Three Sisters: Prairie Island supports health by reclaiming cultural traditions
The Three Sisters stood tall in the garden, a living symbol of the Prairie Island Indian Community's efforts to reclaim cultural, spiritual and social traditions that were suppressed due to injustices forced upon American Indians by the United States government.
There was a special area for the Sisters — Dakota Yellow Flour corn, Cherokee Trail of Tears beans and Lakota squash — in a plot used to grow vegetables for the Prairie Island community. About a block away was the Elder's Cultural and Medicinal Garden, which featured about 30 native plant species with cultural/medicinal uses and nearly 15 to 20 more native prairie species that promote pollinators and healthy soil.
They both were part of an effort by the Tribal Statewide Health Improvement Partnership to support health in the community by reclaiming traditional native food systems and cultural practices.
"Indigenous diets encourage active, healthy lifestyles," said Nicole Staudt, Prairie Island's Tribal SHIP coordinator. "In American Indian culture, food is medicine for the body, mind and spirit and that's what we're trying to teach."
Connecting food with cultural traditions
Sarah Gorter, a Prairie Island nutritionist, taught the community's youths ages 6 through 15 last summer how to collect and prepare food from what's grown in the community, focusing on their cultural and spiritual significance while also teaching healthy ways to prepare the food.
This was the first year Gorter taught the classes, which continued after the growing season by using produce that has been frozen or preserved. Going forward, Gorter said she wants to include adult tribal members who will share customs and traditions with younger generations.
"We want to show how these foods and medicines can reconnect them to their culture," Staudt said.
The Elder's Cultural and Medicinal Garden incorporated the Dakota language by having individual signs that teach the Dakota name and cultural use for each plant.
Traditional tobacco was also grown. The primary purpose for this tobacco is ceremonial, and it is used as an offering of gratitude and prayer to the Creator whenever something is harvested from the gardens.
The Three Sisters are a lot like the American Indian traditions they represent: Together they are stronger, more sustainable and healthier. Sister corn provides a trellis for the pole beans to climb upon; Sister bean pulls nitrogen from the air; and the vines of Sister squash prevent weeds and preserve moisture for all three.
The community is looking ahead to the next growing season, with plans to connect both gardens to youth summer school and cooking classes.