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Three Sister Plants

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Mckalee Longer Audio V2McKalee Suzanne Steen
00:00 / 22:08
Mckalee Steen Bio:

McKalee Steen, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, grew up on a farm in the northeastern corner of the state. It was on this farm that her parents and grandparents instilled in her a deep respect and care for the environment. In May 2020, she graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Earth and Environmental Science and minors in English and Environmental Sustainability Studies. She is now a first year PhD student in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) department. Her current research interests include land use and land use change, and the environmental and ecological impacts of Indigenous land management practices. McKalee is currently serving as the U.S. Junior National Student Representative for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).  Through all of her work, she hopes to give back to Indian Country, and leave things better than she found them. McKalee is passionate about the power of storytelling - old and new, traditional and modern, poetic and scientific - and incorporates this into her work and hobbies. 

Audio Transcript:


Hi, my name is McKalee Steen. I'm a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. I have a degree in Earth and Environmental Science from Vanderbilt University, and I'm now a first year PhD student at UC Berkeley in the Environmental Science Policy and Management Department, and I'm going to talk a little bit about the three sisters plants and traditional ecological knowledge, and what they mean to my people and other indigenous people. So the three sisters plants are corn, beans, and squash. In Cherokee: Corn is Selu , beansduya, and squash is kayvsesquah. Cherokee people also grew pumpkins, which we call, iya. Pumpkins are more common for Cherokee people to grow, rather than squash, but a lot of people - when they think about three sisters - think about corn, beans, and squash growing together, and other indigenous folks will have different words for these plants, and these are just the words that my people have for them.



Even though modern food production relies on monoculture of these plants, native people grow many different varieties of corn, beans, and squash. There are multiple varieties of corn that come in a whole rainbow of colors. And when we grow heirloom seeds like this, we are preserving not only our culture, but important biodiversity in these crop varieties as well, corn, beans, and squash that are all grown together. The way that Cherokee people tell it the way that I've heard it, is: Corn is the older sister, and she stands really tall and straight, and that's why the corn stocks are so tall. And it's a good thing that they're tall because that gives the youngest sister, beans, a place to climb upwards. Without the support of the corn, the beans would not grow as successfully, or maybe be more prone to predators eating them. But the beans aren't the only ones that benefit from this relationship because beans put important nutrients into the soil, such as nitrogen. And then squash, the third sister, grows along the bottom, along the ground around the other two plants, and the prickly leaves on the squash plant help protect the crops from different animals that might want to eat the other plants. And squash also has a lot of really important vitamins that we wouldn't get anywhere else, and squash also prevents weeds from growing around the plants. And so it's a really beneficial relationship between all three, traditional ecological knowledge, and the sisters plants, are important for our physical and spiritual well being, as well as on historical and cultural levels. The plants, when cultivated together, provide each other with nutrients, protection, and support. And though my ancestors didn't have the lens of Western science to explain why growing these crops together worked so well, they knew from generations of close interactions with the land that this was a successful system for providing a food source. The corn provides a place for the beans to climb and grow, while beans provide important nutrients like nitrogen to the soil, and the squash as it spreads across the ground helps to keep out weeds or other plants that would hinder the growth of the others. Now when we grow and harvest the three sisters plants together, it connects us to our ancestors, our language, and our cultural practices. Utilizing these plants together has important health implications for a balanced diet: Beans provide protein, corn - fiber -, and squash - important vitamins - that we couldn't get from other food sources. Just as they balance each other while growing on the earth, they also provide balance in our bodies. One thing that's important to keep in mind with traditional ecological knowledge is that though the science of today might not recognize our people as scientists, they very much were and are the knowledge that we gain from utilizing traditional ecological knowledge from millennia of experiments that our ancestors conducted to optimize the efficiency and success of our native food systems.



