DAVID HESKA WANBLI WEIDEN, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, is set to break out this fall with his stunning debut novel, Winter Counts. Weiden, a former lawyer and current professor at Metropolitan State University at Denver, is poised for a powerful second act as a writer. In his novel, we meet Virgil Wounded Horse, a paid vigilante. Along this swift and thrilling ride, we also get insights into some ugly realities about reservation life and politics. The two of us spoke by phone and email; this conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO: You are debuting at a particular time in your life. How are you feeling about this?
DAVID HESKA WANBLI WEIDEN: As a middle-aged writer making his fiction debut, I feel great. It’s a really good time to do this because I’m able to incorporate events from so many different periods in my life. I feel I’ve got a sense of perspective, a perspective that I’ve earned raising two kids and fighting my way up from a very impoverished background. So, I’m thrilled. At the Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I teach, I love to tell my students who are also middle-aged that now is the time to do the writing you’ve always wanted to do.
To write great fiction requires some wisdom and perspective that can — sometimes — be gained through age and experience. In my case, it may have taken me a little longer to get the insight I needed to start writing. All of this is to say, beginning your writing career at mid-life is not always a bad thing.
What was the driving force behind this novel, and what propelled you to keep writing?
I grew up in a pretty poor family; my parents divorced when I was young, and we grew up in the worst neighborhood in Denver, out by a dog food factory and stockyards. It was rough at times; sometimes my mother and I had to sleep in the car. We didn’t even have a library anywhere near us; we only had a Bookmobile, which came to my school every Friday. I was that kid who would check out 10 books and just devour them throughout the week. So, I’ve always been smitten by literature — obsessed, really, by books.
But the problem is, when you grow up poor, you often don’t have a sense of the possibilities that are available to you. Neither of my parents graduated from college and they had no idea how to counsel me. I had to figure all that out on my own. So, when I was younger, I didn’t have a framework for understanding that I could be a writer. Instead, I did the thing that so many poor kids do. I went to a state school for my education and picked a safe career path. I went to law school, passed the bar exam, and practiced for a number of years, but eventually discovered that I wasn’t having the impact I’d hoped to have. I still have my law license but don’t really practice anymore. Rather, I’ve donated my time to a Native nonprofit in Denver called the Denver Indian Family Resource Center. It’s an organization that seeks to support and protect Native families in the child welfare system.
Anyway, I went back to school for another degree, a PhD in political science, and I loved that — just immersing yourself in ideas and research. I’ve been a professor for over 20 years now and teach law, political science, and Native American Studies courses. But there was always this itch to read literature, and I thought, just maybe, perhaps someday I could write myself! But having kids and trying to make it on a professor’s salary, I felt I had to put this dream aside.
But, about 12 years ago, I started scribbling a few stories, and then signed up for a class at a local writers’ organization. I took those stories as far as they could go there, and my teacher said, “You need to go get an MFA.” I was nervous because I thought maybe I’d had enough schooling. But, to my surprise, I applied and was accepted at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and studied there for three semesters. But, I transferred to the new MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, given that the program was designed specifically for Native writers. I really feel I honed my craft at IAIA. Yes, it took a long time to get where I am. But I’m hoping the reader will feel it was worth it.
You are a Native author, and the majority of your novel’s characters are also Native. Can you talk a little bit about the political underpinnings of this book?
That to me is a really important part of this novel. First and foremost, I hope that readers enjoy it, that it’s a page-turner, and that they love the story and the characters. But there’s a larger purpose behind the story itself. I wanted to bring some awareness in an artful way to many of the issues that indigenous people face today. Obviously the central one in the book is the broken criminal justice system on reservations. There’s a federal law called the Major Crimes Act that was passed about 130 years ago, but is still good law. It holds that Native nations cannot prosecute violent felons for crimes that occur on their own lands. They must defer prosecution of those crimes to federal authorities. The problem, though, is that the federal authorities decline prosecution about 50 percent of the time. Those violent offenders are released and are free to offend again. The victims’ families want to see justice served, but there’s no recourse from the US government. So, a class of professional vigilantes has emerged. That’s what Virgil, my protagonist, does for a living. He beats up people that deserve it — his fee is one hundred dollars for each bone he breaks and each tooth he knocks out. If you can’t get justice from the feds or the tribal council, you’re going to get it another way. Of course, I’m personally uncomfortable with the idea of vigilante justice, but I also understand the rage that the family of a victim must feel. This is the dilemma that Natives face today on reservations, and I’ve argued for major changes to the Major Crimes Act in other writings.
