When you think of gardening, what comes to mind? A new activity, brought on by Covid cabin fever? Something your mother or grandmother did? It’s certainly not a necessity for most of us anymore. Growing food, like sewing clothes or building furniture, has become industrialized and commoditized in our modern society. The rise of big agriculture and genetic seed modification pushed aside traditional means of farming – and even before that, stretching back to the 19th century, persecution and displacement of Native Americans disrupted generations of indigenous growing traditions.
The Seed Keeper is a book about those traditions, and how they are bound up in history and culture. Rosalie Iron Wing is a member of the Dakhota nation of Minnesota, whose people were forced to move to South Dakota after the 1862 Dakhota War. In the 1970’s, Rosalie, the last remaining Iron Wing, is orphaned and sent to live with a foster family. In an attempt to get away from her cruel foster mother, she takes a job working on a local farm and eventually makes a life there. But modern farming does not conform to the old ways of working with the land that Rosalie had been taught by her father. By 2002, when her husband dies of cancer, Rosalie leaves the farm and returns to her family’s cabin on the reservation where she grew up, taking stock of her life and her connection to the past.
Wilson alternates between Rosalie’s contemporary story and that of her ancestors. In vignettes, she illustrates parts of Dakhota history: the terror of being forced out of their homes, or the helplessness of parents when their children were taken away. The connecting link between the stories is always the connection to seeds, cultivating the earth. The women of the tribe were the seed keepers, carefully preserving seeds from each harvest so they would be able to feed their families in the years to come. Rosalie is one of a long line of seed keepers – but it is going to take a lifetime for her to come to terms with her history. With gentleness and grace, Wilson has written a heartfelt novel that spans generations – both a cautionary tale about our disregard for the planet, and a story of hope and strength.