The Three Sisters

For centuries, the Iroquois (and now many other cultures) have been growing corn, beans, and squash together, referring to them as the Three Sisters. Corn grows tall and strong, serving as a natural pole for the beans to climb. The bean plants have nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules in the roots, providing fertilizer to all three plants. The squash, with its broad leaves, provides shade and ground cover reducing weeds and preserving moisture in the soil.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) writes this about the three sisters in her book Braiding Sweetgrass—a book I want everyone to read!

The way3 sisters of the three sisters reminds me of one of these basic teachings of our people [RWK is Anishinaabe]. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others. Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies (p. 134).

Many Americans would identify hyper-individuality as the bedrock of American democracy and the U.S. constitution, while idealized conceptions of many American Indian nations are looked upon as examples of tribal communal or socialist examples. This of course is an oversimplification fraught with misconceptions, especially considering the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy of nations on the writing of the U.S. constitution. This hyper-individuality become more apparent during election season when any proposals from the left such as progressive taxation or increases to the social safety net are labeled as socialist or communist—that label and comparison to such countries with such programs serving as the ultimate derisive comparison and criticism.

I find this ironic living in a country with a culture encouraging and rewarding conformity (while espousing to encourage individuality and creativity). This is often expressed in a desire to keep up with others and to reduce individuality of “others” through criticism, hazing, punishment, and marginalization of those that are different. We see it in our politics, schools, social clubs, neighborhoods, etc., as the mainstream purposefully, or unwittingly, marginalizes those outside the norm—everything from brand of shoes a child wears to who someone falls in love with. We can easily see this in our marketing and advertising maybe more than anywhere else.

I see it in our education system with continually refining methods of identification of those outside the normal ways of learning and behaving as having a disability needing to be managed, overcome, or fixed in order to be successful in the mainstreamed education system. As a teacher, I’ve struggled to find the balance between identifying a disability to be corrected and having a difference that is a gift to be honored and nurtured. Do not mistake this attempt to understand the complexities of learning disabilities as support for a view that there are not students with learning disabilities that present significant roadblocks to their learning, thus requiring accommodation.

All of this occurs in a culture claiming to honor individuality and individual rights above all else, but at the same time criticizing, marginalizing, and even attempting to eliminate cultural practices that are rooted in tribal practices that do honor the individual while operating in much more communal or socialist ways. We dismiss as socialism any political, social ideas that challenge the American norms—even when those norms are damaging, limiting, and constricting of the ability of the individual’s pursuit of happiness in favor of the success of the individuals, families, and corporations which have accumulated and protect the majority of the country’s wealth and power. I think we would be well-served to pause and see what lessons we could learn from the three sisters. They’ve been teaching it for centuries now.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Press. Minneapolis.

Three Sisters Image: http://www.ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=25836

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