Rosalie Iron Wing
“Long ago,” my father used to say, “so long ago that no one really knows when this all came to be. But before you start asking questions,” he added, eyeing me through the smoke he blew from the corner of his mouth, “I want you to listen.”
“We know these stories to be true because Dakhóta families have passed them from one generation to the next, all the way back to a time when herds of giant bison and woolly mammoth roamed this land. Do you know what a glacier is? Wašté. As far as your eye can see, this land was called Mní Sota Makoce, named for water so clear you could see the clouds’ reflection, like a mirror.
“When the last glacier melted, it formed an immense lake that carved out the valley around the Mní Sota Wakpá, what is known today as the Minnesota River. Hard to imagine, but this slow-moving river was once an immense flood of water that flowed all the way to the Mississippi River, where it formed a giant waterfall, the Owamniyamni, that could be heard from miles away. Your ancestors, Rosie, used to camp near that waterfall and trade with other families, even with the Anishinaabe.
“Now, downriver from the great waterfall, the Mississippi River came together with the Mní Sota Wakpá in a place we called Bdote, the center of the earth. The old ones said the Dakhóta first came to this sacred place from the stars. That’s why we’re called the Wicanhpi Oyate, the Star People, because we traveled here from the Milky Way. Even the wašiču scientists have agreed, finally, that this is a true story.
“Someday I’ll take you to hear one of the traditional storytellers who share the full creation story of the Dakhóta that is told when snow covers the ground. Today I’m telling you a little bit of history. When you go out into the world, you’ll hear a lot of other stories that aren’t true. You might feel bad about what ignorant people say, how they’ll try to make you feel ashamed of who you are. I’m telling you now the way it was.
“We’ve lived on this land for many, many generations. Some called us the great Sioux nation, but we are Dakhóta, our name for ourselves, which means ‘friendly.’ We are a civilized people who understand that our survival depends on knowing how to be a good relative, especially to Iná Maka, Mother Earth. Back in the day, we moved from place to place, knowing when to hunt bison and white-tailed deer, to gather wild plants, and to harvest our maize, a gift from the being who lived in Spirit Lake.
“You wouldn’t recognize this land back then. Over thousands of years, the plants and animals worked with wind and fire until the land was covered in a sea of grass that was home to many relatives. The bison gave us everything, from tado, our meat, to our clothing and tipi hides. His dung fertilized the soil. The prairie dogs opened up tunnels that brought air and water deep into the earth. Grasses that were as tall as a man set long roots that could withstand drought. When my grandfather was a boy, he woke each morning to the song of the meadowlark. The prairie showed us for many generations how to live and work together as one family.
“And then the settlers came with their plows and destroyed the prairie in a single lifetime,” my father said. What I remember most, now, is his voice shaking with rage, his tobacco-stained fingers trembling as they held a hand-rolled cigarette, the way he drew smoke deep into his lungs.
For the past twenty-two years, I have lived on a farm that once belonged to the prairie. Every summer I looked out my kitchen window at long rows of corn planted all the way to the oak trees that grow along the river. Even today, after a winter storm had covered the field, I could see dried cornstalks stubbling the fresh white blanket of snow. From the radio on the counter behind me, the announcer read the daily hog report in his flat midwestern voice. His words meant nothing; they were empty noise pushing back the silence that had taken over my house.
After a breakfast of toast and coffee, I closed the curtains on the window, feeling how thin the cotton had become from too many years in the sun. I stacked clean dishes in the cupboard and wiped down the counters. Routine tasks, comforting in their simplicity. No need to think, to plan, to remember. Just keep moving. I poured the rest of the milk down the drain and straightened a stack of papers on the table. After writing a brief note for my son, I locked the door behind me.
A fierce gust of wind tore at my scarf, stung my face with a handful of snow. I walked past the empty barn, half expecting to see our old hound come around the corner, eyelids drooping, swaybacked, his slow-moving trot showing the chickens who was boss. Gone now, all of them.
My heavy boots squeaked on the snow that had drifted back across the sidewalk I shoveled earlier that morning. When I called Roger Peterson to tell him he did not need to plow the driveway, he asked how long I would be gone. I hesitated. How to answer a question that would most likely get shared with my neighbors?
“For a few days,” I said. “I’ll call you when I’m back.”
He paused, and I knew what was coming next. Before he could shape his condolences into a few awkward phrases, I said a quick goodbye and hung up without waiting for an answer.
