Reuniting the Three Sisters: collaborative science with Native growers to improve soil and community health

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Springer Nature
Before Euro-American settlement, many Native American nations intercropped maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and squash (Cucurbita pepo) in what is colloquially called the “Three Sisters.” Here we review the historic importance and consequences of rejuvenation of Three Sisters intercropping (3SI), outline a framework to engage Native growers in community science with positive feedbacks to university research, and present preliminary findings from ethnography and a randomized, replicated 3SI experiment. We developed mutually beneficial collaborative research agendas with four Midwestern US Native American nations. Ethnographic data highlighted a culturally based respect for 3SI as living beings, the importance it holds for all cultural facets of these Native nations, and the critical impact the practice has on environmental sustainability. One concern expressed by Native growers during ethnographic research was improving soil health—part of the rationale for establishing the 3SI agronomic experiment. To address this, we collaboratively designed a 3SI experiment. After 1 year, 3SI increased short-term soil respiration by 24%, decreased salt-extractable nitrate by 54%, had no effect on soil microbial biomass (but increased its carbon-to-nitrogen ratio by 32%) compared to the average of monoculture crops. The overarching purpose of this collaborative project is to develop a deeper understanding of 3SI, its cultural importance to Native communities, and how reinvigorating the practice—and intercropping in general—can make agroecosystems more sustainable for people and the environment.
© The Author(s) 2022. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Version of Scholarly Record of this Article is published in Agriculture and Human Values, 2022, available online at: . Keywords: 3 sisters; food sovereignty; intercropping; Indigenous agriculture; milpa; native american; niche complementarity; rematriation; seed sovereignty; traditional ecological knowledge.
Kapayou, D.G., Herrighty, E.M., Hill, C.G. et al. Reuniting the Three Sisters: collaborative science with Native growers to improve soil and community health. Agric Hum Values 40, 65–82 (2023).