Plants in Mythology: Native American Figures

A lost heritage

We’ve spent the last few weeks exploring how plants have influenced human culture through the associations and symbology we’ve given them in various folklores and mythologies.

Last time we looked at the Celtic druids and how their reverence for the trees of Ireland and the rest of the UK gave rise to an entire alphabet. This week we the mythical figures of Native American culture.

While, similarly to the tribal cultures of Africa, Native American culture is hugely varied and there are few truths that extend across different peoples and tribes, it’s clear that one thing all Native American people shared was a deep reverence and respect for the natural world.

Sadly, due to European imperialism and Christian dogma, many of the artifacts and holy sites of Native American culture have been lost, destroyed, or forgotten.

So consider this piece something of a revival or a window into time to rediscover a few of these lost treasures.

The three sisters

The Iroquois confederacy was a group of tribes from around the Northeastern region of North America. In the millennia that preceded European expansion on the continent, several crop plants were transported using river systems from South and Central America to North America.

Among those crops were the three sisters: Maize (Corn), Winter Squash, and Beans. Their sibling title comes from the fact that the Iroquois grew them using Companion Planting – a type of agriculture that focuses on the innate benefits that various plants can confer to one another when close together.

Corn can provide a frame for the tender stems of beans to climb up, the pair then provide shade for the leaves of the squash and each helps to enrich the soil of the other.

It was this synergy that allowed the Iroquois tribes to lead a relatively sedentary life in comparison to their contemporaries.

The three sisters were also highly valued in a cultural sense and part of the reason they were always grown together was a belief that they were guarded by three inseparable spirits and would not thrive if grown apart.

Despite being perhaps the most famous tribes to do, the Iroquois were not the only ones that cultivated and revered the three sisters as we’ll discover below.

The Abenaki emergence

The Abenaki were a tribe whose range covered much of modern-day Maine, Quebec, and New Hampshire. Their creation myth runs in parallel to the arrival of Maize and Tobacco in the world.

The story goes that while the god Kloskurbeh was wandering in a field one day, a young boy approached saying that he had been made when the sun had dried out the sea’s foam on the land. The following day Kloskurbeh met a young girl who had been borne as fruit on the stem of a plant, the god recognized that this meant people were a union of sea and land.

The boy and girl eventually grew up and had many children but they had so many that they ran out of food for them. The mother had an epiphany one

day while wading in a river and ordered the father that he should kill her and bury her bones in two piles.

The father was very reluctant but eventually saw that this was the god’s will, he wept for months over the twin graves of his love until, one day, he saw that tobacco and maize had grown up beneath the bones. These crops would feed all the world’s children for generations and, in return, those tending to them would leave pieces of rotten fish or eels as a gift to the mother that gave her life after swimming in the river.

It’s possible that this custom of leaving rotten fish behind also contributed to the crops in an agricultural sense by helping to fertilize the soil.

The wise man’s big bald head

The Tejas tribe, for whose homeland the state of Texas is now named, believed that the squash plant was a repository of wisdom as well as a staple crop.

The Tejas’ told the tale of a man who was obsessed with knowledge and would travel from tribe to tribe asking questions, demanding nature itself give up its secrets to him. As the man grew older, his hair began falling out and his head began to swell to enormous size, and it was recognized that he was, indeed, very wise.

One day the wise old man took a long nap and the medicine man of the tribe watched over him sleeping, thinking what a shame it was that all his wisdom would be lost when he died. Then the medicine man had a brilliant idea, touching the old man’s swollen head and muttering an incantation, he watched as the spell took effect.

The wise man’s body shrunk until his limbs were thin green roots, his head swelled even bigger and became a huge squash which the medicine man then planted in the ground. Evermore, the squash would feed the tribe with the man’s wisdom, and its seeds would be the seeds of knowledge.

Next week we’ll be discussing some of the individual flowers and wilder plants that Native American culture held in such high esteem. In the meantime, maybe take a look at your own vegetable patch and ask where you might plant sisterhoods of your own so that they can protect and nourish each and later feed you and your loved ones.

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