So there's this idea that when settlers arrived to the United States, that it was this pristine landscape that was somehow just magically that way, and that the land was able to provide for them, or that it was so beautiful and pristine and that it just existed that way, but it came from millennia of native people tending the land, deep, deep, close interactions with the land, to understand it and to interact with the land in ways that would benefit our people and help sustain them but also continue to be respectful of the land and all of our plants and animal relatives. And so there's this common misconception, especially within conservation that the way to preserve a place or the way to make a place better is to passively manage it and let nature or let the wild run its course. And that very concept is based within this idea that, whenever settlers arrived to the United States, what they were finding was wilderness. What they were finding wasn't wilderness, it was land that had been carefully tended for a really long time. In order to think of ways of managing the land of interacting with the land that are more sustainable, or better for the environment. We have to rethink our use of wilderness and of conservation and of what good relationships with the land looks like because our ancestors were here for years, and before settler contact, had enormous populations that we're interacting with the lands in a way that doesn't deplete them as we see now. Especially with our varieties of crops such as corn growing dozens of different varieties of corn is such a stark contrast to what you see today, with monoculture of corn, and you look into a cornfield today and you see one variety of corn, one color of corn, and there are a lot of lessons that we can learn from our ancestors and from the plants and how to better manage our lands.



Some Cherokee people talk about the origin of the corn bead. We have specific necklaces that we wear that have corn beads, and then and these come from the corn green, and they became more primarily worn during and after the Trail of Tears, because the bead looks like a tear, and reminds people of that time. And they say that before the Trail of Tears, that corn grew really tall, taller than it grows now, and in more colors, and that the the ears of corn were longer, and as the corn watched the people being removed, it was saddened by their removal, and that's why the corn grows smaller now. And the Trail of Tears was a period of time in the middle to late 1800s When native people were removed from the southeast of the United States to Indian territory, which is now Oklahoma. I have Trail of Tears survivors on both sides of my family. There were a lot of different types of removal across the United States, removing native people from their traditional homelands to other lands in the United States, the Trail of Tears was specifically what happened, what people reference when they talk about what happened to the Cherokee people, and other tribes from the southeast.



I think that being a native or indigenous person, especially in a STEM field, means that you have to be - actually just being a native or indigenous person at all and existing in this world that we exist in - you have to like be an expert on everything. So you have to be an expert on tribal policy and Indian law, and all of the things that impact tribal communities you're expected to be the expert on, which is just unrealistic or unreasonable. But I find a lot of times if I mentioned that I'm Native, or if I'm trying to develop research questions that relate to Native people, I have to be the expert on all of it, on all-of-the-things, and that can be exhausting as Native people, trying to accomplish one thing, while keeping all these other really complex things in mind. So, Native people have really deep understandings of the land and so many of our, our origin stories are things that relate to - like - how the world was made, or how our sacred sites have a very, very deeply placed based way of being told. And so, to ignore that knowledge, I think it just doesn't make sense to ignore the long standing history of indigenous people. So this was something that I think about a lot, and especially starting out on a PhD. I'm in my first semester right now, in the fall of 2020, and something that I've come to realize through my undergrad education and through - I did science fair and science research and stuff like that in high school, I've always been a really big nerd - but something that I've realized through my long interaction with science technology engineering and math, the STEM field, as well as existing within an interdisciplinary world where a lot of sciences influenced by policy and vice versa, science, and politics, and all of these things influencing each other: What I've come to realize is that there are a lot of different ways of knowing, and of keeping knowledge, and of passing knowledge on - and there are only a few of those ways that are respected in our western societies -. So, within politics, and within some STEM realms, traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing are not respected, or are not taken as seriously as other forms of policy or scientific research-development things are. There are so many things in the world that needs addressed, and that are challenging, and there's so many challenges that we're facing right now that if we stop and think about why, or if we stop and think about what forms of knowledge that we give value and power to, I think that would be a really eye opening experience for people to realize that there are a lot of different types of knowledge, and that there's a lot of different ways of knowing and ways of carrying that knowledge that should be respected, and that haven't been. 


And that goes back to the eraser of native people, not just in this literal sense where we faced genocide when the settlers arrived to the United States, but also, as we have continued to persist and exist as sovereign nations in the United States. So much of our educational system erases Native people, and erases our histories, and so there are a lot of times when myself or others, talk to people, and we tell them that we're Native American - or what tribe we belong to-. A lot of times people's first reaction is surprise or shock. And it's because so many people think that we don't exist anymore, or that we exist somewhere in the past, or that if we do exist, that we are somehow not functioning with modernity, and that we are, our ways of living, are archaic and of the past. And it's so not true, and there's so much of native culture that is futuristic, and there's so much of native culture that can propel us forward into the future in really cool and exciting ways. And one way to start doing that is to acknowledge traditional ecological knowledge and to hold it with the same value, and with the same weight, that other ways of knowing and other types of knowledge are held.



