The Three Sisters Project started in 2015 and is directed by Associate Professor of History Patrick Bottiger. It is the first seed-sovereignty and seed-saving initiative at Kenyon College. We plant the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — to grow and save seeds for our Indigenous partners and to help students understand the historical and contemporary context of Indigenous agriculture.

Through the physical act of planting, the research behind it, and the act of caring for and harvesting seeds, students learn about the knowledge systems, oral histories, and ontologies at the heart of Indigenous agricultural practices. Understanding these worldviews necessitates the use of archaeology, oral histories, Indigenous literature, and an interpretive method that centers Indigenous epistemologies such as traditional ecological knowledge — the "knowledge, practice, and belief concerning the relationship of living beings to one another and to the physical environment" — to understand how Indigenous peoples related to their environment.

At the heart of this place-making process were identities born from the interplay between cultural acts and acts of nature that centered humans not as simply occupying space but inhabiting it. Rather than view one's environment and ecology in strictly objective terms where humans and society were entirely separate from nature, TEK includes but transcends empirical evidence concerning ecological relationships by weaving knowledge of physical place into "the social and spiritual context of culture."

These plantings have always been conducted with the knowledge and guidance of Indigenous mentors (members of federally recognized tribes) and most recently through a partnership with an Indigenous Seed-Saving organization. We have also welcomed Sean Sherman, Winona LaDuke, and other Indigenous leaders to Kenyon Farm to talk to learn about this project and to talk about Indigenous issues concerning land, agriculture, and sovereignty more generally. As such, we follow a strict code of ethics in order to prioritize the needs of Indigenous peoples above those of Kenyon College.

If you have any questions about this project, please contact Patrick Bottiger at

Key Questions

"This is actually a trick question for it should read, 'Who are the Three Sisters?' While different Indigenous communities have different ways of referring to seeds — as relatives, ancestors, kin or otherwise — the belief that these seeds are alive and intimately linked with human lives in a common cultural thread, which is fundamentally opposed to how Western culture views seeds/land/agriculture.

"While different Indigenous communities have different ways of referring to seeds — as relatives, ancestors, kin or otherwise — the belief that these seeds are alive and intimately linked with human lives in a common cultural thread, which is fundamentally opposed to how Western culture views seeds/land/agriculture.

“The Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash. When planted close together, these sisters offer their unique gifts to the group. Corn, the oldest sister, roots herself steadily in the soil and provides a tall pole for beans to climb. Bean, the middle sister, climbs ambitiously while fixing nutrients, such as nitrogen, into the soil — making those nutrients available to the group. Meanwhile, little sister, squash, helps retain soil moisture by shading the ground while her broadleaves and her prickly vine help guard against pests. In their interdependence, the Three Sisters show when we are able to share our individual gifts with the larger community, we all thrive."

Quoted from

In the spring of 2021, Professor Patrick Bottiger led a team of four students in planting three different Indigenous heirloom plants in order to harvest their seeds for an Indigenous Seed-Rematriation Organization. What is seed rematriation?

Together, this team planted about a third of an acre at Kenyon Farm comprised of fourteen 20x20 ft. planting treatments. We grew Indigenous seeds on all the plots but varied our use of Indigenous planting strategies to test and explore the rationales behind such varied planting techniques. After we completed the harvest, we returned nearly 100 lbs. of viable seeds to our growing partner.

To amplify the voices, cultures, and epistemologies of Indigenous Americans and to meet the promise of Kenyon’s land acknowledgement statement that we embrace "through education and outreach the many Indigenous communities that continue to thrive in Ohio and throughout North America."

To demonstrate the clear benefits of the environmental humanities by using primary historical texts to expound upon the history and cultural significance of Indigenous planting strategies. Central to this is the teaching of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

To see a clear demonstration of how a polyculture planting strategy is reciprocal at its core. This planting strategy demonstrates a sustainable and complementary set of relationships that is instructive as humans try to create more sustainable planting practices.

To help students/faculty/staff rethink the food systems as relational foodways so that we can move the discussion away from food to seeds, from food security and food sovereignty to seed sovereignty.

That we will further the processes of colonialism by using the Three Sisters to advance goals at odds with the needs of Indigenous peoples.

That we will appropriate Indigenous ideas/cultures/values to further the ends of the College when our goal is exactly the opposite. Thus the College will not use this project to promote itself nor will any major or program do so. Kenyon College was founded on lands taken in an illegal treaty and thus the College has a solemn obligation to address its dark past by NOT continuing to exploit Indigenous Americans.

That we will not regularly have permission from federally recognized tribes/Indigenous communities to grow the Three Sisters.

Ask Indigenous communities what we can do for them instead of making those decisions for them. Keep the idea of reciprocity front and center. 

Make sure all faculty involved in the Three Sisters Project (teaching or mentoring) have training in Indigenous studies

Make sure all students participating in the project have taken courses on Indigenous studies, in particular Indigenous agriculture. 

Patrick Bottiger

Associate Professor of History
Phone Number
Seitz House 02