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The Three Sisters of Fall

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In Native American culture everything that was able to sustain the lives of their people was celebrated and considered sacred. Even things such as squash, corn and beans had mythology built around them. Known to several tribes as the “three sisters,” these plants were the cornerstone of the fall harvest and always found together.

In the Cherokee version of the myth there were once three sisters who grew together. The first was tall and strong with long yellow hair that blew in the wind, and her name was Corn Girl. Corn Girl liked to stand straight and tall in the fields, but the hot sun would burn her feet as she stood there getting hungry. Every day weeds would grow closer, choking her.

The second sister was thin and quick, and her name was Bean Girl. Bean Girl was not as strong as her sister - in fact, she couldn’t even stand up on her own. She was very good at making food, but all she could do was lie there stretched out on the ground getting dirty and wet, which wasn’t very good for her.

The third sister was Squash Girl and she was short, fat and very hungry, too. For a long time these sisters each wanted to be independent and free, but as time went on the sisters’ situations did not improve. Corn Girl’s feet were being burned by the sun as she stood their get hungrier, Bean Girl lay on the ground getting dirtier, and little fat Squash Girl was hungry, too.

One day Bean Girl talked to her sister Corn Girl and asked, “What if I feed you some good food, and you can hold me up so I don't have to lie on the ground and get all dirty?"

Corn Girl thought that was a great idea. Then little Squash Girl called up to her tall sister and inquired, “How about if I lie on your feet and shade them so you won't get sunburned?"

Corn Girl agreed, thinking that was a wonderful idea as well. So the three sister learned to work together so everyone would healthier and happier.

Corn Girl helped Bean Girl stand up, Bean Girl fed Corn Girl and Squash Girl good food, and Squash Girl shaded Corn Girl's feet to keep the weeds from growing up around them all.

Modern day agriculturists know it as the genius of the Native Americans, who interplanted pole beans and squash with corn, using the strength of the sturdy corn stalks to support the twining beans and the shade of the spreading squash vines to trap moisture for the growing crop.

Research done by The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service revealed the additional benefits of "companion planting.'' The bacterial colonies on the bean roots capture nitrogen from the air, some of which is released into the soil to nourish the high nitrogen needs of the corn.

The scientific reasons behind the wisdom of this style of planting is not lost on the Native American people, but for them it goes much deeper into the physical and spiritual well-being of their people. The Iroquois considered corn, beans and squash to be special gifts from the Creator. The health of each crop is believed to be protected by the spirits of the three sisters. From the Iroquois and the Cherokee to the Pueblo people and even the Aztecs, legends have been woven around the sisters - sisters who should never be separated from one another, sisters who should be planted, eaten and celebrated together.

As a tribute to Native American/Alaskan Indian Heritage Month, the following is a traditional Cherokee recipe for Three Sisters Soup.

1 cup dried pinto beans, soaked overnight in 4 cups water
1 acorn squash
1 -2 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 celery rib, sliced
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup corn
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 2T fresh)
salt and pepper

-Drain and rinse soaked beans. Put in a pot and cover with and inch of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes or until tender, but not mushy. Add more water if necessary.
-While beans are cooking, cut squash in half and scoop out seeds.
-Bake squash halves, cut side up, in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes or until tender.
-Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onions and a pinch of salt and sauté over medium heat, stirring often until golden, about 10 minutes.
-Add carrot, garlic and celery and sauté for 5-10 minutes.
-Scoop cooked squash out of shell. Add to onion mixture and mix well, smoothing out any large lumps.
-Add vegetable stock and bring to a boil.
-Turn down heat and add beans, corn and thyme. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
-Salt and pepper to taste and enjoy.

*Editor’s Note: This article was written in recognition of Native American/Alaskan Indian Heritage Month. Please contact the Equal Opportunity Office for any questions or concerns at 719-556-7693 or 21sw.eo.wf@us.af.mil.

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