“People don’t understand how hard it is to be Indian,” Carlos said. “I’m not talking about all the sad history. I’m talking about a way of life that demands your best every single day. Being Dakhóta means every step you take is a prayer.”
The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson follows the life of Rosalie Iron Wing, a Dakhóta woman from the Minnesota River Valley in Southern Minnesota, as she re-discovers her family, her history, and her sacred tradition. We meet Rosalie in 2002 when she takes a desperate journey through harsh winter conditions to find her family’s abandoned rural cabin. Nearly hopeless, Rosalie chooses to survive and bring life back to the cabin. From there the story takes us back to 1979 when Rosalie is a teenager just trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Though unfamiliar with farm work, she takes a job as a corn detasseler stating, “I was willing to do most anything to earn some money right then.”
As Rosalie spends her summer corn detasseling, she develops a relationship with the farmer, John. Before long, the two are married and though Rosalie always intends on running away, she finds that life with John on the farm is harmless, despite being a Native woman in a white community that was at the center of the U.S. – Dakhóta War. That’s when Rosalie discovered the seeds. On a dusty, cobwebbed shelf, she finds a shoebox labeled “Edna’s Seeds.” After opening the jars that held the seeds, Rosalie “admired how unique they were. The smooth white teardrop of the squash, the dark oval of the bean. We spent the morning together, the seeds and me, and by noon I felt we were well on our way to becoming acquainted.” Rosalie decides to plant a garden.
As the story progresses, it goes back and forth through time, mostly forward, following the life of Rosalie as she and John encounter the hazards of small, generational farming in an era of corporate farming—a way of life that forces farmers to use dangerous chemicals, genetically engineered seeds, and big machinery. Rosalie witnesses these hazards first-hand as she sees what corporations like Mangenta—a fictional seed company named in the novel—do to her community, her neighbors, and her husband. She sees the irreconcilable dichotomy between the land and profit and she’s made all that much more aware of it by her friend, Gaby Makespeace, who grows up to become a lawyer and environmental activist. Eventually, life unravels and we follow Rosalie back to her family’s cabin in 2002 when Rosalie must confront who she is, where she’s from, and how she can move forward.
There is a lot worth praising in Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper. The most valuable aspect of the novel is probably the message itself, something along the lines of: we’ve lost our connection to the land, we’re devastating the earth’s plant and animal diversity, and if we don’t do something to protect what’s left, we’re in for a dark and challenging future. You could argue that the novel is a criticism, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s written with a certain empathy for our own ignorance—for our own situation. Whether it’s Rosalie who doesn’t quite know her place in the world, or the residents of New Ulm who are understandably bitter for what happened to their town so many years ago, there are no villains in this story, only victims. We are victims of a system that disconnects us from our past and from the truth.
But where this novel falls short, I believe, are in its ambitions. Though the novel follows the life of Rosalie Iron Wing, it detours a bit with chapters written from the perspective of Gaby Makespeace and Marie Blackbird, a young Dakhóta woman exiled from her home in the aftermath of the U.S. – Dakhóta War of 1862. And though there’s a clear connection and relevance between Rosalie’s story and the other POVs, the author brings in so much to the story that there’s not enough space to fully develop Rosalie’s experience. The quote “Being Dakhóta means every step you take is a prayer,” is a valuable one and it’s impossible to fully comprehend for those who are not indigenous to this land. In telling this story, the author tries to help us understand that experience by bringing us back to 1862, then forward to 1889, then forward again to 1920. The author shows us the exile of the Dakhóta, the imprisonment at Davenport, the harsh life at Crow Creek, the return to Minnesota, and the traumatic and devastating boarding school years. But it’s in this attempt to give readers the full picture, that I believe the novel loses its impact.
Rosalie Iron Wing has a meaningful experience from 1976 to 2002, but that experience fails to take hold deep inside the reader as the author takes us on a journey far too ambitious to keep up with. Ultimately, however, I recommend reading The Seed Keeper. The story shows us our history as seen, and discovered, through Dakóta eyes. But, more importantly, it provides a startling warning for the world we’ve created while, hopefully, instilling in our hearts the need for change—a revelation Rosalie and the reader will have in common.
Colin Mustful is an independent historian, author, and publisher. His work, which includes five historical novels, focuses on the tumultuous and complicated periods of settler-colonialism and Native displacement in American history. He has a Master of Arts degree in history and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. He is the founder and editor of History Through Fiction, an independent press that publishes compelling historical novels that are based on real events and people. As a traditional publisher, he works with authors who want to share important historical stories with the world. Mustful is an avid runner and soccer player who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He believes that learning history is vital to understanding our world today and finding just, long-lasting solutions for the future.