Incorporate sacred ingredients that represent strength, support, and sustainability to honor Indigenous people and their stolen land on the holiday.
Thanksgiving is the United States’ biggest food holiday, and while it’s full of traditions and passion about everything from canned cranberry sauce versus fresh to pie flavors and football, finding meaning behind the food is elective. Many families have memories tied to particular dishes and of course family recipes, and I’d like to believe that many people have pursued purpose in the day itself beyond the inauthentic visions of Pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys instilled in American education and popular culture.
As a food journalist, I’ve edited hundreds of Thanksgiving-themed articles and recipes, attended events exploring the evolution of the holiday’s traditional dishes through historic cookbooks and menus, and witnessed plenty of charged debates and online commentary about whether there even is truly "American" food.
Seeking out my own answers has led to a fascination with Indigenous ingredients, especially what is arguably (stay calm) the most American food: the three sisters. It is possibly the longest agricultural tradition in North America and engrained in many, many people who live on this land. But I know from experience that far too many people are unfamiliar with the term and cannot guess the three ingredients it entails. All of us can pay homage to the First Nations who were forced to give up this food and the ingenuity for growing it.
What are the three sisters?
The “three sisters" refers to the relationship between beans, corn, and squash when they grow together. Natives to North America discovered that the crops have a symbiotic agricultural relationship.
The beans provide nitrogen for the corn to grow, then the grown corn serves as a lattice for the beans to ascend, while squash leaves shade both keeping the soil hydrated and protecting against weeds.
“It's permaculture at its best,” says Dr. Lois Ellen Frank who has a PhD in culinary anthropology on the discourse and practice of Native American cuisine. “They have this completely sustainable relationship in how they grow and how they feed and nurture people.”
The way in which they sustain each other has come to represent the strength of a family bond. The way these foods have sustained communities is sacred.
“The conception of the three sisters particularly comes from East Coast tribes, Haudenosaunee and Iroquois. That’s part of their creation story,” says Sean Sherman, of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota. Also known as The Sioux Chef, he founded the Indigenous Food Lab and North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS) in Minneapolis, where he opened Owamni restaurant in 2021.
Chef Tawnya Brant of the Mohawk tribe shares the story, which I've condensed to summarize: "When our Sky Woman came to earth, she gave birth to a daughter and her daughter became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys. The good twin was born the way he was supposed to be born, and the bad twin couldn’t wait. He came out of her side and killed her during childbirth. When Sky Woman fell ... she had these seeds, but she never planted them, and when her daughter passed away ... she put them on her grave. We have many; purple potatoes came from her feet; corn, beans, and squash grew out of her right hand and left hand; strawberries came from her heart; and our sacred tobacco that we use came from her head. To me, all of those are sisters."
She explains that companion planting is a simple way to convey relational connectivity with nature. "You’ll see that in Haudenosaunee culture, we say Mother Earth and that the moon is our grandmother and the sun is our older brother and these foods that are on this land are our sisters. That’s their job. Everything in this universe has a familial connection to Haudenosaunee people, culture, and teachings."
Sherman explains that so many of the 574 tribes remaining today use the companion planting method because the crops spread so far across the U.S., Mexico, and South America. “Three sisters is adopted as a general notion all over the board with so many different diverse communities everywhere,” he says.
Chef Nephi Craig of the Apache tribe in Navajo County, Arizona, founded the Native American Culinary Association (NACA). When he began his career in food, the people making pervasive French and American Southwest cuisines weren’t acknowledging Indigenous culture among global influences.
“I was looking for something that was relevant to how I grew up around food with my family, and I just didn’t see it early on,” says Craig. “When I came across the story of three sisters, it really gave a lot of depth to those cultivars and opened up the doorway to begin the journey of understanding how Indigenous foodways changed the world forever from a culinary standpoint.”
Craig recognized that chefs succeeding across other cuisines were using the three sisters while oblivious to the origin of the trio.
“It really validated something that I felt was missing from the American cuisine narrative,” he says. “It feels really empowering for me as one individual feeling isolated because I always wanted to do something with Native foods.”
As the coordinator of a nutritional recovery program for his community’s Rainbow Treatment Center and the chef of Cafe Gozhoo, a vocational training site for people recovering from alcohol and drug substance use, Craig teaches hands-on cooking classes. Now he uses the three sisters as a teaching tool, saying the metaphor of their symbiosis conveys the concept of working together for students as young as K-12 and even applies to a range of topics, from public health to genealogy, for university and PhD students.
“Three sisters can be used to enhance those conversations and provide evidence,” he explains. “To us, that’s our evidence of ancestral intelligence, our skills in bioengineering, Indigenous agriculture, and Indigenous science.”
