Three Sisters garden food shares deep roots with Indigenous community: Andrew Coppolino

Generally across Waterloo Region, the fields are a bounty of crops being harvested and brought to market each day. At Three Sisters garden, the harvest also has cultural and nutritive importance to the members of the Indigenous community.

Food grown at the garden is shared with members of the Indigenous community

Dave Skene (left) and Sarina Perchak (right) stand between rows of white corn at Steckle Heritage Farm in Kitchener. An Indigenous garden in the farm is part of the Wisahkotewinowak collective that has been dedicated to building land-based relationships. (Andrew Coppolino)

Summer and fall harvest this year are looking to be a good ones at area farms, and that includes the crops that are currently flourishing at a unique garden at Steckle Heritage Farm in Kitchener.

The 2,500 sq.-ft. plot is an urban Indigenous garden of the Wisahkotewinowak collective that has been dedicated to building land-based relationships in the Waterloo-Wellington area since its inception in 2017.

"It's one of four gardens we have in the area. This is our Three Sisters garden where we grow the largest amounts of corn, beans and squash — the three sisters — for the Indigenous community," said Sarina Perchak, a Métis land-based education coordinator for White Owl Native Ancestry Association and a core member of Wisahkotewinowak.

The other gardens are the teaching garden in Blair, the tea garden in the Guelph Arboretum and the produce garden in University of Waterloo's Environmental Reserve.

With financial support coming from grants and donations, the collective maintains the three sisters crops along with sunflowers, tobacco, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, Haudenosaunee white corn and some beautiful red amaranth, among others.

Part of the rationale for establishing the garden in the city was to explore how urban Indigenous people, a collective of Indigenous gardeners, can maintain their identity as one that is tied to the land.

The collective members take care of the planning and gardening chores while they also hire Indigenous high school and university students to help out in summer.

While the harvested produce, available for free to the Indigenous community, provides nutritious and delicious food, it is also part of much longer and deeper history, according to Dave Skene, a Métis farmer, co-executive director of White Owl Native Ancestry Association and co-founder of Wisahkotewinowak. 

"We knew when we came here that there was an historical significance to being at the farm," Skene said.

"This area probably would have been farmed for a thousand years, or more. They found the longhouses over at Huron Natural Area and near Fischer-Hallman Road. At one point, there was an estimate that there were probably about 2,000 Indigenous people that lived within this area, so there is a historic connection here to our ancestors."

Three Sisters garden also grows Haudenasaunee white corn from Six Nations of the Grand River. This photo shows Haudenosaunee white corn crop that is not yet ready for harvest. (Andrew Coppolino)

Haudenasaunee white corn

While there are familiar crops such as tomatoes, potatoes and broccoli, Three Sisters garden also grows Haudenasaunee white corn from Six Nations of the Grand River.

"This isn't sweet corn. It's a harder corn that you can't eat off the stalk," said Perchak.

"You have to go through a process of nixtamalization. I did it for the first time last year, and you have to soak the corn in an alkaline-based solution in order to release the hull on the outside and the nutrients on the outside of the corn so your body can digest it."

As the corn boils in the solution, it becomes orange and the hulls start to fall off as you work them with your hands.

"Traditionally, this would have been done with a hulling basket," according to Perchak.

The Indigenous peoples of the Americas, millennia ago, processed the corn in a similar way.

The concept of the three sisters is more than just three good things to eat: the crops are an intertwined ecosystem supporting, literally, and nurturing each other.

The plants grow better as a "team." Sturdy corn stalks allow the beans to climb at the same time they enrich the soil with nitrogen and help the corn stalk weather the elements; squash leaves provide shade and their spiky stalks can act as a deterrent against foraging wildlife.

This ecosystem created by ancient Indigenous farmers didn't rely on crop science and agronomy; rather, it was knowledge passed down through generations of what Skene calls, "Indigenous science."

Métis farmer Dave Skene discusses tobacco and its seeds. He says the plant has a traditional and ceremonial significance to Indigenous peoples. (Andrew Coppolino)

Tobacco 'a significant aspect of our culture'

Yet another unique crop the collective grows is tobacco. While we may think of it as lesser-grown crop thriving in the sandy, silt-loam soils of Norfolk County and parts of Elgin County, the plants at Three Sisters have a traditional and ceremonial significance, said Skene.

"Tobacco historically was grown here. The seed that we've used was found in an archeological dig near Niagara Falls that turned up a little clay pot," Skene said.

"They were able to date the pot to over a thousand years old."

It means that there is a physical history at the Three Sisters garden and though it provides both education and nutrition, there is also a sense that Three Sisters is a meeting place, a site of sanctuary and reflection and where the community can give thanks, added Skene.

"We use the tobacco as ceremony. A significant aspect of our culture is reciprocity," he said.

"Tobacco is used in reciprocity which is the whole idea of giving thanks, so we use it as a gift when we're giving thanks."