by Andy Shi
We have our characters: a for-hire vigilante with a history of alcoholism, a troubled adolescent nephew, an idealist ex-girlfriend. So far, the winning cast of any successful thriller. Add the drug-plagued community backdrop and it’s a thriller set in a contemporary blighted city: Detroit, maybe Baltimore. But the hero of David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts is Virgil Wounded Horse and we’re on Rosebud Indian Reservation, home to the Sicangu Lakota. Why when we think of blighted communities, we never think of the Native American reservations?
It’s because most of America overlooks these reservations that Virgil’s services are in demand. When the federal government assumed the exclusive prerogative to prosecute the most egregious crimes that occurred on these reservations—murder, rape— the same forces of invisibility meant that instead of protecting the Native American reservations, the federal government let crime fester.
Virgil is called upon to uphold justice and take down the man trafficking heroin into the reservation. As Virgil soon discovers, though, the bad guy this time is not the lone child molester or violent husband he can beat up outside the bar. The drug pushers are well armed, the politics are conspiratorial, and the federal government wavers between ambivalent and obstructionist to Virgil’s efforts to protect his community and his nephew, Nathan. If only Virgil could walk away from it all. He thinks about it. There has already been too much violence in his life, too many deaths. If it weren’t for the personal stakes in taking down the gang, he might just let it all go to hell.
Winter Counts is not just a thriller. It’s an exploration of contemporary Lakota society and how federal policies and the attitudes of White America toward Native Americans continue to impoverish Native communities, rendering them vulnerable to the violence and drugs that Virgil combats. On a micro but extrapolative level, it’s about one man negotiating the ghosts of his past and the cynicism they have bequeathed, while searching for a reason to be hopeful for the sake of his nephew, for his people, and for himself. It’s about the traditional Lakota values and ceremonies that still hold these communities together and which, as Virgil discovers, is the path to overcoming the economic and spiritual poverty that haunts so many Native American communities.
Who better to guide us through the complex and calamitous relationship between Native Americans and the federal government than Weiden, a member of the Sicangu Lakota, a professor of Native American Studies and Political Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and an attorney. I got the chance to speak with David about his debut novel and explore further the Lakota themes that undergird it.
Andy Shi: How has the Sicangu Lakota nation received your book, Winter Counts, which is critical of both the federal government’s treatment of the Lakota but also the local Lakota bureaucrats and police?
David Weiden: The response has been completely positive, I’m happy to say. I’ve heard from about a dozen citizens of the Sicangu Nation, and they all loved it and praised its honesty and realism. A few of them told me that they’ve returned to traditional Lakota traditions and spirituality after reading the novel. I do want to clarify that, in the novel, my criticism of the Lakota tribal government is directed at a fictional corrupt character, and not the tribal government itself. But I certainly am critical of the federal government in the book, especially the Major Crimes Act, the U.S. law that prevents Native nations from prosecuting felony crimes that are committed on their own territories. Instead, Native nations must hand off prosecution of these crimes to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, but those agencies decline to prosecute a large percentage of these cases, resulting in the release of the offenders. Naturally, this creates an atmosphere of lawlessness and so people sometimes turn to hired vigilantes, like the main character in my book. Interestingly, a former U.S. Attorney contacted me and confirmed that my account of the broken criminal justice system on reservations is completely accurate.
AS: Out of the many marginalized groups in the United States, it often seems that Native Americans are the least visible. Have you perceived that to be true for the promulgation of the arts, particularly literature? When you wrote Winter Counts, did you imagine a reader who was Caucasian, Lakota, or no one specific?
DW: Yes, there’s no denying the relative invisibility of Natives in popular culture and media. Natives usually only appear in film and television that are historical dramas (the classic example is Dances With Wolves), although there are some notable exceptions, such as the excellent television series, Longmire. I think the situation is somewhat better for indigenous people in literature, although there’s still a long way to go. Indigenous authors have not published extensively in genre fiction, but that is happily changing. There are now Native authors writing and publishing in crime fiction, fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction. As for me, I didn’t write Winter Counts with any specific reader in mind. I just tried to tell the story as truthfully as I could, and I trusted the reader to understand in context the Lakota words that I used. Overall, both Native and non-Native readers have responded to the universal themes of the novel, and I’m so pleased by this.
AS: At the beginning of Winter Counts, the protagonist, Virgil, asks himself why he didn’t leave Rosebud Indian Reservation for “Rapid City or Sioux Falls or Denver,” where he could start over and where there would be more employment opportunities and better schooling for his nephew and ward, Nathan. Virgil’s love interest, Marie, also opts to stay put in Rosebud rather than move to New Mexico for medical school. You were born in Denver, so your experience is different from those of your characters, but are there any regrets about living away from Rosebud?
DW: Yes, I feel tremendously conflicted about living away from the Rosebud Reservation, and I would love to move there someday. The problem is that housing is in extremely short supply, and there are of course very few jobs on the reservation. Having said that, I’ve thought about retiring there, if I’m ever fortunate enough to be able to retire from my teaching position and write full time. For now, the good news is that the reservation is an easy drive from Denver, and I go there frequently to visit family members and friends.
