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The Three Sisters Thang is a myth created by white men

The Three Sisters Thang is a myth created by white men

The second program of the PBS series, Native America, perpetuated myths about Indigenous American agriculture that few people bother to fact check.

In their three pages on Native American history in American History textbooks, generations of school children in the United States were taught that Indians were such good farmers that they knew to grow corn, beans and squash together in order to avoid depletion of the soil. College anthropology textbooks went a step further and told us about vast fields of mixed corn, beans and squash in the Southeast, plus that Native Americans were dependent on those three crops for most of their nutrition.  HORSE MANURE!  

An astonishing percentage (something like 70%) of the vegetables and fruits cultivated on the Earth today, originated in the Americas.  This fact was generally ignored until pointed out in Charles C. Mann’s bestselling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which was published in 2005.  These plants are immeasurable gifts to mankind for which all indigenous American descendants can take pride.  However,  how did they really grow these crops?  We know from tradition and eyewitness accounts by Europeans, that the Creek People of the Lower Southeast grew many varieties of vegetables, nuts and fruits . . . not just corn, beans and squash. The Uchee People near Savannah grew pineapples and cacao trees, adapted to Georgia’s coastal climate. Virtually,  all commercial strawberries in the world are descended from the Creek domesticated strawberry . . . yet textbooks and TV documentaries only talk about corn, beans and squash.  So why does the national media continue to “dumb down” North America’s indigenous peoples?

Long, long ago in a land faraway known as Mexico, I already was learning that just because an anthropology professor or book says something, it is not necessarily true. At the time, I didn’t know diddlysquat about my Creek-Uchee heritage or farming, but the Georgia Institute of Technology had given me an extraordinary opportunity to learn the history, cultural traditions, architecture and urban planning techniques of ancient Mexico . . . and my mind was like a sponge.  Once in Mexico, it became perfectly clear from the lectures given at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia that one could not understand Mesoamerican civilization without understanding its agriculture.  From then on, I studied the agricultural practices of each of the civilizations in parallel with their architectural traditions. 

Dr. Román Piña Chán (1920-2001)

At my first meeting with Dr. Román Piña Chán, Director of the Museum, he had looked at the syllabus prepared by Georgia Tech professors and asked me if I wanted to be a Gringo turístico or truly understand Mexico. I chose the latter option.  He tossed my Georgia Tech syllabus in the trash can and at our next meeting handed me one that would take me out into boonies on third class busses and on foot.

It was perhaps the last days of when one could see Old Mexico. Today, if one could even find a Mexican village without at least 20th century technology, it would be extremely dangerous to travel alone to see it. However, back then in complete safety, I visited remote Indian villages on foot that had changed little in 200 years. They had no cars, electricity, telephones or running water.  Their agricultural practices were virtually identical to those practiced when the Spanish conquered Mexico.  About the only problem I had was mothers constantly wanting me to marry their 15 and 16 year old daughters. LOL Well,  on second thought . . . maybe my polite refusals were mistake.  Actually,  while in Mexico, I had a lovely, intelligent Mexican lady friend in Mexico City, who was the daughter of Sephardic Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied France.

Nowhere in Mexico, Guatemala or Belize did I see corn, beans and squash being grown together. 

In the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula I actually got to see real milpas . . . the slash and burn agriculture of “primitive” indigenous American cultures. Milpa is actually the word for maize in several Maya languages, but the cultivation of corn is just one phase of the milpa’s usage.  BUT I never saw any beans growing in any milpa at any stage of its lifespan. In contrast, beans and peppers were endemic on the hillsides and mountain slopes of the Chiapas Highlands.

The Itza and Itsate Creek word for maize is “iche.”   The Muskogee-Creek word is “ache.”

The word for a slash-and-burn agriculture in the Totonac, Itza Maya and Itsate Creek languages is yama.  It is known that the Native peoples in the semi-tropical river basins of southeast Georgia, southern Alabama and Florida Panhandle practiced slash-and-burn agriculture.  This is probably the origin of the ethnic names Yamakora (Yamacraw = Slash-and-Burn People) and Yamasi (Yamasee = Colonists of the Slash-and-Burn People). 

