by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Dr. Colette Hyman, a history professor at Winona State University (WSU), has used author Diane Wilson’s new novel, “The Seed Keeper,” to teach students about Dakota history and culture. Now, students and the public have the chance to hear Wilson speak about the novel at WSU in a lecture, “Honoring Our Wisdom as Seed Keepers,” on Thursday, October 27.
Hyman used the book, which tells the story of a Dakota family over generations, with students last spring and again this fall. She invited Wilson to speak so students could have the opportunity to meet the author of material they studied in class. She also wanted Winona community members to have the chance to meet Wilson.
Wilson said she aims to reference her experiences as a gardener and Native food organization leader. “I think about the teachings that are present for us, especially as we are facing such extreme climate crisis,” she said. “... One of the most important topics I like to talk about is the idea that we’re all relatives,” she continued, referencing the Dakota expression, mitakuye oyasin. “… And it’s a way of looking at every plant, and animal, the water, our air, the soil, as our relatives, and the responsibility we carry as relatives to take care of them.” The event will also include a book signing. The novel can be purchased at the event.
While using the book with students, Hyman appreciated that in the novel, Wilson raises issues regarding agriculture and the environment, as well as the Dakota War of 1862, the war’s consequences, and the consequences of policies that forced Native people to assimilate. The book tells the story of a woman going back to where she lived as a child after spending time as an adult on a farm and experiencing the loss of a family member. Upon returning to her childhood home, she learns about her family’s past and the women from whom she is descended. “[Wilson] focuses on the Dakota, and she addresses all of these really important issues in a really beautifully written novel that is very accessible and eminently readable,” Hyman said. She continued, “[Wilson] really connects people’s stories to the land they’re living on, and I think that teaching here in southern Minnesota, on ancestral Dakota homelands, it’s a real priority to address a lot of these issues, and in particular, to educate students about the history of this place and the continued lives and experiences in the present of Dakota people and other Native people.”
Wilson said one experience she drew on while writing the novel was volunteering at a garden, where she cared for and worked with rare Indignenous seeds. “I learned so much from elders, farmers and the seeds themselves about our relationship with the land,” she said.
Wilson said she wrote the novel on the side while working for Native nonprofit organizations. “This was my third book, so I had to learn how to write fiction, which requires some different craft tools, like developing characters and a plot line, that works differently than it does in non-fiction,” she said.
Hyman has read the book several times while preparing to teach with it, and each time, she finds new parts of it to appreciate. “What I’m enjoying this time around in particular are the descriptions of the seeds and the plants and the flowers,” she said. “It is so delicate and evocative and really shows a great deal of the author’s own personal connection to gardening and to working with seeds.”
At the event, Hyman hopes attendees pick up a signed copy of the book so they can read it. She also hopes they learn about seeds, plants and the environment, in addition to Dakota culture and history. “I look forward to hearing [Wilson] talk about both the physical and historical and spiritual dimensions of working with seeds, and hearing her speak about the book itself,” Hyman said. She added that Wilson may also answer questions about her writing process and how much of her experience as a gardener and Dakota woman she included in the novel. “I think it’s really important for audiences in Winona and elsewhere to learn more about … the ancestral homelands that we occupy, and to learn about it from descendants of the folks whose homelands these were,” she said.
“I hope they understand seeds in a whole new way, that they see how foundational they are to our way of life, how important that relationship is to the food that sustains us, what a beautiful metaphor they are for new beginnings, for our children, for our future,” Wilson said. “And I hope that they’ll be inspired to deepen their own relationship with seeds, whether it’s planting a garden or saving seeds or simply feeling gratitude towards the seeds that help create the world we live in.”
“Honoring Our Wisdom as Seed Keepers” will take place on Thursday, October 27, at 6:30 p.m. in the Science Laboratory Center, Room 120, at Winona State University.