The stories and perspectives of Native American citizens have been consigned to the margins for centuries; Winter Counts is a response to that Native Americans in the United States remain largely marginalised in popular culture. There is little representation of indigenous people in film, television or music, and American public education largely omits Native history and contemporary topics.
I’m a university professor of Native American Studies, and my students are shocked to learn about the history of Natives over the past 500 years. They are astounded to learn that the practice of Native spirituality was criminalised in the US until 1978, despite the supposed guarantee of freedom of religion in the First Amendment of the Constitution. They are stunned when they read that, in the 1800s and 1900s, 40% of Native children were taken from their parents without consent and educated at boarding schools, where they were stripped of their cultural identity and frequently physically and sexually abused. The students are surprised because, since birth, they have been told a narrative about America that doesn’t include the Native experience.
That’s why I wrote Winter Counts. As an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota, I wanted to tell a true story of modern Native life on the Rosebud Reservation—the joys and challenges that Natives deal with on a daily basis. And of course, I wanted to tell a compelling story, one that would keep readers up all night turning the pages.
To achieve this, I decided to focus on the broken criminal justice system on reservations. Because of several US national statutes, Native American nations do not have the authority to prosecute major felony crimes that are committed on their own lands. Instead, Native law enforcement officials must send those cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Attorney’s offices for prosecution. However, those agencies are declining to prosecute around 40% of these crimes, resulting in the immediate release of the offenders, who are then free to commit more crimes. Naturally, the families of the victims are dismayed when they can’t get justice from the US government, and so they sometimes turn to private enforcers, like my protagonist Virgil Wounded Horse, to obtain street justice. In other words, hired vigilantes will beat people up—for a price. In the book, Virgil charges $100 for each bone he breaks and each tooth he knocks out. Although Virgil is fictional, he is based on the actual enforcers who exist on many reservations.
Even though Virgil Wounded Horse beats people up for a living, he lives by a code of ethics and strives to do the right thing under difficult conditions. He is also struggling to reconcile his own identity as a mixed-race Native person, known as an iyeska in the Lakota language. Virgil’s journey takes him to Colorado and back to South Dakota, where he has to examine his own values and beliefs in order to save his family and himself.
A fresh perspective
Winter Counts is a crime novel, a character study, and an examination of part of America that is unfamiliar to most. As a Lakota person, I felt a responsibility to portray life on the reservation honestly, but also positively.
Too often, non-Native journalists and writers in the US focus on the problems on reservations but don’t show the many positive developments happening on Native lands. So, I used my own experiences to portray the joy, humour and determination of Native people. Yes, there are certainly problems on many Native American reservations: poverty, sub-standard healthcare, poor housing. But Native people have survived countless traumas over the centuries, and we’re still here. I hope that readers get a sense of the resiliency and spirit of Natives from Winter Counts.
These are exciting times for crime writers and fans of the genre. I recently saw a wonderful observation on Twitter, made by Australian writer Sulari Gentill and quoted by crime fiction expert Craig Sisterson: “Crime fiction is the [new] literature of resistance.” That statement neatly summarises the argument that the modern social novel is frequently found in today’s crime literature. Crime fiction is well suited as a means to examine structural inequalities affecting marginalised citizens in the US political system—a way to inform and entertain. Indeed, there are many emerging crime writers who are telling stories in a new way and from original perspectives.
And yet, Native American writers have often shied away from writing in the mystery and suspense genre, for a variety of reasons. I hope this changes, and that many more indigenous and previously marginalised writers decide to tell their tales in their own voices. In the US alone, there are nearly 600 Native American nations, each with a different history and perspective. Their stories matter.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and a début novelist. Winter Counts will be published in the UK by Simon & Schuster on 30th September in hardback, priced at £12.99 (9781398509306). The novel, issued by Ecco/HarperCollins in the US, was nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.