Sovereign Wisdom: "Three Sisters"

By Kerry Hoffschneider


Zachary Ilbery’s ancestors speak through him as he inspires young people to learn the wisdom of the Three Sisters planting – wisdom he learned from elders in his family. This practice of growing corn, beans, and squash with careful attention to timing and tradition, has a deeper message, Ilbery said – one of unity and true sovereignty.


Ilbery serves as a National Leadership Development Specialist for the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC), is on the IAC Board of Directors and is the Eastern Oklahoma Board of Director for the Native Youth Food Sovereignty Alliance. He was also a founder of the Seminole State College Agricultural Degree Program.


Before all of this, Ilbery was growing up on a cow/calf farm and ranch in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma located in Checotah, Okla., a ranch he continues to work on with his Grandfather. The ranch’s history dates back several generations. There are even boundary markers on the property that were placed before Oklahoma Statehood occurred marking the line between the Cherokee Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation, “I was raised by my mother Dena Miller and with my Grandparents Ralph and Sandy Davidson on the ranch. But it was my Great Grandmother, Nellie Davidson, that I credit for shaping much of who I am today.”


“Great Grandmother would babysit me when I was very young. She taught me so much, like how to cook everything from scratch. I hate cooking things out of a box to this day. She would also have a garden every year and I became involved with that. She would plant tomatoes, okra and squash and I would help her. She was 92 when she passed on May 20, 2016 and she gardened up to a year before she died.”


While Ilbery admits he would prefer working with the family’s Registered Black Angus and commercial cattle herd, he enjoys teaching students how to garden, especially the concept of the Three Sisters, “The Three Sisters has been a Native American practice by nearly every Tribe I have ever spoken with, especially in the Southern areas. It is the planting of corn, beans, and squash. First you plant the corn and as the corn grows and expands, you plant the beans. Typically, the beans will start growing up and around the cornstalk, spiraling all around. When the beans are spiraling around the stalk, then you can plant your squash that provides the ground cover to keep the earth cool. The corn provides nutrients to the beans and beans to squash and back and forth amongst all three in harmony.”


“I’ve been working with some different FFA chapters and youth in Oklahoma that have asked for assistance with their Three Sisters planting,” he went on to explain. “I use the Three Sisters as a lesson in leadership too for both indigenous and non-indigenous youth. We need to work in harmony so we can understand how everyone works. It helps us better understand how to work together today – no matter who we are as people.”


“Whenever you work together, you grow with each other,” Ilbery emphasized. “The Three Sisters came to be because at one time different tribes were trading together and working together. This planting connects us back to sovereignty and resiliency.”


Ilbery said there is no better time than now to connect the wisdom the Three Sisters offers to our everyday lives, “With COVID and everything else happening in the world, we need to remember we are a resilient people. We must be able to feed our own people to be truly sovereign nations. Youth can also learn a lot from our elders in our communities and elders can learn from youth.”


“If we have strong agriculture, we will have strong sovereignty. The Three Sisters is a good lesson all around. It shows us how this has been practiced for thousands of years and how we are resilient,” he said in closing. “That resiliency can still be practiced today and will continue into the future.”


Learn more about IAC Youth Programming at: https://www.indianag.org/youth


Editor’s note: We are saddened, but excited, that Zach has recently accepted a position as the Guymon High School agricultural education instructor and FFA advisor. We celebrate his service with us and the fact that he will be remaining on as an IAC staff member until August 1. After his departure, Zach will also continue to serve IAC in a board of director position, and will stay involved with the Native Youth Food Sovereignty Alliance.

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