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Diohe'ko, the Three Sisters in Seneca life: Implications for a native agriculture in the finger lakes region of New York State


Through an interdisciplinary approach, I attempt to construct a partial ethno-agronomy of the Seneca people in late pre-contact times and examine it for relevance to modern agriculture.

Diohe'ko, the Three Sisters, had been cultivated for at least five hundred years prior to contact by the Seneca, an Iroquoian tribe inhabiting western New York State. The Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash (pumpkins, gourds), were planted together in hills in fields, cultivated and harvested by work parties of women.

Changes of village sites and patterns of village movement respond to the adoption of agriculture as well as other factors. Evaluating land use, crop yields and carrying capacity, I question the accuracy of Seneca population estimates.

The Three Sisters was an important cultural complex. The Sisters are protagonists of a number of Seneca tales, myths, ceremonies and legends.

As an agricultural strategy, Three Sisters embodies several efficiencies in growth patterns, nutrient, solar and water use, harvest and nutritional use. Microhabitat manipulation was practiced by the Seneca. The plants exhibit a high degree of cooperation, or commensality, in the association.

Some preliminary judgments can be made about specific varieties of the Sisters in use among the Seneca prior to contact. Northern Flint Corn, Cutshort or Cornhill Beans, and Cucurbita pepo such as Crookneck Squashes are likely the eldest varieties in the area.

Three Sisters agriculture demonstrates qualities of permanence and sustainability, especially as related to the Seneca cultural fabric. A conservative ethic, like Handsome Lake's teaching, it binds together people in culture and people and nurture in nature. Mary Jemison, who farmed both the colonial and Three Sisters ways, seems to have favored the latter's “leisurely” approach.

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Stephen Lewandowski is a native of the Finger Lakes area of New York state. He has been at various times a student of literature (Hamilton College), philosophy (Washington University) and folk culture (Cooperstown/SUNY Oneonta). He has been an educational consultant and teacher of special programs and currently works as District Educator with the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District. He is a poet whose publications include seven books.

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Lewandowski, S. Diohe'ko, the Three Sisters in Seneca life: Implications for a native agriculture in the finger lakes region of New York State. Agric Hum Values 4, 76–93 (1987).

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  • Growth Pattern
  • Crop Yield
  • Veterinary Medicine
  • Specific Variety
  • Population Estimate