The controversial story behind Thanksgiving

According to Native American legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. Early European settlers would never have survived without the gift of the Three Sisters, which has sparked the annual Thanksgiving celebration. This year’s Thanksgiving Day marks the 24th of November.

Thanksgiving has become synonymous with family, food and football. But this American traditional holiday is not without controversy. While schoolchildren still learn that Thanksgiving marks the day that Pilgrims met helpful Indians who gave them food and farming tips to survive the cold, a group called the United American Indians of New England established Thanksgiving as its National Day of Mourning. Before the first nation-wide Thanksgiving was proclaimed on November 26, 1789, by George Washington, Native Americans had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages but considered it honorable to share what they were able to give and offered their food to the white men.

For Native Americans showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect.  An anti-racist organization called Understand Prejudice recommends that schools send letters home to parents addressing efforts to teach children about Thanksgiving in a manner that neither demeans nor stereotypes Native Americans. ‘Furthermore,’ the organization states, ‘we want to make sure students understand that being an Indian is not a role, but part of a person’s identity.’

The Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sister spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko, or Our Sustainers. Interplanting different species in the same mounds is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provides long-term soil fertility. This tradition is widespread among Mesoamerican societies. Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops planted to become an important part of the diet.

Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen, to be used by the corn in the following years. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable in the wind.

Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, they provide shade for emerging weeds and prevent soil moisture from evaporating. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans.

The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure. To ensure adequate pollination the corn must be planted in several rows rather than in one long row. For success in creating a Three Sister Garden, use a pumpkin variety with trailing vines and choose seed spacing carefully for the beans to twine up the corn stalks. Prepare a site in full sun. When the squash seedlings emerge, thin them to two plants per mound. You may have to weed the area several times until the squash take over and shade new weeds.

In addition to the misinformation the Thanksgiving holiday has spread about Natives and Pilgrims, some indigenous peoples don’t recognize the national holiday because they give thanks year-round. Bobbi Webster of the Oneida Nation told the Wisconsin State Journal that the Oneida have 13 ongoing ceremonies of thanksgiving throughout the year.

If you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, hopefully you will ask yourself what you’re celebrating and initiate discussions about the holiday’s origins, honoring what it means for Native Americans today.