As I wrote the book, more and more political issues popped up in my head and were included in the manuscript. The health-care system is so terrible on many reservations, and I touch on that. Also, there’s not enough decent food, and there are issues of food sovereignty — that is, enough healthy and sustainable food. Many reservations are dependent on the commodities the federal government ships to them, and those supplies are often not healthy, and that contributes to negative health outcomes. Also, drug abuse is becoming a larger and larger issue on Native lands, and that’s a major theme of the book. Again, the feds are not putting the money into combating this. Meth has been a lingering problem for decades now on many reservations, and heroin is becoming a more dangerous issue. I wanted to bring awareness of all of these issues to readers.
Virgil, your protagonist — where did he come from?
As a professor of Native American Studies, I had been teaching about problems with criminal justice on reservations for years. I knew about these vigilantes, and thought it was such an interesting phenomenon that no one had written about. Then a light bulb went off in my head, and I wrote a short story, also entitled “Winter Counts,” featuring Virgil. I liked the character so much that I decided to expand it into a novel.
In your characters’ interactions, particularly between Virgil and Nathan, but also in the broader context, there is a huge amount of mistrust. It’s as if Virgil can’t trust Nathan’s answers, nor even believe in the possibility of Nathan’s innocence. That tentativeness and mistrust is mirrored within other pairs, as well, including Virgil and his ex-girlfriend, Marie. Can you chat a little about that?
The theme of mistrust appears throughout the novel, although I certainly didn’t plan that. I think this deep-seated distrust of institutions and individuals is a part of the Native American psyche. Throughout American history, Natives have been deceived, cheated, and swindled by the federal government as well as private corporations. For just one example, every single treaty made by the US government with sovereign Native nations was broken. As a result, it’s hard for many Natives to trust the promises made by institutions, businesses, and individuals. I tried to show Virgil’s cynicism toward the tribal government, federal authorities, the health-care system on the reservation, and even the people in his life. He’s been treated so badly in the past that it’s hard for him to let go of his defenses. But by the end of the book, he opens up and starts to trust.
How do you feel your novel redresses certain confusions, misrepresentations, or stereotypes of Natives and/or your specific demographic, Sicangu Lakota?
It was wonderful to write about the Sicangu Lakota Nation, or, as we’re officially known, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. My mother was raised on the reservation, my uncle was the vice president of the nation, and my grandparents, great-grandparents, and other family members are buried there. So, it was important to me to write truthfully and positively about life on the Rosebud Reservation, and counter some of the stereotypes. I tried to show that not all Natives contend with substance abuse issues, although drugs are obviously a growing problem on the reservation, as elsewhere. I also tried to depict the wide range of economic strata on the reservation: many are struggling, yes, but some are doing quite well, financially. This is related to the little-known fact that many reservations have a substantial non-Native population, due to the General Allotment Act of 1887. That law allowed non-Natives to obtain substantial tracts of reservation land, and many of them own and operate large ranches on the rez. Indeed, my own parcels of reservation land are leased out (not by my choice, but by the federal government’s dictate) to non-Native ranchers. In general, I wanted to show that the Sicangu Lakota people deal with the same issues as everyone else: contending with inefficient and frustrating bureaucracies; trying to raise children with a sense of values; and living in the modern world while attempting to stay grounded within one’s culture.
Where would you categorize your novel?
Native writers have not written a great deal of crime fiction. There obviously has been a lot of mystery and detective fiction written by non-Natives set on reservations; Tony Hillerman comes to mind. But only a small number of Native authors have worked in this genre. Martin Cruz Smith wrote a great novel, Nightwing. Stephen Graham Jones wrote a terrific thriller called All the Beautiful Sinners. Louis Owens should be mentioned as well. So, there have been some, but it hasn’t been the central genre that Native writers have worked in.
I hope to be one of the writers that helps to revitalize the crime tradition for Native authors. Crime fiction is such a perfect fit for writers of color because it gives us a wonderful lens in which to focus on inequities in society. But I’m also hoping this book fits within the tradition of Native literature generally. And I’m so grateful to the Native writers who helped made this possible, and also to the crime fiction community.
Now that I’ve got Nightwing and All the Beautiful Sinners on my TBR list, who else are you recommending these days?
Brandon Hobson has a book coming out from Ecco called The Removed. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, Natalia Sylvester’s YA book Running, and Craig Johnson’s latest in the Longmire series, called Next to Last Stand. Lou Berney’s November Road, Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, as well as Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay. That’s just a start!
Of course I’m looking forward to the sequel to Winter Counts. Can you give us a hint of what to expect?
The sequel is tentatively titled Wounded Horse. Most of the characters are back, ready to face new issues. The challenge for me is to give them a narrative arc which doesn’t duplicate the arc of the first book. I can tell you that, in the next book, Virgil will have to face the moral and ethical quandary of working as a hired enforcer while staying true to Lakota values.