Stages of a milpa or yamas

A Maya milpa that I visited in the Puuc Hills of Campeche

When a site for a milpa or yama was selected, all trees, except those bearing fruits or nuts, would be cut down in the autumn.  After the dead vegetation had been desiccated during the Winter Dry Season,  it was burned.  During the spring, patches of many types of squash, pumpkin and melon were planted in piles of partially burned vegetation.  Elsewhere, patches of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and tobacco were planted.  There were some other plants, perhaps herbs, which I couldn’t identify.  Maybe now I could, but I was just a wet-behind-the-ears architecture student.

In the second year, most of the milpa was planted with corn.  The steeper slopes were planted in beans. Especially fertile sections of the milpa with level ground were planted with the same type crops as the first year.

This pattern would be seen for a year or two more then cultivation would cease, except in the most fertile areas.  These fertile areas were fenced in with interwoven saplings.  Elsewhere, pigs, goats and burros were allowed to graze.  Overtime these haphazard pastures would return to forest land.  By that time other milpas or yamas were in use.

 

Note the beans and peppers on the upper terraces, corn in the valley.

Terrace agriculture

I saw very few yamas in the Chiapas and Guatemalan Highlands.  Here, much of the agriculture occurred on mountainside terraces or in the floodplains of streams.  The bottomlands were fertilized by periodic flooding of the streams and nutrients washing down from the terraces. 

The terraces were fertilized by ashes spread by the farmers, lime made by burning stones and manure . . . all hauled up the slopes by burros or human backs.  The upper terraces were primarily used for growing beans, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes.  There was some corn on lower terraces, but most of the corn, sweet potatoes and tobacco was grown in the bottomlands.

I took the color slide above to show Georgia Tech architecture students how Mesoamerican farmers divided up their crops according to specific soil and drainage conditions.  The Highland Maya farmers did not grow corn, beans and squash together as we were told in our elementary and high school textbooks.  However, at the time, I dreamed of becoming an architect-developer like John C. Portman.   Knowledge of Mesoamerican agricultural practices seemed as about as relevant to my future as if I had become an expert on Medieval art.  Little did I know that in 2011, I would find the Track Rock terrace complex ruins almost identical in layout to the Itza terrace complex that I photographed.

This is what the lower stone rubble walls in Georgia terrace complexes probably looked like, when cultivated.

A bonified, profeshunul farmer

Life has a way of playing jokes on youthful ambitions.  Eight years later I would find myself outstanding in my field . . . er-r-r my fields were high up in the Craggy Mountains, north of Asheville, NC.  The head of the Reems Creek Valley then had a climate more like the lower peaks of the Andes, but in recent years has been drastically affected by climatic warming.  Back then, we had constant snows in the winter. A disproportionate amount of annual precipitation came in the winter. One January morning in 1985, the temperature dropped to minus 25° F.  It was -43° on Mount Mitchel.  That year, we had snow flurries on June 6 and our first frost on September 8.  During the winter months, Courthouse Knob Mountain blocked the sunshine from our house and garden for about three months. The summers were much dryer than in the Georgia Mountains and the growing season was much, much shorter.

So . . . being at the vanguard of the “Back to Nature” Movement, rather than being a millionaire architect-developer,  I decided to experiment with methods of farmers on the eastern slopes of the Andes for growing vegetables and the herdsmen of Switzerland for raising dairy goats, sheep and Scottish Longhair Cattle.  Shezam . . . four years later, I was US Soil Conservation Service Farmer of the Year, plus on the cover of Country Roads Magazine and the Dairy Goat Journal. 