I had left John’s truck running for about twenty minutes, long enough for the heater to blast a melted hole in the ice that covered the windshield. After tossing my duffel bag onto the seat next to me, I eased the truck into gear, babying the clutch. Near-bald rear tires spun slightly before finding gravel beneath the snow. As I drove past the orchard, I ignored the branches that were in need of pruning. While my father believed that any plant not grown in the wild was nothing more than a weak cousin to its truer self, my years of caring for these trees had taught me differently. But it was just as well that he hadn’t lived long enough to see me marry a white farmer, a descendent of the German immigrants that he ranted against for stealing Dakhóta land.
When I’d woken that morning, I knew I needed to leave, now, before I changed my mind. At the end of our long driveway, I decided against stopping for a last look at the fields behind me. Without slowing down, I turned the truck east as if heading to town, the rear end sliding sideways. I waved at Charlie Engbretson, the tightfisted farmer who’d bought George and Judith’s farm for a steal at auction. He stared after me as I passed by, hanging on to his mailbox as my truck whipped up a white cloud of snow around him. I never did care for neighbors knowing my business. Especially not him. Not today.
For the first few miles I drove fast, both hands gripping the wheel, as each rut in the gravel road sent a hard shock through my body. I drove as if pursued, as if hunted by all that I was leaving behind. When I glanced in the rearview mirror, the woman I saw was a stranger: forty years old, her dark hair streaked with a few strands of gray, her eyes wide like a frightened mouse’s, her mouth a thin, determined line, sharp as an arrow. Not terrible looking, Gaby would have said, except for the black-framed glasses, the same kind I wore as a girl, a safety pin holding today’s pair together. Beneath my puffy coat, I was wearing a flannel shirt, baggy jeans, and long underwear. An Indian farmer, the government’s dream come true.
Taking a deep breath, I eased my boot off the accelerator, allowing the truck to coast back under the speed limit. Doesn’t matter if you know the local cop when there’s a quota of tickets to be made by the end of the month. After waiting all these years, a few more minutes wouldn’t matter. I thought about slipping in one of John’s CDs, but everything in his glove compartment was country. Beer and God and flags and more beer. I preferred the quiet.
My father once told me that waníyetu, winter, was a season of rest, when plants and animals hibernate, a time for dreams and stories. I had trouble remembering what he looked like. Occasionally, a small memory was jarred loose, like the smell of wet leaves after rain, or the rough feel of a wool blanket. Today, it was the clatter of snowshoes on a wood floor, the way the wind turned white in a storm. Nothing more.
Every few miles, I passed another farmhouse. I knew most of their inhabitants by a family name—Lindquist, Johnson, Wagner—even though I might not have recognized them at the grocery store. I’d quickly grown tired of the way people stopped talking when we walked into the café—they’d all seemed to know me, the Indian girl John had married—and preferred to stay at the farm. I wondered what they’d think if they saw me now, speeding down the back roads in John’s truck. I could see gray heads nodding together in a mournful, told-you-so way.
Even with the heater on high, I had to use the hand scraper on the frost that crept back to cover the inside windows. I could barely see the road through the sun’s glare on the salt-spattered windshield. It was easy to miss a turn out here, lulled into daydreams by the mind-numbing pattern of field, farmhouse, barn, and windbreak of trees that repeated every few miles. Straight, flat roads ran alongside the railroad tracks until both disappeared at the horizon. Mile after mile of telephone wires were strung from former trees on one side of the road, set back far enough that snowmobilers had a free run through the ditches as they traveled from bar to bar, roaring past a billboard announcing that JESUS SAVES.For the first few miles I drove fast, both hands gripping the wheel, as each rut in the gravel road sent a hard shock through my body.
Both sides of the road were piled high with snowbanks that had been pushed aside by snowplows after each storm. In less than two months, these fields would be a sodden, muddy mess. Small ponds often formed in low areas, big enough for ducks and geese to stop on their long migration north. Plants would explode overnight from every field, a sea of green corn and soybeans that reached from one horizon to the next. Newly birthed calves and foals would stagger after their mothers on thin, wobbly legs. People smiled more in spring, relieved to have survived another winter.
I made a quick turn onto the unpaved road that follows the Minnesota River north. Once the thaw started in spring, rapidly melting snow would swell this placid river into a fast-moving, relentless force that carried along everything in its path, often flooding its banks. But today, that force was trapped beneath a layer of treacherous ice. From the tall cottonwoods that sheltered the river, a red-tailed hawk dropped in a long, slow glide. In years past, I had seen bald eagles and any number of geese and wood ducks and wild turkeys along the river, and I wondered if these birds still searched for vanished prairie plants during their migration. Maybe we all carry that instinct to return home, to the horizon line that formed us, to the place where we first knew the world. Maybe it was that instinct driving me now.
