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Know the West

Across generations, Dakota women grow resilience

Diane Wilson’s new novel explores the relationship between seeds and humans, and how our survival and abundance are intertwined.

 

In the opening scene of The Seed Keeper, Rosalie Iron Wing drives a pickup truck through deep Minnesota snow, intent on reaching a home she can barely remember. She’s now in her 30s, and the cabin where her father raised her is a hazy memory, but after her husband’s death, she feels drawn back to it. The unmooring of his life shakes loose her own memories and yearnings, the questions from her past she let settle under the sediment of daily routine — raising a son and supporting a farm. What happened to her mother? Where are the rest of her relatives, and why didn’t they claim Rosalie after her father’s untimely death?  

Dakota writer Diane Wilson’s first novel explores matrilineal kinship through the act of seed keeping, both metaphorically and literally. Wilson uses seeds to reflect on Indigenous resilience in a colonized world. Her storytelling is direct and beautiful, and she reveals information carefully through narrative structure. While the storyline starts with Rosalie, it eventually multiplies, jumping through time, from one narrator in the 1860s to another in the early 2000s. The world Wilson builds is geographically small, yet the book feels expansive, because of this exploration of time.

This world also bears elements of Wilson’s own life — growing up in Minnesota and experiencing anti-Native racism in majority-white towns; discovering the power of seeds in adulthood, and, by extension, reconnecting with her ancestral wealth. In her previous nonfiction, Wilson talked about her experience with “blood memory,” which she describes in her essay “Seeds for Seven Generations” as “a call to remember a relationship with the earth, with plants and animals, that dates back to our earliest ancestors.” For Wilson, seeds hold that memory. While working as executive director for Dream of Wild Health, a Minnesota farm that is reviving native seed varieties, Wilson was deeply involved in community efforts to renew varieties like Mandan corn from the Mandan Tribe in the Great Plains, and Hopi black turtle beans from the desert Southwest. The seeds survived ecocide and genocide only because the people kept them safe, while the people relied equally on the seeds’ abundance.

The seeds survived ecocide and genocide only because the people kept them safe, while the people relied equally on the seeds’ abundance.

Seeds are kept safe for the future by Marie Blackbird, who sews them into her skirt hem during the U.S.-Dakhóta War, much the way Rosalie preserves the kernels of Dakota cultural knowledge that she inherits from her father in the 1970s.

Dakota writer Diane Wilson’s first novel explores matrilineal kinship through the act of seed keeping.
Sarah Whiting

The Seed Keeper does not shy away from traumatic topics, but Wilson avoids the trap of depicting her characters’ troubles — their poverty or addiction — as moral failings. Instead, she clearly depicts how the systemic consequences of settler colonialism have harmed her characters, whether through prisons or boarding schools. In Rosalie’s journey to understand her origins, she learns heart-rending truths about her past, shared by an aged great-aunt who grows rare corn varieties in buckets in her third-floor city apartment. Wilson’s careful use of time allows readers to draw a through line from the theft of three Dakota children in 1920 by federal boarding school agents, to Rosalie’s lonely foster-home childhood two generations later.

The family that Rosalie creates in her tense marriage-by-necessity to a lonely white farmer shows how generations are pulled by different cultural expectations. While she puts her energy into preserving the genetic diversity of her gardens’ tomatoes and squash, her husband and son buy into an agricultural corporation, Mangenta, introducing engineered seeds and pesticides to the family farm. Elsewhere, Wilson has compared agrochemical corporations that profit from patents and contracts and lawsuits to a “genetic Manifest Destiny.” Rosalie struggles with her role as a seed keeper in the face of mounting pressure on farming families like hers to make a living from the land, even if that means damaging it irreparably. Eventually, her son — a seed of a future generation in his own right — is faced with two divergent paths centered on a small red cob of corn gifted to him by his great-great-aunt.

The Seed Keeper isn’t subtle — characters frequently interpret the symbolic meaning of scenes as they unfold. When Rosalie leaves the farmhouse for her childhood cabin, she finds she doesn’t miss anything from that life (not even her son, really), except for the seeds she kept for gardening. “More than anything, it was the box of seeds, sitting on a shelf, that called to me,” she says. “Many years of planting and saving these seeds had formed a deep bond between us. They belonged to this land, just as I did. If I didn’t stay, who would care for them?” The storytelling and character development remain strong enough, however, to make the novel a compelling read, despite Wilson’s tendency to explain. By the end of The Seed Keeper, Rosalie doesn’t find the home she remembers in her father’s old cabin. Instead, she plants the beginnings of a new one.

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email us at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor