abenaki and the Haudenosaunee.


Teosinte (Grandmother Corn)

Known to many Indigenous peoples as Grandmother corn, Teosinte is a wild grass that is the progenitor of our indigenous corn.


Mohawk Red Bread Corn (Mohawk)

This stunning red flour corn from the Mohawk people has gone through quite a journey in the last several centuries. It was revered as a treasured ceremonial food of the Haudenosaunee, but it dwindled down to only one cob following the era of acculturation. Stephen McComber, a Mohawk Seedkeeper, revived the corn and has shared it widely throughout our Native communities. This Mohawk Red bread corn was rematriated back to ancestral growing lands in the Hudson Valley, where it produced over 3,000 pounds, feeding the Mohawk longhouses for three years.

In the seed movement, we have begun to use the word “rematriation” as it relates to bringing these seeds home again. In many communities, including my own Mohawk tradition, the responsibility of caring for the seeds over generations is ultimately within the women’s realm. Both men and women farm and plant seeds, but their care and stewardship are part of the women’s bundle of responsibility. So the word “rematriation” reflects the restoration of the feminine seeds back into the communities of origin.


Canada Crookneck Squash (Haudenosaunee)

Canada Crookneck is a bottle-shaped “swan neck squash” that the present-day butternut type was selected from. This squash has been cultivated by the Haudenosaunee people for millennia.


Mother Earth Bean (Haudenosaunee)

Our Mohawk name for these beans is: Iethinesthenha’ohontsia osahe:ta. In our Creation story, it is told that the original indigenous agricultural plants and seeds sprouted from the body of the daughter of Original Woman (Skywoman) when she passed in childbirth. This bean is said to be the original bean that sprouted from her hands. This bean has great significance to us as Haudenosaunee people because of its connection to our cosmo-geneology.


Wild Goose Bean (Haudenosaunee)

This bean was said to have come to our people from a wild goose, who carried it in its craw. Wild Goose bean is known as a cornfield bean, meaning it grows well in a Three Sisters polyculture planting, because its short runners don’t overtake the corn plants they grow up on.


Cornbread Bean (Haudenosaunee)

Our Mohawk name for these beans is Kan’tahrokhon:we osahe:ta. The Cornbread bean is a staple in our Haudenosaunee pantries because we use them in our traditional cornbread. This cornbread is made by pounding corn into corn flour. To make bread, you mix water with corn flour. These particular beans are added to the dough, and the bread is kneaded and formed into small loaves. The loaves are dropped into boiling water and cooked until the bread floats. Boiled cornbread is served both hot and cold.


Seneca Stripe Bean (Haudenosaunee)

Our Mohawk name for these beans is Onon’tara osahe:ta, which means “soup bean.” These are used in our traditional corn soup, made from beans and nixtamalized corn, an indigenous cooking process that uses limestone or hardwood ash to make corn more digestible and nutritious.


Calico-Flint (Haudenosaunee)

Calico Flint, also known in the Seneca language as Ha-gowa, is an eight-row, short season flint corn, so called for the hard outer layer on its kernel. This corn has been with the Haudenosaunee people for millennia. It is used in children’s ceremonies and eaten as a morning porridge.


Skunk Beans (Haudenosaunee)

Our Mohawk name for this bean is Ani:tas, which means skunk. Skunk beans are aptly named because of their black-and-white striping. The Haudenosaunee cultivated this magnificent bean for centuries before European colonization.


Additional seed varieties featured in the photo gallery: Deseronto Potato Bean (Mohawk), Tonawanda Strawberry Bean (Seneca), Norridgewock Abenaki Bean (Abenaki), Iroquois Rose (Haudenosaunee), True Red Cranberry Bean (Haudenosaunee).

Listen to an Interview with Rowen White

In this in-depth interview, Rowen White shares what seeds—her greatest teachers—have shown her: that resilience is rooted in diversity, and that all of us carry encoded memories of how to plant and care for seeds.