Tyonhnékwën: Our Sustenance
Written by Yakothehtón:ni—Jennifer E Brant
(Yakothehtón:ni is Kanyen’kehá:ka and sits with the Bear Clan. She is an educator, singer-songwriter, artist and farmer from Kenhté:ke, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory)
Áhsen Nikontatenò:sen, the Three Sisters, are central to Rotinonhsyón:ni cosmology and culture from before our creation as human beings. The Three Sisters—Corn, Beans and Squash—are considered the leaders of our gardens and cultivated foods. There are many accounts in our oral history that teach us about the relationship between the Three Sisters, as well as the relationship that Rotinonhsyón:ni have built with these life sustainers.
Prior to earth being as it is now, the history of the Rotinonhsyón:ni begins in Skyworld, long before human beings were created. Our Creation Story teaches us about relationships, a way of life, and ceremonies. For example, Corn, one of the Three Sisters, is referred to specifically as having been given as gift to a Yotsi’tsíshon’s (Sky Woman) family and others in Skyworld. During the preparation for Yotsi’tsíshon’s marriage, it tells us that corn- bread was made with strawberries to be carried in the wedding basket and shared as part of the ceremony.
Later in the Creation Story, when Yotsi’tsíshon was pregnant, her husband uprooted the great tree in Skyworld; she fell through the hole and was caught by geese, to be placed on a great turtle’s back, which became the earth. Yotsi’tsíshon gave birth to a daughter, Yotsi’tsiyón:te. After she grew to be a young woman, Yotsi’tsiyón:te became pregnant and
died giving birth to twin boys. Her body was buried under a mound of soil, and plants grew from her body: tobacco from her head, strawberries from her heart, corn from her chest or breast, squash from her belly, beans from her fingers and original potatoes from her toes. Even today, the place where a squash was attached to the vine is referred to as a navel or belly button.
After making the bodies of human beings and breathing life into them, Tharonhyawá:kon (one of the twins) gave the humans their original instructions. They were very simple: give acknowledgment, respect, love and gratitude to all parts of creation for all they provide and do for the human beings, and respond in kind by taking care of the Earth.
Before Tharonhyawá:kon left the earth, he told the people that he would leave three plants to help sustain them. Tharonhyawá:kon gave instructions to the people to send a young man and young woman to follow his footprints until they ended. Standing back to back, the young woman was to face the west and the young man to face the east and pick the foods that grew closest to them while observing the surroundings and all the conditions those plants were growing in. The young woman found and harvested corn and beans, while the young man picked squash. The Two returned to their people to describe how and where the plants were growing. Those three plants, grown on what looked like a grave, became known as the Three Sister—Corn, Beans and Squash.
—Adapted from “The Three Sisters” by Brenda LaFrance, in Words That Come Before All Else: Environmental Philosophies of the Haudenosaunee*
*Rotinonhsyón:ni is the Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) word for Haudenosaunee.
Rotinonhsyón:ni people are farmers. In the past, our expansive fields of gardens were a vital source of food watched over by the whole community. Today there still are families that continue to grow the Three Sisters. Some grow them together—corn at the center of a four-to-six-foot circle, with beans planted near the corn and the squash planted towards the outer circle. Others plant the corn and beans in rows with squash plants around and throughout the rows.
We understand that the squash provides protection to the corn from predators, as well as suppressing weeds and keeping the soil moist under their broad leaves. Cornstalk or Cornhill beans help tall varieties of corn be more stable in the wind, while the corn provides support for the beans to climb. Corn requires nitrogen to grow to its full potential. Beans bind nitrogen to its roots, replenishing the soil for the coming year. The Three Sisters teach us about relationships and how to support and care for one another, along with sharing space and protecting each other.
The Three Sisters are recognized daily as well as throughout our cycle of ceremonies during the year. We fulfill our responsibility and follow our instructions to give gratitude using the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen, which has been translated as “the words before all else.” We use it to open and close all ceremonies, events, gatherings and business meetings, and personally to greet the day. There are specific ceremonies, speeches, songs and dances that we use to give thanks to Tyonhnhéhkwen, our sustainers, these Three Sisters, to honour each stage of their life cycle.
The concepts of Tyonhnhéhkwen—our sustenance—and Áhsen Nikontatenò:sen—the Three Sisters of Corn, Beans and Squash—are a fundamental base of Rotinonhsyón:ni culture from the time of creation, today, and in the generations yet to come.