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Exploring Native American Contributions: A Glimpse into Sustainable Agriculture


Honoring and learning about American Indians is essential to living in the United States. It can feel overwhelming to begin if you want to know more about the people who came before you. That’s why Native American Heritage Month was created. The first designation was in 1990, and since 1994, the month has received different names, such as “Native American Heritage Month ” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.” The purpose of the month is to honor and learn more about those who lived here before us. Many of their contributions are still used today, especially regarding gardening and food.


One such contribution is corn. Corn is everywhere, and it was first cultivated on United States soil by American Indians about 10,000 years ago. It was developed and pruned many times over to achieve the plant that it is today.


You may have heard of the “Three Sisters,” which refers to the companion planting of corn, beans, and squash. Companion planting refers to growing these crops together in one space. The corn and beans are planted together in mounds, and the squash is planted between the mounds. As the corn grows tall, it serves as a framework for the beans, which need clinging support. Under the soil, the bean plants retain nitrogen, which helps stabilize the taller corn stalks in bad weather. The large leaves of the squash plants provide shade, which keeps the soil moist and prevents weeds. No wonder this genius system has remained a staple of modern gardening.


Adopted among tribes in the southwest United States were the “Four Sisters.” Keeping with the original three sisters: corn, beans, and squash, the southwestern tribes planted a bee-attracting plant to encourage bees to pollinate their Three Sisters crops. The Rocky Mountain Bee Plant was a popular plant to use as the Fourth Sister.


There are different reasons people utilize companion gardens. Some plants help deter the common pests of another plant or even attract pollinators, as with the Fourth Sister. Growing larger plants among smaller ones can provide shade and trellis support. Different plants produce different nutrients in the soil that some usually nutrient-deficient plants may need. These reasons date back to the incredible Three Sisters method created by Native Americans.


Corn, beans, and squash (and sometimes a bee-attracting plant) aren’t the only crops that benefit from companion gardening. For example, tomato and basil plants work well together for many reasons. They pair well in the kitchen, especially as a Caprese salad. However, the plants grow well together because basil plants deter pests, particularly ones prone to harming tomatoes.


The Three or Four Sisters weren’t always grown directly into the ground soil. Native Americans produced many of their plants in raised garden beds. These gardens were used mainly in swampy areas with too saturated soil to plant edible plants. The beds allowed the soil to be piled and its water intake controlled by the Indians who managed the gardens. Raised beds are still used widely and not just in swampy wetlands. Many prefer raised beds over planting directly into the ground to allow more control over soil quality and nutrient amounts. Another great aspect of raised beds is their versatility. Whether you have a small or large space, you can fit a raised garden bed of any size. They are also reasonably easy to construct, relying on simple construction. All you need is a vessel for your soil, and you are good to go.


Make it a goal to learn more about American Indians, especially during November!


This copy was prepared by Allison Norberg, a volunteer at Student LunchBox, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting food insecurity among college students.


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