The Three Sisters: A Native American Curriculum for Thanksgiving
by: Fran Wisniewski
Editor's Note: The following information, and activities are provided to help you learn with your little ones at home. Please use them in a flexible way. Never force learning, it should be a joyful experience for you and your child. If it isn't fun put it away. You can always come back to it at another time, or move on to something else. Enjoy!
Hope in the New World (History)
After a long and difficult journey, the Mayflower, landed in America on December 26, 1620. The Pilgrims settled into an old Native American village to protect themselves from New England's cold winter.
When the winter ended, the Pilgrims knew that they would need to be better prepared for the next frigid season. The Pilgrims didn't know a great deal about their new homeland and wondered how they would survive.
One spring day, a Native American by the name of Samoset came into the Pilgrims' village. Samoset was a member of the Wampanoag tribe, and amazingly enough, could speak English! He introduced the Pilgrims to another Native American, Tisquantum; the Pilgrims called him Squanto. Squanto could speak English very well and decided to live with the Pilgrims. He showed them how to fish, hunt, gather, and farm.
Thanks to Squanto, and a lot of hard work, the Pilgrims had a bountiful harvest! To celebrate the successful harvest, the Pilgrims' governor, William Bradford, invited the Native Americans to a traditional festival called "Harvest Home". "The First Thanksgiving," as we now call it, lasted for three days!
A Story about the First Thanksgiving (Reading)
This First Thanksgiving Day: A Counting Story written by Laura Krauss Melmed is a beautifully illustrated counting book that "shows and tells" how Pilgrims and Native Americans worked together to celebrate the first Thanksgiving feast.
"Three Sisters" Working Together (Social Studies/Science)
Do you know about the "Three Sisters"? The first sister is corn, she grows tall and strong and helps the second sister, bean, by allowing her vines to climb up her stalk. In return, bean gives corn the nutrients she needs to grow. Squash is the third sister and she grows low to the ground, throughout the corn field. Her large leaves help to keep the weeds under control and the soil moist. Talk to your child about the "Three Sisters" before you read the legend below, it will help them to understand how each of the "sisters" help one another to grow strong and healthy.
The Legend of The Three Sisters (Language Arts)
The oldest sister is the Spirit of the Corn. She wears silken tassels that rustle as she moves. The sister called the Spirit of the Bean wears clinging green leaves. She clings to and leans on her older sister for support. The youngest sister is the Spirit of the Squash and Pumpkin. She wears a golden crown and sits at the feet of her older sister.
Adapted from, "It's a Family Thanksgiving" by Deborah F Fink M.A. (Check your local library for availability.)
Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to grow the "three sisters": corn, beans, and squash. Although the Pilgrims had never eaten these foods before, it was what grew well in the rocky soil of their new homeland. They learned how to grow, prepare, use, and store these nutritious foods in order to survive the long hard winters.
Corn (Social Science)
In addition to being high in nutrients, corn is a versatile vegetable that comes in different varieties such as red, blue, yellow, and white. The Native Americans called corn maize, and they used every part of the plant! The kernels were eaten, the husks were used for making dolls, bedding, baskets, and other useful objects, the cobs were burned for fuel and used for making game darts.
Learn more by reading the book, "Corn is Maize."
Make Cornhusk Dolls (Social Studies)
Native Americans made cornhusk dolls for their children to play with; they also used the dolls in sacred healing ceremonies.
To make a cornhusk doll with your child you will need:
- Dried Cornhusks
- Corn silk (optional)
Directions: For step by step, illustrated instructions visit: Teachers First
Native Tech has instructions for a male and female cornhusk doll
Note: Cornhusks can be found in the ethnic isle of your food store.
Make Cornstarch Clay (Art and Social Studies)
Native Americans made their own beads and pottery out of clay from the earth, encourage your child to do the same with this air-dry clay!
- 1 C. cornstarch
- 2 C. baking soda
- 1 ¼ C. water
- Food coloring (optional)
- Non-toxic paint
Ask your child to help you measure out the ingredients and put them into a saucepan. Place the saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Remove from heat and let cool.
Ask your child to help you knead the cooled clay for a few minutes. Put the clay in an airtight container for 2 hours to set. Once set, help your child to create bowls, dishes, cups, beads, and other fun things with the clay. When the creations are finished, and the clay has had a couple of days to dry, your child can paint them.
If your child makes clay beads, show him/her how to string them onto yarn to make a necklace. If your child makes a container, put something in it such as nuts or some other dry food. Let everyone enjoy your child's creations by displaying them on your table or around your home.
Tip: One way to make beads out of the clay is to roll the clay into balls (or some other shape) and push a straw, tooth pick or a skewer through the middle of the shape, paint when dry.
Note: If you would like the clay to be one color, add food coloring while kneading. If you separate the clay, different colors can be made. Let your child to mix colors to get new ones! (red + blue = purple, blue + yellow = green, red + yellow = orange, etc.) Keep each color in an airtight container or zip-top bag when not in use and it will keep for a couple of weeks.