We developed a half acre garden on a slightly sloped area of black soil at the base of the mountain.  This garden filled up our freezer and pantry. The first year, in the lowest and sunniest part of the garden, I tried the Three Sisters Thang . . . planting corn, beans and squash together.   It was a disaster.  The corn was half the height of the corn grown with Andean methods.  The squash plants rotted just after blooming.  The bean plants bloomed, but few flowers were pollinated.  Elsewhere, my Sweet Corn grew 12 to14 feet high.  My winter squash filled an 8’ x 8’ x 5’ bin and my mangolds (Swiss feed beets) weighed up to 18 pounds.   As proof, that I am not exaggerating, my former wife in the photo is 5’-10”.

When we moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, both my architecture practice and the cheese creamery went big time.  I just didn’t have time to grow veggies.  We did have large asparagus and rhubarb beds, but that didn’t take much labor.

Then in 2012, when having very little income and living in a hovel, I was forced to grow a wide range of vegetables, just to survive.  I constructed a miniature terrace complex with the same orientation and soil  as the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  My peas and beans grew to twice the height that the seed packages said they should grow.  All the other crops did extremely well, except corn . . . which was stunted.

You see here is the problem with vegetables.  Most originated in different parts of the Americas and Old World.  Each vegetable has a specific range of soil acidity, minerals and climatic conditions in which it thrives best. 

For example, pumpkins and most of the squash varieties grown in the Southeast are descended from a wild squash in the Appalachians, which grew in acidic piles of rotted wood, aka natural sawdust.  They especially thrive in locations, where there has recently been a forest fire.

On the other hand, the commercial varieties of corn in the eastern United States have recently been traced to South America.  Panoan farmers genetically altered Mexican corn to adapt it to the river flood plains immediately east of the Andes, where there is limestone.  Thus, Eastern Indian corn and our modern corn varieties thrive best in alluvial soils derived from limestone.  On the other hand, Southwestern Indian corn is derived from Mexican corn, which was developed in more acidic volcanic soils with a monsoon climate of wet summers and dry weather the rest of the year. The Central Highlands of Mexico rarely get above 85° F.  whereas South American and Gringo corn thrives in much warmer temperatures.

Bean plants originated from wild ancestors on the slopes of mountains of Peru and southern Mexico.  They prefer a soil Ph, which roughly halfway between what is ideal for corn and squash.  Both corn and squash draw large amounts of nitrogen from the soil, but squash family plants also draw large amounts of phosphorous.

Now . . . Creek villages on the move always looked for locations in stream bottomlands, where the river cane grew especially tall.   By experience, they learned that corn would grow well in the same locations. However, squash and pumpkins do best in virgin locations, where there are lots of wood particles in the soil.  Members of the bean, potato and tomato families like fertile, well-drained soils on hillsides.   Clearly, it is not possible to get the best results by combining all these crops together. 

My experimental terrace garden near Amicalola Falls in the Georgia Mountains

Now hearing from an expert

Photo of Dr. Burden teaching the social elite of Soddy Daisy,  Tennessee.

Two years ago, I asked the People of One Fire’s resident County Agent, the notorious Dr. Ray Burden, about the Three Sisters Thang.  Cousin Ray was a dairyman, sheep farmer,  farm and livestock supply store owner and Director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Agricultural Extension Office, prior to being a professor at the University of Tennessee.  He should know about such things.

He said that some white academician dreamed up the Three Sisters Thang in the mid-1800s. I traced the myth to a New England-published book about the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation. Just as stated in the PBS documentary, Native America, this self-described scholar stated that beans provided nitrogen for the corn and the squash shades the ground to prevent weeds.  Ray said that after this myth became widely viewed as fact, Midwestern farmers actually tried cultivating their corn, beans and squash together.  The result was the same disaster that I experienced in the garden in the Craggy Mountains.

Ray stated that the corn and squash compete for the same plant nutrients, while the nitrogen fixed in the tubers of legumes cannot be used at all by the other two plants, until the legume plants have died and their components have degenerated into the soil.  Meanwhile the tall corn plants block the sunshine from striking the squash and bean plants, preventing photo synthesis and normal plant maturity. 