AS: There are few untarnished characters in your novel, including Virgil. Those who are least besmirched are those most in touch with Lakota spirituality: Marie and Jerome, and in his own way, Chef Lack, who promotes a diet premised on traditional Lakota ingredients. It is the yuwipi, a traditional Lakota healing ceremony, that leads Virgil to finding his nephew. The naming ceremony and Virgil’s acceptance of Lakota customs in the epilogue is what brings closure to the pain of his past. What role do you see traditional Lakota customs playing in the Lakota Nation’s attempts to overcome pervasive poverty and the many ills that have flowed in from White America?
DW: It was important to me to portray Lakota culture and spirituality in a positive and respectful light in the book. People may not be aware that Native American spirituality was criminalized until 1978, despite the First Amendment of the Constitution. Generations of Lakota people were taught in boarding schools that our customs and spirituality were immoral—depraved, even. Thankfully, there’s been a real resurgence in the teaching of our traditions and language, and I feel strongly that this is key to solving many of the problems that still exist on the reservations. For just one example, the Lakota people have traditionally emphasized community over individual gain, and that’s a principle that needs to be reinforced. To be sure, it’s not easy to preserve indigenous values in modern society, but I believe it’s crucial to our success.
AS: There is an interesting contrast between the separate but interlinked motifs of closing circles and the titular winter counts. The latter are the traditional calendar system that the Lakota use to mark the years, which start and stop with the first snow fall. Rather than numerical dates, winter counts distinguish the years by pictographs which commemorate “the most significant event from the past year,” as Virgil tells the reader. When Virgil is given his Lakota name, he reflects on the family he has lost and that, while they would not be forgotten, he would begin to move on: “…but perhaps tonight the circle would close. The passing of winter, the coming of spring.” The metaphorical passing of winter offers Virgil the chance to end one winter count, the one identified by loss and violence, and start anew. Is the metaphor here of the need to leave the past in the past one that also applies to the Lakota Nation as a whole?
DW: That’s an interesting question. When I wrote it, I meant for the metaphor to extend to Virgil and Nathan only—that they could now move on from their previous troubles and start anew, having embraced and reclaimed their indigenous identity. Having said that, it’s certainly possible to extend the concept more broadly, perhaps to the U.S. as well as the Lakota Nation. But I’ll leave that to the literary scholars!
AS: And I ask the previous question in part because one of the most interesting facts I learned in Winter Countsis that the federal government keeps in escrow for the Lakota Nation one-billion-plus dollars for the illegal seizure of the Black Hills, the Southern Hills which house Mount Rushmore. So far, the seven Lakota nations have rejected the settlement as “blood money.” Virgil, while sympathetic to this idealistic position, also recognizes how much that money could help his people. Do you take a position on the matter?
DW: I do. I fully support the position of the Lakota governments to reject the cash settlement and instead advocate for the return of our sacred land, as the 1968 Treaty of Fort Laramie provided. However, I understand there are many folks who believe that we’ll never get the land back and so should just take the money. As Virgil observes in the novel, the settlement money could make a big difference in the lives of many Native families. It’s not an easy question, and I wanted Virgil to grapple with the complexity of it. Like so many issues in Indian Country, it’s complicated.
AS: Which Lakota food staple or dish has the rest of the United States been missing out on? What would you (or Chef Lack) recommend?
DW: I’m no chef, that’s for sure, but I can recommend Wohanpi, a traditional bison soup made with wild turnips and onions. Happily, there’s been something of a revolution in indigenous cuisine, and a number of Native chefs are taking traditional ingredients and making something new with them. Here in Colorado, we’re fortunate to have Tocabe, a casual restaurant that serves bison ribs and other indigenous foods.
AS: B.A., J.D., PhD, MFA: What finally brought you to the arts? Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publishing your first novel and the benefits and challenges of publishing that first novel later in life?
DW: I’m a little embarrassed by all those degrees! I amassed them because I’ve tried a few different careers: restaurant worker in my early years, then attorney, followed by college teacher (which I still do) and finally writer. As a first-generation college student from a financially challenged family, I had to work for a long time before I could turn to my dream of writing fiction. I sometimes wish that I’d started earlier, but I think that the experience I’ve gained over the years helped me to write a more nuanced book. Yes, it was a challenge to find the time to write as a middle-aged father of two sons, but I made it work by arising at 4:00 am every morning for several years. For those who think it’s too late to start writing because they’re no longer in their twenties or thirties, please abandon that notion! I believe that middle age (or later) is the perfect time to start writing, and there is certainly an audience for literature that explores mature themes and ideas.
AS: Winter Counts ends with a woman asking Virgil for help finding her granddaughter. Can we expect a sequel? What are you working on next?
DW: Yes! I’m writing the sequel right now; it’s tentatively titled Wounded Horse. My best guess is that it will be available in early 2022. I can promise one thing: the dog Ava (Ann Short Bear’s pet) will return. She’s based on my own dog—a Bichon Frise also named (not coincidentally) Ava. My family would be livid if I didn’t bring her back in the next book! I should close by expressing my gratitude to all the readers who’ve supported this book and enjoyed Virgil’s tale. I’m truly humbled and honored by the reception the book has received.
Andy Shi is a recent graduate from the Columbia University-London School of Economics dual MA/MSc program in International and World History.
Author photo courtesy of Sarah Boyum.