35 Who Made a Difference: Jane Mt. Pleasant

Iroquois tradition plus Western science equals a more sustainable future

Jane Mt. Pleasant

Among the six nations of the Iroquois, corn, beans and squash have been known as the Three Sisters—gifts from the Creator that grew well together and provided nutritional sustenance. Jane Mt. Pleasant might be considered the Fourth Sister.

Over a three-decade career as an agricultural scientist, Mt. Pleasant has revitalized interest in the ancient Iroquois tradition of growing food through polyculture, a system that allows interdependent plants to flourish. She has used it to help farmers protect their soil, and she has rescued from extinction several varieties of corn that have sustained Native communities in the Northeast and Canada for centuries. Along the way, she has blended Native knowledge and Western science to give Native Americans a strong presence in the emerging field of sustainability science.

None of which she had in mind when she was growing up in and around Syracuse, New York, or when she was dropping out of American University in Washington, D.C., in 1968, or driving a taxi in New York City for eight years. True, she has Iroquois ancestry—her father grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation near Buffalo, New York—but Mt. Pleasant did not get serious about soil until after she returned to college in the mid-1970s. She got a PhD in soil science from North Carolina State University in 1987, between degrees from Cornell University, where she is now director of American Indian studies and an associate professor of horticulture.

"Over my years of working with the Three Sisters, it has become clear to me that our lives and the lives of plants are intertwined," she says. "There is really no way that plants and people can get away from one another."

As the hazards of industrial-scale farming, such as soil erosion and toxic runoff, have become more evident, Mt. Pleasant and other scientists have shown how corn, beans and squash complement one another ecologically. (Squash vines prevent soil erosion, cornstalks provide beanpoles and bean plants fertilize the soil.) Mt. Pleasant has also investigated how corn varieties vary in their capacity to outcompete weeds and how that depends on whether they are planted alone or with the other sisters. In preserving heirloom varieties of corn, she has documented their preferences for planting dates, population density and access to nitrogen.

One result is greater credibility for the study of Native American farming systems. "There is more acceptance today of my work among some scientists," she says, "but perhaps I am more self-confident than I was when I began, as well. I'm less frustrated by the lack of interest that remains among some scientists with regard to Native American knowledge and less sensitive to their criticisms."

She has also learned to let go when necessary. When Native American farmers showed interest in renewing the corn varieties she helped preserve, she willingly phased out university involvement in the venture. But though she has seen a dramatic rise in the number of Native American farmers and gardeners growing heirloom varieties, she cites one lingering discouragement: "I run into so few young people wanting to be farmers," she says. "And in particular, it is very difficult to find Native American students that want to go into agriculture."

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.