There's a lot of knowledge within indigenous communities, not all of that is meant to be shared, some of that needs to stay within the tribe, but especially if you're doing work that pertains to a tribe or work that will impact a tribe, they should be in on the decision making process, and a lot of folks don't understand that. If you're doing research anywhere on Turtle Island, you're on indigenous land. So one of the bare minimum things you can do is acknowledge that, and acknowledge the indigenous land that you're on, and acknowledging land is not where your efforts to engage the indigenous community should stop. That should just be the bare minimum. That should be the start, acknowledging what indigenous land you're on, and then continuing forward in a way that you incorporate indigenous perspectives and indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing and in an effort to create this better future.



Something that I've noticed within my tribe and other tribes, is that we have fundamentally different understanding and respect for all of our relatives, and we think of all of our relatives, and all of our ancestors as being the plants and the animals and the rocks, things that settlers probably want to consider to be living like rocks or mountains, things like that we consider to be our ancestors. We have a really deep respect for the plants. And I would describe it as a relationship, just as you would have with a friend or a family member, you have a relationship with plants, and something that I think is really beautiful that I've heard people talk about a few times before, is how plants or seeds connect us through time, because you usually whatever you harvest from the year before you save some of the seeds to plant the next year, and the next year, and so on and so forth, and that has a way of connecting us through time, to our ancestors, or to the previous year, whatever it may be. And with that also comes a relationship with the plant, because you're not having a relationship with yourself or your family member, whoever was harvesting and cultivating the plants the years before, but you also have a relationship, an ongoing relationship with this plant that continues to provide for you.



A lot of times with plants, there's a certain protocol for harvesting and going about it in an honorable and respectful way and so, especially if you're harvesting things that are going to be used for medicine or things or ceremony, things like that, you want to ask permission first. And you want to have a way of showing things, and indigenous people all have different ways, different tribes have different ways of showing things. So for some people it might be leaving tobacco or... But I think that's so fundamentally different from how settlers and colonizers think about our relationship with food and our relationship with plants, it's more of a settler mindset. The idea is to take and take,and they should be getting something from the relationship without putting things back into it. And that's just not how relationships work it, it's a two way street, and if the plants are going to provide for us, we have to be respectful and provide for them. And that also goes to a deeper level of taking care of our soil, and our air, and water. We can't grow plants without all of those things being healthy as well. A lot of our ancestors, I think probably didn't have to worry about that as much but as we have seen the world change so quickly and so rapidly. A lot of native communities, a lot of indigenous communities are on the frontlines of climate change, and of environmental pollution and degradation. I grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, and I grew up 30 miles away from the tar Creek Superfund site, which doesn't impact the Cherokee Nation but it impacts a few other tribes in northeastern Oklahoma, and the soil is so contaminated that you can't grow anything in it, and it has contaminated the water as well so you can't go to water, and you can't swim in that, or it's killed off all of the fish population in that area. And it's one of the largest Superfund sites in our nation, with environmental degradation environmental pollution, climate change all of these things are destructive to our communities on so many levels, but when it affects something like the soil, and you can't grow your own food, because of how contaminated things are it really has an impact on your community and on how you are able to interact with the land in a good way. Oh, it impacts how you carry traditions forward and it impacts people you know maybe trying to reconnect with their traditions, so there's a lot we can learn from the three sisters and from our traditional ecological knowledge, which is a wide range of knowledge. There's a lot we can learn from that, but there's also a lot of barriers today across Indian country, that affect how people are able to do that.


It's really beautiful how our people frame these plants as family as relatives. We think about plants and animals, and all of the things that we exist with on this earth as our relatives and as our teachers, then we can learn so much from them. And the plants are each other's sisters, but my people also have a story of the origin of the corn plant, where the first woman Selu, corn was worried about her two children, being able to be fed and be sustained. And so she sacrificed herself to provide food for them, and from where they buried her in the ground, the corn plant rose, and they were able to teach other people how to grow corn and how to provide nourishment for themselves. So there's this really deep, nurturing aspect, especially with, with corn, where it's a mother of the children. And I think that that's a really beautiful concept and I think that we don't often think about our food as loving us, we might love food, or we might love nature, or we might love aspects of our garden, and things like that, but we don't always think about it, loving us back but I think that that story is really sacrificing herself to help feed her children and shows this, this love that food that we can except for, and the plants all have a reciprocal relationship with one another. That teaches us that we should have a reciprocal relationship with the plants in the land as well, but also with each other, just as the plants do.

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