Corn, beans, squash: all three have been renowned as the Sustainers of Life or the Three Sisters among Native Americans. As long as the Three Sisters are plentiful, good food, good health and a full tummy follow. For thousands of years, these three vegetables have nourished Native American tribes throughout the continental United States. European settlers in the New World would have starved if Native Americans hadn’t shown them how to grow The Three Sisters as well how to harvest food from the wild and hunt wild game.

Native American dietary practices evolved over centuries into a system that nourished the body, mind and spirit while honoring the Earth upon which it all depended. Many of these traditional foods are now staples in mainstream American diet and can be found on supermarket shelves. Along with corn, beans and squash (or pumpkin), these include chocolate, coffee, cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, wild plums, wild grapes, strawberries, huckleberries, wild blueberries, pecans, walnuts, hazel nuts, persimmons, paw paws, black cherries, wild potatoes, wild rice, acorns, wild turnips, Jerusalem artichokes (sunflower) and maple syrup.

Traditional Diet

Though the traditional Native American diet varied from region to region, these areas shared common characteristics: The most commonly consumed foods contained modest amounts of fat, were low in calories and high in fiber. The diets were also high in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and anti-oxidants. Protein came from wild game which is lower in body fat than grain-fed domesticated cattle. (Although domesticated animals who are allowed to graze are a lower in fat.) High fiber, nutrient packed vegetables and fruits were either grown or gathered. Diabetes was very rare and cancer, now the second most common killer of Natives, was almost unheard of.

According to Arthur Michalek, Ph.D. of the University of Buffalo, “At the turn of the century, cancer was so rare among American Indians that people thought they were immune. As late as 1950, cancer still was not an important health issue. But it is a growing menace now …..” When a research group headed by Dr. Michalek looked at the increased incidence of cancer among Native populations (Cancer. 2000 Mar. 1;88(5 Suppl):1207-13) it found that cancer is increasing at a higher percentage for Native Americans than for the general population.

The traditional diet afforded Native Americans strong bones, good teeth, and a strong immune system. Weston Price reported in his classic work Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (Keats Pub. 15th Ed. 2003) that tooth decay and dental deformities were rare among Native Americans who ate a traditional diet.