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  • The Necessity of Lived ResistanceReading Leslie Marmon Silko's Gardens in the Dunes in an Era of Rapid Climate Change
  • Rebecca Tillett (bio)

In its complex readings of a range of fictional gardens, gardeners, and gardening practices, Leslie Marmon Silko's 1999 novel Gardens in the Dunes1 engages with and foregrounds Indigenous relationships with the Earth as powerful alternatives to the unsustainable and damaging ways that many Euro-American and European societies live today. Set at the close of the nineteenth century, Gardens focuses primarily on a single, all-female Indigenous Sand Lizard family, the only group still using the traditional dune gardens. Told from the perspective of the young Sand Lizard child Indigo, the story follows Indigo and her older sibling, Sister Salt, once they are captured by Indian agents after their mother goes missing at a Ghost Dance in Needles, Arizona, and their grandmother, Grandma Fleet, dies and is buried by her granddaughters at the old dune gardens. Declared orphans by the state, the sisters are separated with Sister Salt sent to the Parker Reservation on the Colorado River while Indigo is sent to Indian boarding school in California. The story then follows two separate strands: Sister Salt's life as a successful "business entrepreneur" offering laundry services at the site of the construction of a new river dam; and Indigo's successful escape from Indian school, her temporary "adoption" by the Euro-Americans Edward and Hattie Palmer, and her subsequent tour of the eastern United States then Europe. While both sisters battle to understand the sociopolitical situations and geographical locations in which they find themselves, both nonetheless show resistance as they aim constantly to return to the gardens in the dunes and to a future with one another guided by Sand Lizard cosmologies. In this context, Silko's depiction of Indigo and Sister Salt clearly shows how the sisters' ability to "remember the past and [End Page 188] imagine futures" helps them—and Silko's readers—"to think critically about the present" (Streeby 5).

As a counterpoint to the depictions of a series of ecologically damaging Euro-American ideologies and worldviews, Gardens foregrounds Indigenous Sand Lizard gardens and gardening practices as an articulation of alternative sustainable ways of being (and of seeing) for an extra-textual world informed by the realities of climate crisis. In this context, Gardens demonstrates the necessity of an everyday lived resistance to the dangerous and potentially fatal way that we are encouraged, perhaps even required, to live in patriarchal capitalist societies. And so we see how some of the novel's diverse gardens, gardeners, and gardening practices give us templates for more sustainable and cosmopolitical ways of living that, to cite the Mississauga Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, depend instead upon a "deep reciprocity" that emerges from "respect," "responsibility," and a recognition of the "relationship" between humans and the other-than-human world.2 Reading Silko's novel from the perspective of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge systems (TEK), we can engage with the Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Sean Coulthard's assertion that Indigenous TEK practices are so "deeply informed by what the land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in nondominating and nonexploitative terms" that the term that Coulthard conceptualizes to describe them is "grounded normativity" (13, original emphasis). Silko's novel very clearly juxtaposes a range of dominating and exploitative interactions with the natural world with a series of non-dominating and non-exploitative relationships. It is these non-dominating and non-exploitative relationships that point directly to an emphasis upon reciprocity and obligation, upon the "ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and nonhuman others," that is evident within the practice of grounded normativity as outlined by Coulthard (13).

sand lizard ethnobotanical resistance

In discussing Sand Lizard resistance, it is crucial to begin with an analysis of what exactly is being resisted. Silko herself has stated that Gardens "is about what capitalism makes people do to one another" [End Page 189] (Arnold 21), and the novel clearly traces some of the attitudes that encourage unsustainable and fatally...


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pp. 188-208
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