The gentle words of Onondaga Elder Tony Gonyea brought blessing to the garden plot, where each mound represents a tribe of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. It has been at least 200 years since such words were spoken here, the mounds carefully constructed, the seeds of the Three Sisters placed within.
Binghamton University’s new Three Sisters Garden is more than a spit of land where corn, beans and squash grow. It also cultivates a living relationship with the indigenous peoples who call the land on which the University now stands their ancestral home.
“We are delighted to return here to our ancestral lands. It’s monumental for us when we get to plant somewhere; it’s almost like stepping back in time,” said Angela Ferguson of the Haudenosaunee Eel Clan, who oversees the Onondaga Nation farm in central New York. “I truly believe that gardens are where the path to healing, reconnection and understanding begins.”
On May 4, the University hosted a roundtable with Ferguson, Sarah Patterson of the Onondaga Nation Farm, and Ethan Tyo, a member of the Mohawks of Akwesasne and graduate student at Syracuse University, on the Indigenous connection to earth. A traditional Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving blessing of the garden space followed, after which members of the campus community joined in the planting effort.
“The planting of the Three Sisters – beans, squash and corn – is a tradition not only rooted in preserving the land, but also in ensuring that we are supported, eat and live,” said the president of the Binghamton University, Harvey Stenger. before participating in planting.
The garden is located in the Science I courtyard and will be maintained by volunteers during the summer months. During the academic year, classes will be involved in the site, from anthropology and environmental science to history and more.
“One of our big goals with this garden is not just to create a space for the Three Sisters, but to include indigenous knowledge in the curriculum alongside our biology programs which focus on the watersheds and ecology, our anthropology programs and our history programs,” said assistant professor of anthropology BrieAnna Langlie, who organized the Binghamton-side efforts in conjunction with Barrett Brenton, the associate at faculty engagement for the Center for Civic Engagement, and representatives of the Onondaga Nation.
Corn, beans, and squash are traditionally planted together in Haudenosaunee agriculture; beans help fix nitrogen in the soil while using corn stalks as a trellis, while squash vines crowd out weeds and retain soil moisture.
rooted in the earth
The Onondaga Nation Farm stores ancestral Haudenosaunee seeds, thousands of different varieties. Because Binghamton was once home to the Tuscarora, Ferguson chose Tuscarora seeds for the University’s Three Sisters garden.
The 13-acre farm was started in 2015, on ancestral land that was returned to the Onondaga people; his first crop was strawberries – sacred to the Haudenosaunee – transplanted from the Nation itself. Corn, beans and squash followed in a seven-year rotation system. Today, the farm produces enough food to feed each member of the Onondaga Nation for four years, providing needed comfort in times of food shortage and insecurity, Ferguson said.
Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are too often found in indigenous communities, the legacy of being forcibly separated from their ancestral lands and sent to marginal and polluted spaces where hunting, fishing and agriculture were neither accessible nor safe, Tyo said. . It took generations to restore reservation land to a healthier state, he said.
Growing up, Tyo was significantly overweight and felt torn between his culture and the non-native world. He later switched to a plant-based diet at Syracuse University, improving his health; at the same time, he became involved in native student organizations.
Food became how he connected to his background and he deepened his understanding of nutrition, health, and the cultural and spiritual meaning of food. This led him to pursue graduate studies in food science and create a six-story rooftop garden in downtown Syracuse.
“I’ve seen things come out of nothing. I created an ecosystem; spiders and butterflies came out of nowhere, only because I brought the seeds,” he said.
Like Tyo, Patterson was also disconnected from her native heritage, despite growing up just five minutes from the Onondaga Nation; she was adopted from a foreign family when she was 6 months old. Growing up, however, she found a deep connection to the land itself, collecting hickory nuts and snapdragons for her mother, feasting on wild strawberries and learning where deer lay down in winter.
Her school bus driver, also an aboriginal, noticed that she was reading a book about her heritage and invited her to her first ceremony in the longhouse. Later, at Onondaga Community College, she bonded with other Indigenous students and began to learn the language, culture and stories in earnest.
The Three Sisters are part of the creation story of the Haudenosaunee, the grandchildren of Sky Woman, whose fall from the sky precipitated the creation of Turtle Island. Sky Woman’s daughter perished giving birth to twins, and the grieving ancestor covered her body with a mound of dirt. Strawberries sprouted from her daughter’s heart, wild potatoes from her feet, tobacco from her head and corn, beans and squash from her body, Patterson said.
The story prompts us to consider our relationship with food and how it sustains us, she says. During his own journey, Patterson started working on the Onondaga Nation farm and eventually grew his own food.
During the panel, she held up an ear of white corn – the very first crop she grew.
“Each grain, for me, represents all my ancestors. It depicts Sky Woman and her daughter. There is a spiritual relationship,” she explained.