From 300 CE to 1800 CE, Indigenous North Americans initiated a great material and cosmological transformation. Indigenous peoples moved away from their more nomadic lifestyles by mastering hydrology to manage crop cycles, engineering building systems to house their growing populations and food stores, and developing innovative political confederacies to harness the transformative and spiritual power of the Three Sisters. Through an examination of traditional ecological knowledge—what Gregory Cajete calls the “original instructions for how to care for and relate to the land”—this essay argues that the cultivation and spread of corn, beans, and squash radically remade Indigenous North America into a world bound by a set of relationships and reciprocal responsibilities between humans and plants. These plants were far more than commodities. They were kin—or, as plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “sovereign persons.” As Indigenous women spread the Three Sisters across the continent, these plants and the attendant corn cosmologies provided narratives to explain human ancestry and evolution. Such creation stories attracted Indigenous immigrants to Cahokia, Indigenous traders to the Mandan and Hidatsa rendezvous, and helped precipitate the rise of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Powhatan confederacies.

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