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New Developments in American Studies

Take-Home Test
Gbor Szekeres
01. 06. 2014.
Gardening and Mothering in Silkos Gardens in the Dunes 1st Chapter
Nurturing plants and bringing up a child: this is one of the underlying themes present in the
first chapter of Gardens in the Dunes. These two acts are closely interrelated and analogous to
each other in the text. After all you can say that you nurture a child and also plants are live
beings with and aging process which resembles the growing up of human children.
According to the animistic beliefs present in the Native American belief system,
everything in the world has a spirit in it, from rocks and places, to plants and animals and
humans. According to the definition of thefreedictionary online dictionary animism is the
belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena. The
reason I started writing about animism is because Silkos novel was deeply influenced by the
authors Native American heritage and it richly details the folklore and mentality of the
people. Although the Sand Lizard People are fictional the same as the story is, the tribe can be
viewed as an artistic representation of Native Americans.
One of the most important maternal figures in the view of the Sand Lizard People was
the Old Sand Lizard spirit itself. They say the people called themselves Sand Lizards
children (p 2 GitD). It is said that the old gardens used by the Sand Lizard People were
planted by the Sand Lizard itself and the people were instructed by the spirit about the ways
of gardening and nurturing plants. They were warned not to be greedy and to share with other
beings: with insects, animals, etc. They were also taught not to disturb the natural process of
reseeding the plants. For example, some of the pumpkins in the gardens were left behind to
return to the earth each year so that their seeds would sprout up next year. Old Sand Lizard
insisted her gardens be reseeded in that way because human beings are undependable. (p 2
GitD). By representing the gardening tradition of the Sand Lizard People this way, Silko
creates an image of a tribe which is very close to nature, and also [she draws] explicit
parallels between the act of gardening and mothering (Li 2009). It is further suggested that
treatment of the earth reflects attitudes about maternity and female power (Li 2009). In the
end it can be said that the parallel between gardening and mothering is represented on the
mythological level, but let us examine the matter further.
One of the other maternal characters presented in the novel is Grandma Fleet, who
basically brings up the children together with Mother and teaches the girls Indigo and Sister
Salt how to look after the old gardens and to follow the old ways of gardening practices of the
Sand Lizard People. In the teaching process, gardening was integrated with learning by
roleplaying.
They each had plants they cared for as if the plants were babies. Grandma fleet had
taught them this too. The plants listen, she told them. Always greet each plant
respectfully. Dont fight around the plants hard feelings cause the plants to wither (p
2 GitD).
Based on this it seems that the girls were not only taught gardening, they were also being
prepared how to be mothers later on. It is also implied that it was not Grandma Fleets
individual decision to teach the girls this way, but it was deeply imbedded in the lore and
wisdom of the tribe. Each person had plants to care for, although the harvest was shared by
everyone. Individual plants had pet names Bushy, Fatty, Skinny, Shorty, Mother and Baby
were common names (p 3 GitD).

New Developments in American Studies


Stephanie Li writes that gardening reveals basic beliefs about the relationship
between humans and the earth and the old gardens [are] a source of food shelter and
identity (Li 2009). In my opinion though, this train of thought can be further explored and the
relationship between humans and the earth can be viewed as the relationship between humans
and the world. Among the Sand Lizard People, future generations are taught to respect the
earth (mother), and this respect and loving tenderness in gardening and childrearing is
imbedded in their culture, their traditions and customs, as it is displayed in the first chapter.
Not only Indigo and Sister Fleet are taught this way, but Grandma Fleet was taught this way
too by the tribe, and the Sand Lizard People were taught by the Old Sand Lizard itself, the
mother of the People according to their mythology.
The beliefs and customs of the Sand Lizard People are opposed by the culture brought
to the continent by Europeans. By contrast, many of the white characters in the novel adopt a
more domineering and colonialist approach to the natural world (Li 2009). None of these
white characters appear in the first chapter, but there are numerous occasions in the text where
white peoples interact with Indigos family and it is easy to see how negative their portrayals
are in contrast with the mentality of the Sand Lizard family, which is in the center of the
narrative and which is in harmony with nature. Some of these occasions are: when a white
lady intends to buy baby Indigo on the train platform, when the Indian Police tries to take
away Indigo and Sister Salt to school, and the rape of Mother by the priest at the Presbyterian
mission, etc. All these wrongdoings are committed by white people and it is children, who
suffer. It is easy to imagine what kind of relationship these people (the lady on the platform
and the priest who cheated on his wife and forced himself on a Native American teenager)
have with children.
Later in the novel the distinction between childrearing in Native American and white
families become highlighted, although this distinction is only suggested in the first chapter of
the novel. Indigo, who is the main character of the novel, is only able to survive because of
the life she had had in the old gardens, and thanks to the lore she had received from her
family, and through her family from the Sand Lizard People.

New Developments in American Studies


References:
1) Leslie Marmon Silko: excerpt from Gardens in the Dunes, the 1st chapter from
PTE Coospace.
2) Li, Stephanie, Domestic Resistance, Gardening, Mothering, and Storytelling in
Leslie Marmon Silkos Gardens in the Dunes. American Indian Literatures 21.1
(Spring 2009).

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