For centuries before Europeans reached North America, many Native Americans grew these foods together in one plot, along with the less familiar sunflower. They called the plants sisters to reflect how they thrived when they were cultivated together. Today three-quarters of Native Americans live off of reservations, mainly in urban areas. And nationwide, many Native American communities lack access to healthy food. As a scholar of Indigenous studies focusing on Native relationships with the land, I began to wonder why Native farming practices had declined and what benefits could emerge from bringing them back. To answer these questions, I am working with agronomist Marshall McDaniel, horticulturalist Ajay Nair, nutritionist Donna Winham and Native gardening projects in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Our research project, "Reuniting the Three Sisters," explores what it means to be a responsible caretaker of the land from the perspective of peoples who have been balancing agricultural production with sustainability for hundreds of years. Abundant harvests Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as flavor, texture and color. Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen—an essential plant nutrient—from the air and convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use. Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators. https://phys.org/news/2020-11-sisterscorn-beans-squashto-native-american.html
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