Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden

At the Earth Lodge Village near New Town, North Dakota, we found two local women working in the garden. One said it was designed after the garden that a Hidatsa woman, Buffalo Bird Woman, or Maxidiwiac, had. She was born in 1839, and lived in Dakota Territory near the Missouri River. The garden, which I thought was quite large, was one-tenth of what Buffalo Bird Woman grew.

The "Three Sisters Garden" concept was used by earlier Native Americans of other tribes, also. In the 1600's, the Pilgrims survived in the new land with the help of the Indians who shared their crops with the starving immigrants.

The "three sisters" are corn or maize, climbing beans, and winter squash. The garden shown here has separate hills for the different seeds, but others planted all three in the same hill--the corn in the center of a hill (a raised mound several inches high, a foot or so across) with the beans around it, and the squash on the sides of the hill.

The corn is the support pole for the climbing beans. Beans add nitrogen to the soil, increasing the nutrition. Their entwining vines stabilize the tall corn stalk during storms. The low-growing squash spreads over the rest of the soil as a mulch, smothering out weeds and keeping the moisture in the ground. Their prickly vines deter pests.

They used fertile river bottom soil to garden in, not the dry prairie hilltops. (And they probably didn't have soaker hoses to water with.)

Buffalo Bird Woman sang to her plants, saying they were like children that needed to be nurtured along. She used one area for four years, then allowed it to lie fallow for the next two years.

She planted sunflowers around the edge. The woman I talked to didn't know of the reason, other than she probably liked them. In the picture below, sunflowers are to the left and back.

The picture below is a drying rack, which was used to dry vegetables and meat. A smaller version of this raised structure was built at the edge of the garden as a lookout for birds and animals. Young girls perched on these lookouts, rather like lifeguards, chasing away any predators.

Nutritionists say this provided a well-balanced diet, especially when added to their supply of meat. Along with vitamins and other nutrients, the corn provided carbohydrates, the beans, protein, and the seeds of the squash, a healthy oil.

Makes good sense to me. I'm thinking I'll try a mini-version of a three sisters garden!

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