On a bright sunny day, battling a swarm of black flies, six Indigenous women met 19 kilometres north of Fredericton to begin potting the three sisters plants in an effort to reintroduce traditional foods to the six Wolastoqiyik communities in New Brunswick..
The plants they used were flint corn, butternut squash and red scarlet runner beans.
The introduction of European staples, such as sugar, lard and milk, have led many Indigenous people to have an unhealthy relationship with food, said Amanda Myran, the health services manager with the Wolastoqey Tribal Council.
And she said this project can help repair that relationship.
“It became clear that reconnecting our community members to our ancestral food sources, like corn, beans and squash, would be a way of … drawing on that ancestral knowledge to have healthy relationships with food again,” said Myran, 30.
The project hopes to give elders and community members in Pilick, Mataqaskiye, Welamukotuk, Sitansisk, Neqotkuk and Wotstak First Nations 60 of the three sisters plant bags, in part, to help with diabetes prevention.
A regional health survey conducted by the First Nations Information Governance Centre reported that 15 percent of First Nations people in Canada had diabetes in 2018, a rate three to five times higher than the general population.
The report surveyed 24,000 First Nations people using an at-home computer-assisted personal interviewing method.
WATCH | Reconnecting communities with traditional food:
But the health benefits of the program can extend beyond access to nutritious food, Myran said.
She holds a masters degree in nursing and she said she hopes that as communities learn more about what their ancestors ate, they will find healing in the knowledge.
“I know that a critical piece of our healing as Indigenous people is reconnecting to our ways of knowing, doing and being,” said Myran, who is Dakota but grew up in a Wolastoqew community.
The group planted the corn first and then put the bean and squash seeds around it.
The three plants work together to help one another grow: the corn offers shade and allows the beans to run along its stalk, the beans help with nitrogen levels in the soil and the squash will offer a natural mulch, said Cecelia Brooks, a traditional knowledge keeper. That natural mulch can maintain water levels for the plants, while the squash’s prickly leaves help ward off animals, she said.
Brooks is connected to Sistansisk First Nation but also has Mi’kmaq, Mohawk and Korean bloodlines. She’s worked with food her entire life and said the way the three sisters grow offers a lot of life lessons.
“The reciprocity that they’re giving and taking from each other … that’s the way that our culture works, it’s not always about taking,” said Brooks.
“When we go out to harvest, whatever it is we’re going to harvest, we always ask permission. We ask for that, that honour of being able to take some so that we can live.”
Once the beans and squash sprout they’ll be delivered to the communities. Brooks said she plans to also show the First Nations communities healthy recipes that can be made with the three sisters, like salads and soups. The organizers hope the project will continue to grow.
“I hope what it does, is it inspires people to say, ‘You know, next year I’m going to build myself a little mound, a little three-foot round mound, and I’m going to plant my three sisters right in the ground,'” Brooks said.