So many stories like this one

So much of what Southerners read on state historical markers and local histories as Native American history are really tall tales created by early white settlers, who never met a Native American.  After 180 years the tall tales have become so ingrained in poorly researched history texts, they are taken to be the “gospel truth” . . .  if you excuse the pun.   For you see, in the current delusional environment of the United States,  fabricated, false history has become a sacred religion and scientific research has become the work of the devil . . . or at least, Librul Marxist Terrorists!

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

9 Comments

  1. lbtagawa@gmail.com'

    Oh wow, so helpful. My fictional (southern) Shawnee village is near a small river. They periodically relocate. But I will not make the mistake of combining crops! Struggling with a lot of things, though. For example, how much of the proto-Creek culture affected them, esp after the Beaver Wars? Tempted to include some of it, or at least a Creek individual (through adoption or something). Writing historical fiction is hard enough. Trying to write a Shawnee point of view feels like slogging through deep mud. There is a little bit of stuff written by modern-day Shawnee, but sad to say, somewhat glamorized. Anyway, thanks for your efforts–even the little bits and pieces have helped.

    Reply
    • The Beaver Wars were horrific for the Shawnee. The Iroquois seized a large amount of Northern Shawnee land and made several Shawnee bands into vassals. The Xuale Shawnee in northern West Virginia and NW Virginia were almost exterminated by the Iroquois. The Shawnee and Proto-Creeks have been close friends for at least a thousand years so several Shawnee bands moved to Alabama to be under protection of several Creek provinces there. Are you aware that the Xuale were highly advanced mound builders. They are almost never mentioned outside West Virginia, but should be included as one of the Mississippian Cultures.

      So Part Two of Native America was misleading. Yes, the five tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy that joined together made peace with each other, but then they turned on their neighbors and slaughtered/enslaved thousands of people in the Midwest and Upper Southeast.

      Reply
      • lbtagawa@gmail.com'

        Just read your article on the Shawnee, helpful–and confirms a few things I’ve learned. Even the little I know has really changed my understanding of the French and Indian War. I hope my readers will be able to empathize with both sides–planning to have my Shawnee POV character as part of the raid on Draper’s Meadow.

        Reply
        • We need more books on the Shawnee. They were a sophisticated tribe that once covered most of the Upper South.

          Reply
  2. wrdwevr@comcast.net'

    This sent me back to my long-time favorite text on SE Native history and culture, “The Old Beloved Path: Daily Life Among the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley, by William Winn, 1992 Historic Chattahoochee Commission and the Columbus Museum. It was gratifying to see that Mr. Winn’s well researched look at Woodland agriculture in the valley is in total agreement with your account with nary a mention of the three sisters. Despite this, I know many besides me have believed the three sisters story because…well, because it seems such a nice story. But the truth is ever so much better. Thank you, Richard.

    Reply
    • Thank you Edna . . . miss seeing you in person. It has been 10 years!

      Reply
  3. altoro64@gmail.com'

    Thank you for the informative article. Seems the “Three Sisters thang” is yet one more thing I’ve had to unlearn from my so-called “education”.
    Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  4. kkakins@gmail.com'

    It is still part of the curriculum in Indiana for 4th-grade social studies that the Three Sisters is a thing.

    Reply
  5. polinskj@oregonstate.edu'

    It is most likely that the whole “Three Sisters” scenario originated in Hebrew cultural stories and was passed along via the usual bible toting routes, where it permeated Euro/English cultures. To become aware that what is perceived as North American culture, has its origin very recent, and though massive hubris claims to have created nearly everything that is known about most everything. I know these are harsh words, but I assert that 95% of people living in the USA do not have a healthy connection to the past, in terms of ancestry, to the present in terms of humility and responsibility, and to the future generations to come. I could go into great detail, but suffice it to say that pretending to know things we don’t know is lust like a disease. One that spreads rapidly, and one that is “built into” the culture…

    Reply

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