Onondaga Elder Tony Gonyea’s gentle words brought the 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, and the seeds of the Three Sisters placed in them.
Binghamton University’s new Three Sisters Garden is more than a spit of land planted with corn, beans and squash. It also maintains a vibrant relationship with the indigenous people who call the land on which the university stands today their ancestral home.
“We look forward to returning here to our ancestral land. It’s monumental for us if we can plant somewhere; it’s almost like stepping back in time,” said Angela Ferguson of the Haudenosaunee Eel Clan, who oversees Onondaga Nation Farm in central New York. “I truly believe that gardens are the places where the journey of healing, reconnection and understanding begins.”
On May 4, the university hosted a panel discussion with Ferguson, Sarah Patterson of Onondaga Nation Farm, and Ethan Tyo, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk and a graduate student at Syracuse University, on the Indigenous connection to the land. A traditional Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving blessing of the garden space followed, after which members of the campus community joined in the planting effort.
“Planting the Three Sisters — beans, squash, and corn — is a tradition designed not only to preserve the earth, but to ensure that we are nourished, that we eat, and that we live,” said Harvey Stenger, President of the Binghamton University before participating in the planting.
The garden is located in Science I’s courtyard and is maintained by volunteers during the summer months. During the academic year, classes will be incorporated into the site, from anthropology and environmental sciences 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 incorporate indigenous knowledge into the curriculum, right alongside our biology programs, which focus on watersheds and ecology, our anthropology programs, and our history programs.” said Assistant Professor of Anthropology BrieAnna Langlie, who organized efforts for Binghamton in collaboration with Barrett Brenton, the faculty associate for the Center for Civic Engagement, and representatives from the Onondaga Nation.
Corn, beans, and squash are traditionally grown together in Haudenosaunee agriculture; The beans help fix nitrogen in the soil while using the cornstalks as trellis, while squash tendrils displace weeds and retain soil moisture.
Rooted in the country
Onondaga Nation Farm preserves heirloom Haudenosaunee seeds, thousands of different varieties. Because Binghamton was once home to the Tuscarora, Ferguson chose Tuscarora seed for the University’s Three Sisters Garden.
The 13-hectare farm began in 2015 on ancestral land returned to the Onondaga family. The first crop was strawberries—sacred to the Haudenosaunee—planted by the nation itself. Corn, beans and squash followed in a seven-year rotation system. Today, the farm produces enough food to sustain each member of the Onondaga nation for four years, providing needed security at a time of food shortages and insecurity, Ferguson said.
Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are all too common in indigenous communities, a legacy of forcibly separated from their ancestral lands and forced into marginal, polluted areas where hunting, fishing and farming were not accessible or safe, Tyo said. It has taken generations to restore the 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, which improved his health; At the same time, he was involved in indigenous student organizations there.
Food became his connection to where he came from, and he deepened his understanding of nutrition, health, and the cultural and spiritual meaning of food. That prompted him to get a degree in food science and also to 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 just because I brought the seeds,” he said.
Like Tyo, Patterson was separate from her indigenous heritage despite growing up just five minutes from the Onondaga Nation; She was adopted into a non-native family when she was 6 months old. Growing up, however, she found a deep connection with the land itself, gathering hickory nuts and snapdragons for her mother, feasting on wild strawberries and learning where the deer roost in winter.
Her high school bus driver, also a native, noticed that she was reading a book about her origins and invited her to her first longhouse ceremony. Later, at Onondaga Community College, she connected with other local students and began studying the language, culture, and stories in earnest.
The three sisters are part of the creation story of Haudenosaunee, the grandchildren of Sky Woman whose fall from the sky sparked the creation of Turtle Island. The daughter of the sky woman perished giving birth to twins, and the grieving ancestor covered her body with a mound of earth. Strawberries grew 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 causes us to reflect on our relationship with food and how it nourishes us, she said. On her own journey, Patterson began working at Onondaga Nation Farm and eventually grew her own food.
During the panel, she held up a head of white corn — the very first crop she grew.
“Each core represents all of my ancestors to me. It represents Sky Woman and her daughter. There’s a spiritual relationship,” she explained.