Less than an hour later, I passed through Milton, a small town near the Dakhóta reservation. Milton was the place to buy gas, have a beer, or pick up a loaf of bread at Victor’s gas station. Main Street was all of two blocks long, with a post office at one end, an Episcopal church at the other, and the Sportsman’s Bar in the middle. I passed Minnie’s Hair & Spa, a faded pink house with a metal chair out front, buried in snow. I didn’t see anyone outside in their yards or shoveling snow, or even another truck on the road. The town felt like a watchful place, where people kept an eye on everyone passing through. They stayed out of sight unless there was trouble. Or they had business up the hill at the Agency. The only places I’d ever seen a crowd there were the powwow grounds and the casino down the road.
On the east end of town, there was an old quarry where my father used to take me, driving past the giant mound of rubble near the road to an exposed face of gneiss granite. We always got out of the truck, no matter what kind of weather. He offered one of his cigarettes as he prayed. Sometimes he’d stop right in the middle of his prayer and say, “Rosie, this is one of the oldest grandfathers in the whole country. Can you imagine that? Over three billion years old, and people just drive past without seeing it.” Then he’d go right back to praying.
I stopped at Victor’s to fill the truck’s double tanks, feeling the cold from the metal pump handle through my glove. I stamped my feet to stay warm. Temperatures often dropped after a snowstorm, while the wind kicked up and blew snow in straight lines that erased the roads. One time my father and I had stopped at this same gas station, the only place open, to wait for the plow to go through. Back then, the register was run by Victor, an old Ojibwe who had married into the community. He wore a leather vest over his T-shirt, saying his chief’s belly kept him warm. His beefy arms were covered in tattoos that moved as he handed a flask to my father. I sat on a stool behind the counter and drank orange Crush pop, swinging my short legs, wishing we could live in town. After the plow finally came by, my job was to watch the white lines on the road as my father drove us slowly home.
Before turning back on the river road, I thought about heading up the hill to the Dakhóta community center, where I’d heard Gaby was working. I couldn’t do it. I told myself I didn’t have the time. Truth was I didn’t know if she’d even want to see me.Both sides of the road were piled high with snowbanks that had been pushed aside by snowplows after each storm.
A few miles farther, I passed a familiar sign for the Birch Coulee Battlefield. All summer long, under a blazing hot sun, local history buffs could follow trails through one of the big battle sites from the 1862 Dakhóta War. My father insisted that I see it, making sure we read every sign and studied the sight lines between the two sides. He said, It’s a damn shame that even in Minnesota most people don’t know much about this war between the Dakhóta and white settlers. Or about what happened after the war, when the Dakhóta were shipped to Crow Creek in South Dakhóta. He said forgetting was easy. It’s the remembering that wears you down.
The war changed everything. My father’s family, the Iron Wings, fought with the Dakhóta warriors and then fled north to Canada. They came home in the early 1900s to a community that was slow to heal, as families struggled with grief and loss. The Iron Wings tried farming but lost their harvest to grasshoppers and drought. Over time, the family was slowly picked off by tuberculosis, farm accidents, and World War II. Finally, my father, Ray Iron Wing, found himself the last Iron Wing standing, as he used to say.
As I left Milton, I headed northwest along the river. From there, I followed memory: a scattering of houses along deserted country roads, an unmarked turn, long miles of a gravel road. Open fields gave way to a hidden patch of woods that had not yet been cleared. Finally, a large boulder marked a gap between trees just wide enough for a truck to pass through.
The snow was over a foot deep and untouched; no one had traveled this way in months. Even with snow tires, the truck made slow progress, several times getting stuck in low ruts. I had to reverse carefully to avoid spinning the tires so fast they packed the snow into ice, then rock forward as quickly as I could, using the truck’s weight to find traction once more. Finally, when I reached a rut so deep that the tires spun in a high-pitched whine and refused to move, I turned off the engine. Climbed down into a ridge of snow that spilled over the top of my boots.
It all came back to me in a rush: the old pines burdened with snow; winter’s weak light filtered through bare trees. In a clearing at the edge of the woods, a metal roof and rough log walls. After twenty-eight years, I was home.
Excerpted from The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. Excerpted with the permission of Milkweed Editions. Copyright © 2021 by Diane Wilson.