Make Some Cornbread (Science/Math/Health)
Thanksgiving just isn't complete without cornbread! Native Americans made a mixture called corn pone that is similar to cornbread. This cornbread recipe is moist and delicious! Remember to ask your child to help you measure out the ingredients, mix, and taste!
Bonus Activity: While you are waiting for the cornbread to cool, make your own butter! You will need heavy cream and a baby food jar with a lid. Fill the jar ¼ of the way full and put the lid on it. Take turns shaking it vigorously until a ball forms. Pour off the buttermilk (or drink it) and spread the butter over a piece of hot delicious, cornbread.
Optional: Add a tiny bit of salt to preserve the butter if you are planning to store it. Add a little sugar to make sweet cream butter.
Tip: A marble can be added to the jar before shaking to speed things up. Remember to remove the marble and keep it out of young children's reach when finished! (To avoid choking hazard.)
Make Sioux Indian Pudding
This Sioux Indian Pudding is well worth the wait! Serve warm with ice cream or with fresh whipped cream for a delightful desert! Remember to ask your child to help you measure the ingredients. Young children can help pour and stir, but should be supervised at all times. Go over kitchen safety rules before starting.
Make Corn Prints (Art)
This fun craft makes a creative background for the activities below!
You'll need: Corn on the cob (fresh, uncooked with husks removed), non-toxic paint, paintbrushes and white construction paper
Directions: Ask your child to paint the corn kernels any way they want to and then roll the corncob over a piece of paper. When your child is satisfied with what he/she has done, put the paper aside to dry and make another one. Use more than one ear of corn or use one ear and wash it between paper changes if you want a fresh start. This is a fun and messy craft so cover the workspace and let your child clean his/her hands before starting again.
Note: Once used, the ear of corn is not edible. Wash the corn with water (no soap) to remove as much of the non-toxic paint as possible and put it out for the birds to enjoy!
Tip: Save the husks for the cornhusk doll!
- Activity 1: When the paint dries, the paper will make a nice background for a Thanksgiving collage and/or place mat. Ask your child to cut out pictures from a magazine and glue them to the textured paper. When the glue dries, hang it up as a picture or cover with contact paper to make a place mat for Thanksgiving dinner.
- Activity 2: Cut some of the textured paper into rectangles, fold them in half, and put a guest or family member's name on one side for a festive place card.
Make An Indian Corn Necklace
Make a colorful necklace or bracelet with this fun craft. Parents are encouraged to help string the kernels.
You'll need: Multicolored corn (Indian corn), pot, water, blunt needle, nylon fishing thread
Directions: Remove kernels from the cob and boil them in water until they are soft. Drain and let cool. Thread a needle with nylon thread and show your child how to string the kernels to make necklaces and bracelets. Hang them to dry before wearing.
Work and Play (Social Studies/Reading)
One Little, Two Little, Three Little Pilgrims by B.G. Hennessy is an adorable counting book with fun illustrations. There are two great ways to enjoy this book! One way is to go through the book and sing the words to the tune of "Ten Little Indians". Another way is to let the pictures tell the story of the Pilgrim and Wampanoag children at work and play. You can explain to your child that children learned at home and had chores to do each day. You can also compare the games children played then with the games boys and girls play today. It is amazing how the lives of two different cultures can have so many similarities!
The second sister is bean and she brings nitrogen to the soil so that "corn" can grow tall and strong. Beans are very nutritious and come in many varieties. The next time you go to the store, take a look at the different kinds of dry beans such as kidney, lima, navy, pinto, and other varieties. Look at fresh green bean varieties that are available too. Don't forget the canned beans! Purchase some and have a taste test to find out which ones you like the most! Here is one way to enjoy snap beans or green beans.
Sautéed Green Beans
- 1-pound green beans
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Directions: Ask your child to help you wash and trim the ends of the beans, then break the beans into 2 inch pieces (children can do this by hand). Put the olive oil in a frying pan and place over med-low heat, add beans, salt, pepper, and sauté to desired tenderness, eat and enjoy!
Dry beans were an important part of the Native American diet and they come in many different varieties. Served alone or added to dishes, beans are delicious and nutritious. Here are some bean activities you can do with your child. When you are finished, there is a 15-bean soup recipe you can make together!
You will need: Measuring cups and spoons, ounce/pound/balance scale and bowls. A 20 oz. bag of 15-bean soup mix will be needed for the following activities and for the recipe.
Sorting, Matching and Shapes (Math)
Ask your child to sort the beans! Here are some examples:
- Make 15 piles (one for each type of bean) and have your child sort ¼ C. of dried 15 bean soup mix.
- Make piles of like sizes, colors, and shapes
- Use the beans to make shapes such as circles, squares and triangles
- How many beans can fit on a teaspoon or tablespoon?
- How many tablespoons of beans are there in a ¼ cup?