Brant, who is the chef and owner of Yawekon in Ontario, Canada, reiterates the deeper meaning of the creation story behind the three sisters. "We have an oral tradition; our stories aren’t written down so they’re very simple but have huge concepts that are in them. It’s something easy that you’ll know that’s in the back of your mind so when you’re looking for those answers later on in life, you know where to start."
Chef Crystal Wahpepah of the Kickapoo tribe in Oklahoma touts the “goodness of the nutrients” and the representation of strength in her community.
“Together the three really have almost every nutrient known to sustain life,” adds Dr. Frank, who is the co-author of Seed to Plate, Soil to Sky, a plant-based cookbook featuring eight “foods that Native people gave to the world.” She calls corn “the essence of life” and beans “sustenance in a pod.”
After all, beans are packed with plant protein; corn and squash add vitamin C; and all three are filled with fiber, which aids digestion and offers an array of health benefits.
Wahpepah emphasizes Native foods as medicine and a method for speaking out. “One of the most beautiful ways we can communicate is actually serving someone beautiful food from our culture,” she says.
At her restaurant Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California, Wahpepah serves a Three Sister Veggie Bowl with cracked corn and tepary beans. Craig crafts a Three Sisters Salad with hominy, marinated heirloom beans, and yellow squash at Cafe Gozhoo. And Sherman offers a Three Sisters Stew with hominy, squash broth, and tepary beans at James Beard Award-winning Owamni.
“The three sisters are a constant. They make constant appearances on our menus in many different forms,” says Craig.
He makes cornbread with fresh corn off the cobs. Wahpepah grills, roasts, and purees Hubbard squash, using the winter squash in soups and stews. And Sherman serves a tepary bean dip, caramelized sweet corn with onions and tomatoes, and a squash caramel dessert.
"It’s up to us to carry on those teachings, to practice them, and to find out why. Why are certain things together?" Brant poses. "People are the same way, that’s why we have family. You can’t stand alone. You have to be lifted up by your community. It’s all of those teachings in one that creation is all connected."
Isn't that what we're meant to be celebrating?
Incorporating the three sisters in your Thanksgiving spread is a simple way to add meaning to your meal and to acknowledge the impact of the people the holiday has long misrepresented. At the very least, corn, beans, and squash can spark conversation that has the potential to effect change.
“Take some steps to try and indigenize some of your dishes, too, to pay respect and homage to the Indigenous communities that are here,” encourages Sherman. “But you don’t need a national holiday for people to do that. They could be doing that any time, really.”
Dr. Frank promotes Native American ingredients and cuisine year-round with chef Walter Whitewater of the Diné Nation via Red Mesa Cuisine catering, cooking classes, and health education training. “Our philosophy at Red Mesa is to buy local when possible, to know your farm, and to eat seasonally,” she says. “That's one of the most sustainable methods and ways to live according to tradition.”
Craig suggests breaking with the Colonial tradition. “Eliminate the word Thanksgiving and make it Indigenous Foods Day because the cultural American myth that that happened is repulsive,” he says, referring to the outdated story of colonists and Natives enjoying a meal together. “It’s not true and we’re finally in a generation where it’s safe to talk about that.”
Crystal makes peace with the day, serving people breakfast burritos in the Bay Area. “A lot of Natives celebrate it, but it doesn’t have to be called Thanksgiving,” she says. “It’s called sharing food with one another.”
Where to source the three sisters for any gathering and support Indigenous communities
Bow & Arrow Brand offers blue, white, yellow, and mixed cornmeal, plus whole grain and yellow corn polenta, online from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado at bowandarrowbrand.com.
Dream of Wild Health has a stand at the Four Sisters Farmers Market in Minneapolis from May to October, offering beans, maize, and winter squash, among other produce, grown by the Ojibwe. Learn more at dreamofwildhealth.org.
The Indigenous Food Lab Market distributes Bow & Arrow’s dried corn and cornmeal, and ships organic popcorn and black, Great Northern, and pinto beans from Minneapolis. Shop online at iflmarket.square.site.
The Iroquois White Corn Project distributes its hand grown and harvested heirloom white corn at Seneca One Stop convenience stores in upstate New York.
Ramona Farms distributes brown and white tepary beans from the Akimel O’odham and Tohono O’odham Native people in the Sonoran desert and corn flour and cornmeal from the Hopi and Pima (another name for Akimel O’odham) tribes in Arizona through retailers and restaurants in Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. Find a distributor near you at ramonafarms.com.
SweetGrass Trading Company offers Indian corn from the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska online. You can also order Ramona Farms’ beans and corn at sweetgrasstradingco.com.
Denver’s Tocabe restaurant has developed an online marketplace distributing Indigenous ingredients at shoptocabe.com, including black, brown, and white tepary beans from Ramona Farms, GA'IVSA Pima Corn from Ramona Farms, and white and yellow cornmeal from Bow & Arrow. The American Indian eatery has also developed fully prepared Harvest Meals that can be delivered to the contiguous states.
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