- With the beans in one bowl ask your child to count how many times they can fill a measuring cup and empty it into another bowl. How many cups, ½ cup, 1/3 cups and ¼ cups of beans are there in a bag?
- How many beans long is your child's favorite book?
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Name That Bean: (Science/Language Arts)
Learn the names of different beans and talk to your child about how to identify them.
Bean Germination (Science Experiment)
Ask your child to chose 3-4 different types of beans, plus one large lima bean, to grow and place them all on a moist paper towel in an aluminum pan, cover the pan with clear wrap and put the pan in a well lit area. Ask your child to check the paper towel every day to make sure it's moist.
- Activity 1: When the beans start to grow, give your child a magnifying glass so that they can carefully take a better look at the beans. Point out the primary root (which will grow first) and then the stem. When your child is finished examining the beans, place a few of them in a small see-through cup or container with a moist paper towel and watch how the roots and stems grow. Remember to keep the paper towel moist and to place the beans in a well-lit area. When the beans grow larger, the seeds can be planted in soil with the paper towel.
- Activity 2: When the large lima bean begins to sprout a root and stem invite your child to open it up to see what's happening inside the bean.
Make Hearty 15 Bean Soup
- 20 oz. bag 15 Bean Soup
- 10 cups of chicken or beef broth
- 1 - 15 oz. can stewed tomatoes
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3-4 carrots cut into bite size pieces
- 1-2 celery stalks cut into bite size pieces
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2-3 smoked pork bones
- 1 pound of ham cubes
Option: For a meatless version, use 10 cups of vegetable broth and remove the pork and ham from recipe. For a smoky flavor, add a ¼ teaspoon of liquid smoke. Cook as directed.
Directions: Wash beans thoroughly and add them to a crock-pot with chicken or beef broth, and stewed tomatoes. Cook on high (covered) for 1 hour.
Then, in a frying pan, sauté onions in olive oil until translucent. Add carrots and celery and cook on med-low heat for 5 more minutes. Add the frying pan mixture to the crock-pot along with parsley, thyme, bay leaf and the pork bones. Set the crock-pot on low for 5 hours, and stir occasionally. Test a couple of beans for tenderness. When all the beans are tender, stir in ham cubes and cook for one more hour. Serve with cornbread and fresh butter.
Personal Note: I have a metal dough cutter/scraper that I let my young son help me cut vegetables with. He also helps me by washing the beans and putting them in the pot, he measures everything, counts the cups of water as he adds them, and stirs the pot all under supervision. Preparation takes a little longer, but he is learning important skills and that is more important than speed. If my son helps me make something, he is usually eager to taste it.
Pumpkin or Squash
The third sister is pumpkin and squash, both are part of the gourd family. Their large leaves help to keep the soil moist, and the weeds from growing out of control. Their vines are prickly and help to keep out unwanted animals; this helped both crops of corn and beans to be more plentiful for the farmer. You'll find lots of educational activities to do with your preschooler (and their older siblings) in this article titled, "Pumpkin Fun!"
A Final Word About The Three Sisters
The Three Sisters are an example of "companion planting" and the process of growing different kinds of plants together has been done for hundreds of years. Many farmers use companion planting today as a way to reduce the need for using harmful chemicals to fertilize and control pests.
A great way to bring the "Three Sisters" together is to cook them together and the Manataka American Indian Council has a great recipe page entitled Cookin' With Three Sisters
Don't forget that cranberries were an important part of some Native American diets and Diane Flynn Keith has written a wonderful cranberry curriculum filled with great information and fun activities you can do with your child!
More Native American Related Activities:
- Book Recommendation: The Very First Americans by Cara Ashrose
- Make A Calendar Stick: Native Americans kept track of the days and recorded special events with a calendar stick. Ask your child to keep track of the days of the month with this fun version of a calendar stick.
- Make A Canoe: Native Americans used canoes to travel over water. Help your child to make this simple canoe!
- Make A Dream Catcher: Native Americans believed that dream catchers allowed "good" dreams to pass through the holes of the dream catcher and caught the "bad" dreams in its web. Your child can make this dream catcher and put it over his/her bed so that it can catch "bad" dreams!
Music - Native American Style (Music)
- Make A Drum: The most important instrument for Native Americans was and still is a drum! To make a drum you will need a container (oatmeal, margarine tub, can with lid), construction paper, tape, markers, feathers, and glue. Measure out and cut construction paper to fit container. Ask your child to make a design on the paper and tape the paper around container. Glue on some feathers (optional) and your child can create a beat with his/her hands.
- Make A Rattle: Native Americans also used rattles during their pow-wows.
- The First Thanksgiving
- Renee's Garden
- Native American Resource
- Listen to Native American Music
- Native American Drums
- History of Cranberries
- Information about Corn
- History of Cornbread
- Companion Planting
- Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Indian Corn: The story of the Thanksgiving Symbols by Edna Berth
- Thanksgiving (American Holidays) by Robin Nelson
- What Is Thanksgiving Day? by Margot Parker